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What impact to expect from a rise of Eurosceptic parties in the European Parliament

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  • The elections for European Parliament in May will result in a significant increase in support for Eurosceptic parties.
  • Based on current polls, we estimate that around 37.5 percent of total votes will be given to parties that at least somewhat oppose further EU integration. Especially right-wing Eurosceptics will be strongly represented in European Parliament.
  • Given the fact that the Eurosceptics can be found from left to right, we think that it is unlikely that they manage to cooperate as one united front against further European integration. Rather they will form ad hoc alliances to forward their position on specific themes.
  • The new European Parliament will be less supportive towards further European integration and this will be felt across all policy areas. Although the Eurosceptics will not obtain a majority, the result will be an even slower process of European integration.

How many votes for the Eurosceptics in the coming elections?

The EU member states will hold elections for the European Parliament in May, and increasing support for parties opposed to further EU integration will be the key theme for this election round. The decline of the traditional parties in several national elections over the past years is a strong signal for a further shift in power towards parties that oppose more EU-integration at the coming elections for the European Parliament. This could complicate European decision-making at a time that cross-border challenges such as trade tensions, migration and climate change demand a joint response. In an earlier publication, we set out why the European Parliament is important for EU policy making, and answered several questions about the way it works. In this publication, we aim to look into the potential impact of the expected rise of anti-EU parties in the European Parliament.

The European Parliament is the only directly elected European institution. People in each member state vote for national parties which can win a number of seats in European Parliament based on the relative size of the population of its member state and their share of votes. Political parties can organise themselves in European Parliament in political groups, if they have at least 25 members and represent 1/4th of all member states (for more explanation, see our Questions&Answers about the European Parliament). In the current composition of European Parliament.

In several individual member states the share of people planning to vote on parties that (somewhat) oppose EU integration is significant. These projections are based on recent polls[1] and the Chapel Hill Expert Survey (CHES, see box 1)[2] classification of political party positioning on European Integration.

Box 1: Chapel Hill Expert Survey

In this publication, we use the terms ‘Eurosceptic’ and ‘anti-EU’ interchangeably to describe parties that somewhat oppose EU integration, oppose EU integration or strongly oppose EU integration as classified by the Chapel Hill Expert Survey (CHES). The survey is based on experts who indicate for every party in a certain country how they would describe the general position on inter alia European integration. The score is ranked from 1 to 7, from strongly opposed to strongly in favor. For the purpose of this publication, we applied recent polling data and added the missing Spanish party VOX.

Figure 1: Eurosceptic parties receive more than 50 percent of the votes in Poland, Italy and Hungary
Figure 1: Eurosceptic parties receive more than 50 percent of the votes in Poland, Italy and HungarySource: CHESdata, Pollofpolls.EU (06-02-2019), Rabobank

In Italy, Hungary and Poland, Eurosceptic parties are even projected to win more than 50 percent of the votes (figure 1). In these countries the current government is already composed of Eurosceptic parties. Overall, for the 14 EU-countries in the CHES dataset we observe that in current polls 37.5 percent of the total votes will be given to parties that at least somewhat oppose EU integration. In 2014 the Eurosceptic parties received 30 percent of total votes. Restricting the selection to the parties that are opposed or even strongly opposed to EU integration, polls indicate that they would receive 22.5 percent of the votes. The European Parliament is releasing a monthly projection of seats of the next European Parliament, their projections indicate that the share of seats for Eurosceptic political groups will be around 22 percent. Important to note is that ‘new’ parties that currently do not belong to a political group are placed in the category others and are not taken into account. Hence our total measure of 37.5 percent, is higher because it includes all parties across different groups and also those who are not part of a political group.

The increased support for Eurosceptic parties is driven by several factors and can be found both in the left and the right wings of the political spectrum. Often mentioned is the financial crisis combined with the European sovereign debt crisis. The European response to the crisis, the bail-out packages and the strict conditions attached have been criticised both in the receiving member states and the creditor countries. The refugee crisis may be a different source of anti-EU sentiment: In front-line countries such as Italy and Greece anger has been voiced that they are left on their own to bear the brunt of the burden, while in the most popular destination countries for migrants, open borders have been blamed for large inflows of migrants. Interestingly, an extensive study by the European Commission into the geography of EU discontent finds that above all it is long-term economic and industrial decline that explains the anti-European vote. Net migration is found to be less relevant, although the effect is positive for a vote on parties (strongly) opposes to EU integration.

Will anti-EU parties successfully join forces?

Election polls do not provide certainty on the final outcomes and the increasingly unstable voter base for most parties makes elections even less predictable. Still it seems fairly clear that the European Parliament will see an increase in seats for parties that oppose (further) EU integration. The question remains: Will they be able to cooperate and form effective alliances in the European Parliament? We therefore make an educated guess about the possible alliances that could arise after the elections. The CHES dataset which estimates the position of all political parties towards European policy and classifies the parties according to their ideology provides a useful insight for this purpose.

Figure 2: The three colored areas represent Eurosceptic parties with common characteristics
Figure 2: The three colored areas represent Eurosceptic parties with common characteristicsSource: CHESdata, Rabobank

The key variable in the CHES dataset is the position variable which indicates to what extent a party opposes EU integration. In figure 2 on the x-axis we plot the Eurosceptic parties, with a score lower than 3.5[3]on the position variable. On the y-axis we use the political family variable in the dataset, which is a party classification according to their ideology (table 1). Parties that are both close in ideology and in their stance towards EU integration are more likely to form an alliance after the European elections. Such alliances could take the form of a formal political group[4], or of informal (ad hoc) cooperation to push a joint position on specific issues.

Table 1: Classification based on Chapel Hill Expert Survey (CHES)
Table 1: Classification based on Chapel Hill Expert Survey (CHES)Source: CHESdata, Rabobank

The main take-away from figure 2 is that the Eurosceptic vote is divided: A right-wing and strongly Eurosceptic front includes parties such as the Alternative for Germany, the French National Rally, Italian Northern League and the Dutch Party for Freedom. At the left of the political spectrum a more moderately anti-EU assembly features the Italian Five Star Movement, the French Communist Party and the Dutch Socialist Party. Finally, a collection of right-wing and moderately anti-EU parties includes Hungarian Fidesz and JOBBIK as well as the Polish Law and Justice party.

Between these parties of different nationalities and political orientations, strong differences of view exist on several important issues. Russia, for instance, should be treated as friend according to Italy’s Northern League and France’s Rally National, but kept at a cautious distance if Polish Law and Justice Party were concerned[5]. The Greek X.A. party and Italian Five Star Movement would like to see more European support for their countries to deal with immigrant flows, whereas others such as Hungarian Fidesz are anti-immigrant and/or against open borders, such as Dutch Forum for Democracy.

Figure 3: Right-wing to become the largest Eurosceptic bloc
Figure 3: Right-wing to become the largest Eurosceptic blocSource: CHESdata, Pollofpolls.EU (06-02-2019), Rabobank

In Figure 2 we divided the Eurosceptic parties in three groups according to their stance towards EU integration and their political family. In Figure 3 we calculated the share of votes we expect these three groups to receive based on recent polls. The right-wing and strongly Eurosceptics will receive around 15 percent of total votes. The more moderately right-wing Eurosceptics will also win around 15 percent of total votes. Lastly, the left-wing Eurosceptics are set to get around 7 percent of total votes. Taking all Eurosceptic votes together they will win around 37.5 percent of total votes.

Given the differences in political orientation of the many anti-EU parties, it is not to be expected that one united ‘anti-EU’ group will arise in European Parliament. More likely, most of these parties will join one of the existing Eurosceptic groups or some reconfiguration could take place after the elections - possibly resulting in one or more new groups. But on specific themes they may be able to cooperate effectively in ad hoc alliances. Below, we discuss how this could play out for several important themes.

A Brexit delay would be advantageous for Eurosceptics

The due date for the Brexit is coming ever closer. An extension of Article 50 seems to become more likely and this could have an important impact on the elections for European Parliament. If the UK is still a member of the EU beyond the date of the elections, then they are required to participate in the elections. This means that the number of seats in the parliament will not be reduced, as would be the case when the UK leaves the EU (from 751 to 705 seats). Moreover, a substantial part of British members of European Parliament is Eurosceptic. Were these British parliamentarians to leave after Brexit, their support for the Eurosceptic political groups would also be lost. Therefore, a delay in Brexit will be advantageous for the Eurosceptics in European Parliament. A chaotic hard Brexit, on the contrary, could undermine the case of those Eurosceptic parties calling for their country to exit the European Union.

A push for member states to leave the EU will not come from European Parliament

Several anti-EU parties have explicitly called for their country to leave the EU. Most notably, the Brothers of Italy, the Alternative for Germany, the Dutch Freedom Party, and the Sweden Democrats are among the few parties officially promoting their country to leave the EU. But they won’t be able to achieve this via the European parliament, as ‘leaving the EU’ first and foremost requires action at the national level, i.e. for a member state government to trigger article 50 of the Treaty on European Union[6]. The UK is the obvious case in point. Moreover, the joint voter share of these parties is insufficient to set in motion an eventual dissolution of the EU entirely – even if the European Parliament would have any mandate for such steps, which it does not. Anti-EU parties can however use their stronger position in European Parliament to weaken the EU from within, notably by resisting a large EU budget. Or they could hamper the adoption of legislation that has strong transnational impact.

Eurosceptics will make adopting a new EU budget even more complicated

European parliament has a relatively strong position over all EU budget expenditures. They have the last word over all expenditures and could theoretically even impose a budget against the will of the Council. The support of the majority of the EP is therefore needed to adopt a new EU budget. The process of reaching agreement about the budget has always been very slow and difficult, and a rise of Eurosceptics in the parliament will make the process probably even more difficult. Some Eurosceptic parties would like to shrink the budget and at the same time increase resources for the cohesion funds[7]. The likely victims in the EU budget are development aid and spending related to foreign policy.

Eurosceptics often preach anti-austerity

The rise of Eurosceptic parties will not lead to the end of the European Union. But will these parties be able to reform the EU, as some of them pledge to do? Reform of the EU’s fiscal policy might well be a field where their interests coincide. In particular, many anti-EU parties oppose the strict budgetary rules for Member States enforced by the European Commission. Among Eurosceptic parties, anti-austerity voices can be heard both on the right and on the left side of the political spectrum and especially in Italy, Greece, Portugal and France. But also Poland’s ruling Freedom and Justice party has a preference for fiscal stimulus. The European Parliament has a role in the EU control of member states’ budgets as a co-legislator in the setting of rules for so-called multilateral surveillance. Still, the European Parliament shares this responsibility with the Council of Ministers and depends on the European Commission for initiating new legislative proposals. So while anti-EU parties of the left and the right may jointly voice their opposition to budgetary restraint in European Parliament, in the end their influence in this field may be felt most directly in the Council: there, some of them have a direct say as representatives of their national governments. Last year’s fuzz in the Council on the Italian budget is testimony to this.

European Parliament will be less enthusiastic about (new) Free Trade Agreements

International trade was one of the first policy areas in which member states decided that mandating powers to Europe would be beneficial. The Treaty of Lisbon gave the European Parliament an active role in the negotiation and ratification of trade agreements and its consent is now even mandatory. Several (but not all) Eurosceptic parties have raised their concerns about existing trade agreements and are significantly less supportive of more far-reaching trade agreements. Italy’s Five Star movement, the Freedom Party of Austria, Dutch Forum for Democracy and France’s National Rally are among them[8]. This will make adopting such new agreements significantly more difficult. In this light, it will be interesting to see what position Eurosceptic parties will take with respect to the negotiations between the EU and the UK on a free trade agreement after Brexit.

Influence of European Parliament on migration policy mostly informal

The far-right Eurosceptic parties have been quite clear in their opinion regarding migration. They want to ‘close the borders’ and have a very strict migration policy. This position is mostly absent in the left-wing Eurosceptic parties, so a strong united front is not very likely. Even more important to note is that the European Parliament hardly has any legislative power in migration policy. Migration policy is not part of the co-decision procedure and the EP will only be consulted. Still, emboldened right-wing Eurosceptics will use all their informal powers to influence migration policy.

Eurosceptics are often climate sceptic too

The rise of right-wing Eurosceptics will prove to be a challenge for the European climate agenda. These parties are often hostile towards policy designed to address climate change[9]. As we have seen in Hungary and Poland where these parties have won significant power, they tried to scale back climate policies. The left-wing Eurosceptic parties are often much more supportive towards climate policy. Overall, the stance of the European Parliament will become more critical towards policy that addresses climate change. Climate policy is an especially important area in which broad-based and transnational policy is necessary, for example to avoid that firms shift their most polluting activities to countries that have the least strict climate policy.

The next European Commission under influence of Eurosceptic parties

As we explained in our previous publication on the European Parliament elections, the next President of the European Commission will be elected by the European Parliament by a majority vote. They vote on a candidate proposed by the European Council, which should take into account the results of the election. Next, the other 28 ‘Commissioners’ will be nominated, one from each member state. European Parliament must approve these nominations by absolute majority. Governments with an Eurosceptic majority, for example Italy, Hungary and Poland are likely to deliver an Eurosceptic commissioner giving them significant influence on some policy areas. Provided they will get the approval of the majority in European Parliament, they will make the overall stance of the European Commission less supportive towards further EU integration.

Eurozone reform further under pressure

The Eurogroup came to an agreement about a package of reforms in December last year, to increase the Eurozone’s resilience in a new crisis. This agreement included further development of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), the creation of a common backstop to the Single Resolution Fund (SRF) and a further exploration of a eurozone budget for fiscal stabilisation. The European Parliament is able to influence these reforms in the standard co-decision procedure when this procedure applies. A rise in Eurosceptic parties could make adoption of the new reforms by the European Parliament a bit harder, but lacking a majority they are not very likely to actually stop the reforms.

Conclusion

European Parliament has co-decision powers in most EU legislative areas and must approve legislative proposals by an absolute majority. In other areas, such as foreign policy, it does not have a co-decision mandate but can make its voice heard in (obligatory) consultation procedures or by issuing resolutions.

The weight of the parties in European Parliament with a Eurosceptic orientation will increase after the elections in May. The large differences in political orientation between different Eurosceptic parties mean that it is unlikely that they will all unite and act as one group in European Parliament. But they will be in a position to form ad hoc alliances to further their position on specific issues. It will become harder to find majorities on many important decisions, ranging from the EU’s budget to new trade agreements with other countries. This will increase the challenge for parties supporting EU integration – including Christian democrats, social democrats, liberals, greens and others – to cooperate and find common ground to advance European solutions for European challenges.

The expected rise in anti-EU parties’ influence after the European Parliament elections will not lead to the end of the European Union. But it will make further EU integration less likely and could even result in less instead of more cooperation between the member states.

Footnotes

[1] Pollofpolls.eu projections, 06-02-2019

[2] 75 percent of total seats, CHESdata

[3] 3 indicates that a party is somewhat opposed to EU integration, while 4 indicates that the party has a neutral stance towards EU integration.

[5] https://www.ecfr.eu/page/-/EUROPEAN_PARLIAMENT_FLASH_SCORECARD_online.pdf

[6] ‘Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements. A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention. (…)’

[7] The Cohesion Fund is aimed at Member States whose Gross National Income (GNI) per inhabitant is less than 90 percent of the EU average. It aims to reduce economic and social disparities and to promote sustainable development

[8] https://www.ecfr.eu/page/-/EUROPEAN_PARLIAMENT_FLASH_SCORECARD_online.pdf

[9] Lockwood, M. (2018). Right-wing populism and the climate change agenda: exploring the linkages. Environmental Politics27(4), 712-732

Literature

Dijkstra, Poelman and Rodríguez-Pose, “The geography of EU discontent”, 2018.

Dennison and Zerka, “The 2019 European Election: How Anti-Europeans plan to wreck Europe and what be done to stop it”, European Council on Foreign Relations.

Eurasia Group, 2018, Populism Tracker

Polk, Jonathan, Jan Rovny, Ryan Bakker, Erica Edwards, Liesbet Hooghe, Seth Jolly, Jelle Koedam, Filip Kostelka, Gary Marks, Gijs Schumacher, Marco Steenbergen, Milada Vachudova and Marko Zilovic. 2017. "Explaining the salience of anti-elitism and reducing political corruption for political parties in Europe with the 2014 Chapel Hill Expert Survey data," Research & Politics (January-March): 1-9

Lockwood, M. (2018). Right-wing populism and the climate change agenda: exploring the linkages. Environmental Politics, 27(4), 712-732.

Jacques Delors Institute, European Parliament 2019: the Parliament and Europe to come, 6 November 2018.

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