The rise of the eurosceptics

Anti-EU parties are expected to do well in European elections in May, but will they ever be powerful enough to bring down the EU? Simon Wilson investigates.

How popular are anti-EU parties?

The three countries where there’s a realistic prospect of eurosceptics topping the European elections in May (with a potential vote share of up to about 25%) are Britain, France and the Netherlands.

The Finns Party (rebranded from True Finns) and Alternative for Germany (anti-euro, but not anti-EU) are also expected to make gains. But while there are similarities between Britain’s Ukip and France’s Front National (FN) – both want to pull out of the EU, and both take a strong line on immigration and national sovereignty – Nigel Farage has consistently differentiated his own brand of nationalist euroscepticism from the unabashed racism in which the FN is rooted.

For its part, the FN – which has sought to move determinedly into the mainstream under Marine Le Pen – these days dismisses the idea that it is extreme rightwing or xenophobic, and hates being mentioned in the same breath as Hungary’s near-fascist Jobbik, or Greece’s fascist Golden Dawn.

What about the Netherlands?

The Dutch Freedom party (PVV) is an interesting case that highlights how the ground may be shifting. Following the 2009 election its leader Geert Wilders instructed his MEPs not to sit next to FN members, for fear of being tarred with the brush of racism.

Where the FN has historically been anti-Semitic, protectionist and opposed to gay rights, for example, Wilders’ party is socially libertarian, pro-Zionist and pro free trade (it focuses its xenophobic ire on Muslims).

Despite these differences, the two came together in November to forge a rightwing anti-EU pact to “slay the monster in Brussels”. The aim is to forge a new official group in the European Parliament, which would require a minimum of 25 MEPs from seven different countries.

Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, the Sweden Democrats and the Austrian Freedom party are on board, but the putative bloc may well struggle to get the seven countries it needs. Both the Danish People’s Party and Ukip have ruled out taking part.

What are they likely to win?

In 2009 the parties belonging to the Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD) group – the current eurosceptic bloc – won 32 seats in the 766-seat parliament, or 4% of seats (the bulk of which are Ukip and the Italian Northern League).

Adding in other populist and/or eurosceptic parties on the right or far-right (plenty of which Ukip says it regards as abhorrent fascists) brings the total to about 50 seats. Ukip is expected to increase its share of the vote from 16.1% to 22% – winning 17 seats from 13 last time.

But forecasters expect other EFD-aligned parties to lose seats (see below), so that the EFD is left with the same number of seats in the parliament. One implication of that scenario for Nigel Farage is that Ukip’s core European dilemma– to what extent it ought to co-operate with the likes of Le Pen and Wilders – is set to get much sharper.

Why’s that?

Because the FN, currently not aligned to any parliamentary group, is likely to have the same kind of breakthrough this time round that Ukip had in 2009 – more than trebling its vote to 21% and winning 17 seats.

According to Arnaud Leparmentier, writing in Le Monde last month, the European parliament’s president, Martin Schulz, is working on the assumption that, while the Ukip-led eurosceptic group will stick at around 30 seats in the new parliament, the FN and similar parties will win around 40 seats, and fascist parties another 20.

Add in another 50 hard-left anti-EU MEPs (mostly from France, Germany and Italy), and the number of anti-EU MEPs in the next parliament could rise from 100 today to a maximum of 160. It means that quite a big chunk of the European parliament (just over a fifth) would be opposed to the EU’s existence.

Does this matter?

Well, even if that’s not enough to prompt an existential crisis for the EU, it does at least point to a direction of travel – and will undoubtedly reinforce the trend (exemplified by Ukip and the Tories in the UK) whereby anti-EU populists force mainstream governing parties onto their territory.

Moreover, if the increased anti-EU vote leads (as many expect) to a grand left-right coalition in Brussels, as it has in Berlin, it will increase the sense that the European Parliament is merely a cosy talking-shop, and that all the real deals are done behind closed doors.

Some would argue, of course, that Europe’s ‘parliament’ is not really a legislature at all, since it can only endorse, reject, or amend legislation from the Commission rather than initiate it, a fact that helps explain why voter turnout has decreased at every election since the first one in 1979 (from 62% then to 43% in 2009). Expect those sceptical voices to get louder after May.

Are eurosceptics set to dominate?

In a word, no. Two academics specialising in European parliamentary politics, Yves Bertoncini and Valentin Kreilinger, have published detailed predictions (on their London School of Economics blog) of what is likely to happen in the May 2014 elections, based on current polling data across Europe and on previous elections.

Their overall conclusion is that the parties of the right and centre-right are likely to lose seats and the parties of the left and centre-left will gain – resulting in a pretty balanced parliament.

They also expect that parties of the eurosceptic and/or populist right are likely to make strong gains – but not such spectacular gains that they are set to wield significant power or influence, especially given the divisions between the major players.