Can Europe Make It?

The divided house of anti-Europe

Right-wing Eurosceptic parties will have more MEPs than ever before in the next European Parliament. But this doesn't mean they will be able to form a united Eurosceptic front.

Cas Mudde
1 May 2014
A summit of Eurosceptic groups in Turin in December 2013. Demotix/Michele D'Ottavio. All rights reserved.

A summit of Eurosceptic groups in Turin in December 2013. Demotix/Michele D'Ottavio. All rights reserved.

With less than a month to go before the start of the European elections, 22-25 May, the idea that Eurosceptics are going to win big has become received wisdom. Article after article warns for the potentially disastrous effects of a “self-hating European Parliament” and the EU elites have done their utmost to scare voters away from such an “extremist” vote. Much less attention is paid to the fact that the majority of European citizens is now Eurosceptic and oppose further transfers of power to the European Union. Perhaps most damaging, an EU-exit, until recently a marginal option in only a few EU members states (e.g. Denmark and UK), today is a serious option for significant minorities across the EU (e.g. 26 percent of supporters in Sweden and 21 percent in the Netherlands).

Debunking the 'Eurosceptic tide'

With little regard for clear definitions or empirical facts ‘experts’ and journalists speculate wildly about the size of the electoral surge of the Eurosceptics and the political consequences of their inevitable victory. Commentators regularly cite an expected one-quarter of the votes going to Eurosceptics, while some even predict that the “malcontents’ Block” could win up to one-third of the votes. Most attention has been paid to right-wing Euroscepticism, in particular the relatively new radical right European Alliance for Freedom (EAF), or, in the parlance of an overexcited journalist, “Le Pen's unholy alliance hoping to destroy the EU.” Much less attention is paid to the two current right-wing Eurosceptic groups in the European Parliament (EP), the ‘soft’ Eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and the ‘hard’ Eurosceptic Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD). 

According to the latest Pollwatch 2014 predictions, based on averages of various national polls in the period 15-17 April 2014, the ECR would have a group of 41 MEPs in the next EP and the EFD of 36. Pollwatch does not identify the EAF, its members are mostly part of the amorphous group of Non-Inscripts (Non-Affiliated, NI), which is predicted to have a total of 94 MEPs in the next European legislature (2014-19). The problem with this prediction is that it is based on current membership of EP groups and several parties have indicated that they might or will switch groups after the elections.

Based on the same Pollwatch predictions, I find that the soft Eurosceptic ECR is the largest faction of right-wing Eurosceptics in terms of total seats. It is predicted to gain 39 MEPs, which is a loss of 17 seats compared to the 2009 European elections. As the EP will shrink from 766 to 751 seats, this translated to a drop from 7.3 to 5.2 percent of all EP seats. More problematic is that the ERC will lose members from various states, mainly because affiliated national parties will no longer compete or be able to top the national threshold – for example, List Dedecker (LDD) in Belgium. Consequently, the ERC is predicted to have MEPs from only six member states – one too few to constitute an official EP group, which requires at least 25 MEPs from at least a quarter of the EU member states (i.e. seven).

The core of the ERC is made up of the British Conservative Party, the Czech Civic Democratic Party (ODS), and the Polish Law & Justice (PiS). These mainstream conservative parties are overall soft Eurosceptic, demanding mainly non-fundamental EU reforms. Their effectiveness in the EP is weakened by the fact that each party includes both Europhile and hard Eurosceptic voters, members, and representatives. In the next EP the Conservative Party and PiS will deliver the vast majority of MEPs (17 and 18 respectively). In recent national elections the once dominant ODS has been decimated, which will reduce its faction to just one in the next EP, just like the other ECR parties, the Dutch Christian Union (CU), the Slovak Ordinary Citizens (OL), and the Latvian For Fatherland and Freedom (TB/LNNK).

This is assuming that the latter will still be part of the ECR, however. The national conservative TB/LNNK came to the ECR from the now defunct Union for Europe of the Nations (UEN), which more resembled the hard Eurosceptic EFD. In 2011 the party merged with the far right All for Latvia! and became part of the National Alliance (NA), which is currently a junior partner in the Latvian government. Whereas the TB/LNNK fitted ideologically somewhere between ECR and EFD, NA is probably better placed somewhere between EFD and EAF. It remains to be seen whether the NA will reflect this ideological shift in terms of EP group membership and switch to EFD – given its government status, a switch to EAF is unlikely.

At the same time, the ERC has its eyes on the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), the largest party in Belgium, which has already indicated that it will leave the Greens/EFA group. While the N-VA comes out of the Europhile tradition within the Flemish nationalist movement, the party’s more conservative direction under party leader De Wever has led to several ideological and strategic changes. Already in 2010 De Wever and British PM David Cameron had “a good conversation” and more recently Cameron is said to have invited the N-VA to join the ERC. The main question is whether De Wever will be able, and willing, to overcome internal opposition to this move. Current N-VA MEP Marc Demesmaeker has already voiced strong opposition, saying: “We’ll find a group where we can defend our programme. It won’t be extreme-left, it won’t be extreme-right and it won’t be eurosceptic.” 

Fault lines

The small EFD was founded with 30 members from eight national parties in 2009, filling the void left by the demise of the Independence/Democracy and UEN groups. Ideologically, it is a somewhat uncomfortable and improbable coalition of far right and non-far right hard Eurosceptics, notably the Italian Northern League (LN) and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Oddly enough, while UKIP is among the few non-far right parties in the EFD, it is the one with the most extreme anti-EU position, advocating a British exit from the EU. Research by Marley Morris of Counterpoint has shown that the EFD “has a relatively low cohesion rate compared to other political groups.” Moreover, it was largely “marginalized” within the EP, because of both its size and its far right members.

The future of the EFD looks far from certain. Pollwatch predicts it will be able to constitute a faction of 36 MEPs from eight countries, but includes the MEPs of the LN and the Slovak National Party (SNS), which both have declared allegiance to the new EAF. Without these two parties the EFD would fall back to 31 from six countries, more than sixty percent from UKIP (19 seats). However, it could continue to profit from the unusual orthodox Christian coalition list CU/SGP in the Netherlands, which is expected to return two MEPs, of which one will join the ERC (CU) and one the EFD (the Political Reformed Party, SGP). This brings them to 32 MEPs from seven member states. This all presupposes that the other parties will stay within the group. 

This is at least uncertain for The Finns, which is expected to return four MEPs to the next EP. Chairman Timo Soini has said that the party has a choice between the EFD and the ERC, while MEP candidate Olli Immonen has expressed the wish “that at least The Finns party, the French National Front, the Austrian and Dutch Freedom parties, the Danish People's Party and maybe UKIP would be in the same group.” This difference of opinion is, in part, a reflection of the broader ideological split within the fairly heterogeneous party, which includes both conservative and far right factions. Still, given the consistent and unequivocal refusals of the Danish People’s Party (DFP) and UKIP to work with the FN, Immonen’s wish sounds like wishful thinking at the moment. 

This brings us to the new kid on the block, the EAF, which has received the bulk of the media attention and speculation in the past months. The EAF is the newest initiative by the French National Front (FN) to create a radical right party group in the EP. Previous attempts never came to fruition or fell apart within a few years, in part because of the leadership of former FN-leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who will still be a major player within the far right in the EP. In addition to the usual suspects – the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), the Belgian Flemish Interest (VB), and the Italian LN – new FN leader Marine Le Pen was able to convince Geert Wilders and the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV) to join. 

While all are populist radical right parties, they differ quite fundamentally on important European and foreign issues. First and foremost, while some parties are more hard Eurosceptic (e.g. FPÖ and VB), others are Euroreject, wanting their country to leave the EU (e.g. FN and PVV). Second, with regard to the emerging New Cold War, all parties have expressed understanding of Putin’s Russia and criticized the new Ukrainian government and the EU’s support of it. However, this does not mean all parties are “pro-Russia,” as certain commentators and media love to claim. While the FN has always preferred a foreign policy independent from both Russia and the US, the PVV is still staunchly pro-US. And we are not even talking about Israel and the Middle East, where PVV is probably the most pro-Israel party in Europe, while most of the other EAF parties have become somewhat more pro-Israel, but still have to deal with anti-Israel and anti-Semitic legacies.

Both Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders have expressed confidence about the ability to constitute an official party group in the next EP. While they seem to have convinced most commentators too, the future is much less certain than is often claimed. The EAF is currently estimated at a total of 34 seats, well above the bar of 25, but from only six member states. More than half come from the FN (20), followed at considerable distance by FPÖ, LN and PVV, all with four MEPs, and SNS and VB, both with one. While many media include the Sweden Democrats (SD) into the future EAF group, that party has yet to commit officially. Waiting until after the Swedish parliamentary elections on 14 September, the SD has to choose between cooperation with the DFP, a potential future coalition party in neighbouring Denmark, or membership in the EAF. Despite the party’s insistence that no choice has been made, some important signs point toward a choice for the EAF. First, MP Kent Ekeroth is treasurer of the EAF. Second, the party’s youth branch, admittedly more radical than the mother party, has recently joined the Young European Alliance for Hope (YEAH), together with the youth branches of the FN, FPÖ and VB.

If the SD won’t join, the EAF will have a hard time finding a seventh party. The remaining far right parties – Germany’s National Democratic Party (NPD), Greece’s Golden Dawn (CA), Hungary’s Jobbik – are all deemed too extreme and would almost certainly lead to the PVV leaving the EAF. This leaves the borderline far right Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) from Northern Ireland, which has one MEP, but that party has been trying to rebrand itself as more moderate and mainstream. The only other possibility is the new Bulgaria Without Corruption (BBT), which is not only an unknown quantity, but also a risk given the anti-Bulgarian immigrant rhetoric of some EAF members (e.g. PVV).

Looking beyond

Among the non-affiliated MEPs are two big prizes for the three right-wing Eurosceptic groups: the Italian Five Star Movement (M5S) and the Alternative for Germany (AfD). The latter will certainly not join any far right EP group, which definitely excludes the EAF. While UKIP leader Nigel Farage is actively courting the AfD, he has so far only convinced its youth branch, the Young Alternative (JA). In terms of background of party leadership and ideology, the AfD is more likely to end up in the ECR, even if it is more Eurosceptic than most other ECR members.

The Italian M5S is expected to gain 20 MEPs in May, which would make it one of the largest parties in the next EP. The party is very difficult to place on any ideological spectrum and even its Euroscepticism has been erratic (its most recent programme can be found here). At this point it is highly unlikely that M5S will officially join any of the three groups. However, the large M5S faction is among the most likely to quickly generate defectors, who will leave the M5S faction but not the EP. All three right-wing Eurosceptic groups will actively try to recruit defectors and (independent) non-affiliated MEPs to meet the required minimum number of member states – for example, the EAF seems to place hopes in former UKIP-MEP Godfrey Bloom and former Maltese Labour MEP Sharon Ellul Bonici (currently the Secretary General of the EAF!). Given that most factions will already include MEPs from various west European parties, they will probably look more eastward for new recruits. But even if this poaching of defectors will help them constitute an official party group, the newly ‘independent’ MEPs will most likely make the group internally less homogenous and less stable.

In conclusion, despite all the media hype, the European elections will not be “won” by right-wing Eurosceptics and the next European Parliament will not be run or shut down by right-wing Eurosceptics. By far the largest group in the elections will again be the non-voters, which already constituted 57 percent in 2009, while the EP will continue to be dominated by the Europhile center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the center-left Socialists & Democrats (S&D). Together these three groups will number ca. 425 MEPs, roughly 57 percent of all seats. Even in the case of internal rebellion by some members, Europhile legislation can count on the support of the Alliance for Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) and, to a lesser extent, the Greens-European Freedom Alliance (Greens-EFA). While right-wing Eurosceptics will have (slightly) more MEPs than ever before, they will continue to be divided between and within ideologically heterogeneous and organizationally unstable party groups that are dominated by one or two parties. In other words, despite the Eurosceptic consensus at the mass level, a Europhile consensus will continue to dominate the elite. I can’t wait for 2019!

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