Can Europe Make It?

Electoral winners and political losers in the right-wing Eurosceptic camp

Could the political success of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) in the aftermath of the 2014 European elections undermine Tory success in the 2015 British elections?

Cas Mudde
11 June 2014
AfD rally

Alternative for Germany hold election rally at Brandenburg gate in Berlin, May 2014. Demotix/Theo Schneider. All rights reserved

Elections always have their many winners, and the 2014 European elections are no exception. The European People’s Party (EPP) and Spitzenkandidat Jean-Claude Juncker claimed victory because, despite significant losses, it is still the largest political group in the European Parliament (EP). The Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and their candidate for European Commission president Martin Schulz consider themselves winners, as they narrowed the gap with the EPP. Even the Alliance for Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE) and its candidate Guy Verhofstadt, famous for living in an alternate universe, tried to reframe their historic electoral defeat as a political victory, claiming that they are still kingmakers in the European Parliament.

In sharp contrast, the media virtually unanimously declared the far right and populist Eurosceptic parties the election winners. Even before the results were official, headlines of “earthquakes” and “sweeps” were being printed by an impatient press that had been foretelling “Europe’s populist backlash” for almost a year. As so often, the media interpretation was wrong, as far right parties did not win throughout Europe, and anything resembling an earthquake only took place in a couple of west European countries – as eastern Europe was remarkably calm and uninterested.

While the (far) right-wing Eurosceptics of the French National Front (FN) and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) were the main story in the media, however, it was actually the (far) left-wing Eurosceptics that were the clearest winners in terms of political groups in the EP. Driven by a victorious Syriza in Greece the United European Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) gained ten additional seats, bringing its total MEPs to 45. With a few exceptions, including a certain amount of wishful thinking by left-wing commentators, the media ignored the real successes of left-wing Eurosceptics in favour of the, strongly exaggerated, gains of right-wing Eurosceptics.

The recently formed European Alliance for Freedom (EAF) overall won seats, but this was only because the FN made the largest gains of any political party in the elections. Overall, two parties won seats, the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) and the FN, and four lost. The FN’s large gain compensated for the losses of the Belgian Flemish Interest (VB), the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV), and the Italian Northern League (LN), but could not offset the loss of representation of the Slovak National Party (SNS). Consequently, the EAF was left with more than enough seats (38 where a minimum of 25 are needed), but too few countries that are represented (5 with a minimum of 7 needed).

Similarly, while UKIP was one of the biggest winners of the 2014 European elections, its group Europe for Freedom and Democracy (EFD) gained just one seat overall. More importantly, the EFD lost representatives from several countries, most had joined the group mid-term as defectors from non-affiliated parties. Fuelled by the huge losses of two of its three main members, the Czech Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and the British Conservative Party, the soft Eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) lost twelve seats overall.

Political winners in the aftermath

But the electoral winners are not necessarily also the political winners of the post-election phase. Whereas in national parliamentary elections political winners are the ones that enter government, in European elections that status is based on the overall gains and losses of the political groups after the elections. Because of the particular incentive structure within the EP, individual national parties matter little, as almost all material and political rewards are related to political groups. Hence, if a group wins, its member parties win.

While surprising negotiations and moves within the right-wing Eurosceptic camp were expected prior to the elections, post-election reality has far exceeded expectations… and they are still ongoing. The latest rumour regarding the EAF is that they have succeeded in finding their two missing partners. While still unconfirmed, several journalists have reported that the Lithuanian Order and Justice (TT) and the Polish Congress of the New Right (KPN) have joined them. This would give the EAF 44 seats from seven member states. However, it will also make for a very loose and volatile political group, as KPN leader Janusz Korwin-Mikke is known as a loose cannon and his ultra-liberal economics have little in common with the more protectionist economics of most other EAF parties. Moreover, his conservative views on gays and women, let alone his historical revisionism, which at least reeks of thinly veiled anti-Semitism, will conflict fundamentally with the liberal and philo-Semitic views of Geert Wilders and the PVV.

European Tory moves

Still, the most interesting struggle is between the Tories and UKIP, in which the European multi-level game is played out in all its complexities. For both parties the European elections were, first and foremost, a bellwether for the 2015 British general elections. And UKIP defeated the Tories comprehensively in the first round. UKIP won 26.8 percent of the vote and 24 seats, an increase of 10.7 percent and 11 seats, while the Tories got 23.3 percent and 19 seats, a decrease of 3.7 percent and 6 seats. On election night a boisterous Nigel Farage told his supporters (and opponents): “you ain’t seen nothing yet.” Journalists stumbled over each other to interview the new leader of the British people. No one cared about the Tories and the soft Eurosceptic ECR: the future was for the hard Eurosceptic EFD!

Just two weeks later the world looks very different. As all eyes have been on the struggling EFD and EAF, the ECR shocked everyone by building an ever-growing group in the EP. In a direct attack on UKIP, masterminded by European Tory leaders, the ECR scooped the Danish People’s Party (DFP) and Finns Party (PS) from the EFD. Given that the EFD had already lost the LN to the EAF, this left UKIP with just three partners: the Czech Party of Free Citizens (Svobodní), Dutch Reformed Political Party (SGP), and Lithuanian TT. As said, the latter is rumoured to have joined the EAF, a rumour that already did the rounds well before the elections, while the SGP is said to be on its way to the ECR. Talks with Beppe Grillo of the Italian Five Star Movement (M5S) gained a lot of media attention, but seem destined to fail, as M5S has officially applied for membership in the Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA) group.

So, where the big electoral winners FN and UKIP are struggling to create or retain a political group, one of the big electoral losers, the Tories, have created the fourth biggest group in the EP. In addition to stealing the DFP and PS from the EFD, they have added five parties with one MEP each: the German Family party, the Independent Greeks (ANEL), and the Slovak Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OL’aNO) and New Majority (NOVA) parties. This puts the ECR at 55 MEPs, at this moment, just four less than the third-largest group ALDE. 

It seems just a matter of time before ECR will overtake ALDE, as the Alternative for Germany (AfD), which gained seven, has submitted an application to join. UK Prime Minister and Tory leader David Cameron seems to fear that this could lead to tensions in the relationships with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but might be overruled by European Tories and other ECR members. Other parties that have been eyeing the ECR are the new Bulgaria Without Censorship (BBT) with 3 MEPs and the Belgian nationalist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) with 4 MEPs, although the latter also considers ALDE and EPP. Both parties would be an uneasy fit for the ECR, as they are not really Eurosceptic.

ECR the victor

Whether the ECR will end up as the third or fourth group in the EP, it is clear that they, and by extension the Tories, the leading party within the group, are the main political winners of the post-election period. They have significantly increased the size and, therefore, power of the ECR and, in the process, significantly weakened UKIP and possibly destroyed the EFD. There is no doubt that weakening UKIP was at least as important to the Tories as strengthening the ECR. Looking forward to the British general elections of next year, the Tories believe that UKIP is their main electoral threat. While knowing that UKIP will struggle to attract similar support in the first-order elections of 2015, they still fear a split of the right-wing/Eurosceptic vote, with Labour the laughing third.

It looks like the Tory strategists have taken a two-staged approach to the marginalization of UKIP. Having stolen the DFP and PS, the EFD is struggling for survival. This leaves UKIP with just two options. The first option is to join the Non-Inscrits (NI), i.e. the non-attached members who are without a political group. This would mean that UKIP would no longer be able to use its position in the EP to showcase its political relevance and its leader’s significant rhetorical skills. The second option is for UKIP to be part of the EAF. This would mean that it would align itself with parties that its political competitors and (their allies in) the media consider “extremist”. In fact, Farage himself rejected cooperation with the FN because of the party’s “anti-Semitism and general prejudice”.

But the strategy is not without risks for both the ECR and Tories. For the ECR, it will significantly undermine its group cohesion. According to VoteWatch the ECR had a group cohesion rate of 86.7 percent in the previous EP, ranging from a low of 70.5 percent in votes on ‘regional development’ to a high of 94.8 percent in votes on ‘constitutional and inter-institutional affairs.’  A snapshot comparison showed that the DFP and PS had voted differently from the ECR in a large number of cases.

Certain complications

For the Tories, the official alliance with parties that are often considered far right in Europe, can lead to significant critique in the UK. In fact, this has already started, both from within the more moderate wing within the party, and from political competitors. In the medium term, this could further split the Conservative Party, which will already face unprecedented internal pressures as a consequence of the planned referendum on EU membership.

In the short term, it could undermine the main purpose of the whole move, marginalizing UKIP in the 2015 British elections. Because how convincing is a party warning of a “far right” UKIP threat, when it collaborates with “far right” Danish and Finnish parties, and former UKIP partners, in the European Parliament?

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