A shell without citizens? A corridor in the European Parliament. Wikimedia / Bjorn Laczay. Creative Commons.As the results of the European Parliamentary elections start to sink in, Europeans are left wondering who exactly has won. The Front National (FN) in France and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) both won 24 seats, bringing home unprecedented victories. Although the two largest political grouping will remain pro-European, the European People’s Party (213 seats, 274 in 2009) and the Social Democrats (190 seats, 196 in 2009) lost ground, while anti-EU parties in Denmark, Belgium, Germany and Greece made gains. Claims that the EU has withstood the Eurosceptic threat, given a roughly tripled Euro-sceptic presence in Parliament, are the product of wishful thinking.
Making sense of the Euro-sceptic uprising
As economic insecurity turns into political unrest, top-down the crisis has pushed member states into an accelerated process of institutional integration aimed at avoiding the far more costly option of dismantling the eurozone. Bottom-up, the predominant sentiment has hardly ever been less disposed towards ‘more’ Europe. The EU has failed to deliver the promised prosperity while public discontent has been aggravated by the remoteness and perceived lack of transparency of its decision-making procedures.
It is nonetheless simplistic to assume the Eurosceptic outburst boils down to economic discontent. The phenomenon flourishes in thriving member states, as demonstrated by the victories in France and the UK, and predates the downturn. The economy is clearly only one, albeit influential, of a more complex set of factors driving criticism of the EU. Economic concerns and unsatisfactory policy outcomes have become melded with the fear of losing national identity, ostensibly via European integration.
The intensification of cleavages between creditor and debtor countries, through the austerity-versus-growth debate, has fed political misunderstandings and negative stereotypes: northern member states accuse those in the south of laziness and irresponsibility and in turn the south blames the north for having abandoned the ideal of European solidarity. This potent mix of distrust, nationalism and economic malaise has certainly emboldened Euro-sceptic parties giving voice to citizens’ anger and frustration. Still, how they have articulated that sentiment across Europe has been very diverse.
A useful distinction can be made between Euro-sceptic parties, antagonistic to the EU per se, and Euro-critical ones. Whilst Euro-critical movements stem from the Euro-sceptic wave, they distinguish themselves from mainstream Euro-scepticism by criticising European institutions while not running an entire political campaign on demolishing the EU project.
Moreover, the spread of Euro-scepticism has been accompanied by a re-awakening of Europe’s far-right political forces. Austria’s Freedom Party, Jobbik in Hungary and the striking case of Greece’s Golden Dawn are a few examples of the growing support that the far right is gathering across Europe. The results of the election to the parliament are just the latest manifestation of the right-leaning turn the European political scenario seems to be taking.
How big a threat?
No doubt the striking victory of Le Pen’s Front National’s (FN) has Europeanists across the union worried, as one of the historically most prominent and pro-European founding member states threatens to turn its back on the integration project. The threat is not an empty one, now that the FN has gained enough potential critical mass to create a coalition (the European Alliance for Freedom) with the Dutch Freedom Party, the Italian Lega Nord, the Flemish Vlaams Belang, the Sweden Democrats and the Austrian Freedom Party, thus meeting the two thresholds for forming a parliamentary grouping (25 MEPs from at least seven member states). Such a coalition, together with other Euro-sceptic forces such as UKIP and the Europe of Freedom and Democracy grouping, could transform the face of the EU.
Whether this potential will be fulfilled, though, remains an open-ended question.
Euro-sceptic parties’ main rationales for opposing the EU can be condensed into a set of core concerns focused on national identity, immigration, sovereignty and economic complaints. Nonetheless, divergent economic policies might hamper collaboration: while postulating that withdrawal from the euro or the dismantling of its assets might eventually be achieved through institutional economic reform, Euro-sceptic parties will hardly be able to shape a common exit-strategy, because their monetary and economic recipes appear threadbare or at odds. UKIP and the Dutch Freedom Party support unregulated ‘free markets’ but the FN is more oriented towards protectionism, while the Italian Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S), True Finns and Alternative for Germany support different socio-economic models.
But Euro-sceptic parties do not need to be able to mobilise a majority to constrain the EU’s governability and capacity to adopt key decisions. They can easily influence parliamentary committees, where smaller groups of MEPs discuss and draft legislation. At a national level, the impact of these movements is already beginning to be felt. As anti-establishment voices become powerful influencers of public discourse, mainstream parties are beginning to re-orient their policies towards more Eurosceptic positions.
Addressing the discomfort
The Euro-sceptic wave is a clear symptom of real social divisions and of a gravely distressed and disillusioned population, attempting to signal a yearning for political, economic, social and institutional change. There is unquestionably much energy and sense of purpose behind these groups and individuals, yet so far the European debate has, understandably, tended to view them with a good dose of caution if not outright opposition. Nonetheless many of these groups should not be viewed as anti-European but critics of a system that has manifestly failed to deliver and the solutions they propose are only marginally focused on reclaiming national sovereignty. In fact, much of their criticism is directed at a perceived democratic deficit, both at the national and the European level; the implementation of a new democratic order could well represent a genuine push towards a new European consensus and in this spirit should be encouraged.
This potent mix of distrust, nationalism and economic malaise has certainly emboldened Euro-sceptic parties giving voice to citizens’ anger and frustration.
A fine line distinguishes Euro-scepticism from Euro-criticism. But, provided such a distinction is made, these movements’ critiques could be galvanised into a constructive force for a more integrated and legitimate EU political space. The M5S (21.2 percent, 17 seats), SYRIZA in Greece (26.6 percent, six seats and winning party), the True Finns (12.9 percent, two seats) and Alternative for Germany (7 percent, seven seats) can all be considered Euro-critical in so far as they formulate proposals for a different Europe rather than no Europe at all.
What is lacking is the political will to engage with these actors in an open and frank assessment of the EU and the courage to question publicly the overall value and purpose of integration. While fear of opening a Pandora’s box is certainly comprehensible, the greatest risk for pro-Europeans is of closing themselves off from criticism, shunning the concerns and fears of voters and falling into the pitfall of ‘business as usual’—instead of delving into the much overdue and more difficult conversation about the social and cultural impacts of the EU project.
The hope remains that, with a louder Euro-sceptic voice now present in the parliament, the pro-European European People’s Party and Social Democrats will join forces and rise to the challenge. The nomination of a European Commission president who can embody a willingness to engage in dialogue with dissonant Euro-sceptic voices, and embrace change, could be a powerful signal of mainstream parties’ resolve to co-operate and compromise for the greater good of the pro-European movement.
The EU is at a crossroads. In its current configuration it is bursting at the seams. It can only be salvaged by bringing forth more debate and ultimately restoring the EU’s relationship with its citizen—if ever one did exist.