The Continuing Battle Between Europeanism and Euroskepticism


The results of May 2019 European elections for the new European Parliament show significant losses for the two main groups, the centre-right European People’s Party and the centre-left Socialists and Democrats. They remain the largest groups but have lost their traditional majority in the European Parliament. The Greens and Liberal groups have made gains, as well as the right-wing nationalist and populist groups. This unexpected electoral success has turned the erstwhile ‘fringe idealists’ into potential kingmakers in Brussels
Emma Graham-Harrison of the Guardian newspaper reported that on election day in three European capitals at the end of May, voters swept an insurgent party to the top of the polls for the new European parliament. But, contrary to widespread media speculation in the run-up to the poll, it was not the far-right populists who triumphed at the ballot box in Belgium, Germany and Ireland. Instead, in all these countries Green parties won the highest number of votes, spearheading a continent-wide surge that looks likely to transform their political role within Europe.
The Greens are part of a cohesive and powerful bloc in a newly fractured European parliament in a grouping with progressive regional and “pirate” parties of the European Free Alliance, together holding nearly 10% of votes. Two centrist groupings, broadly conservative and social democrat, had between them controlled the parliament since it was formed, but their stranglehold has been broken.
They will now need support from other blocs to pass legislation and appoint the powerful commissioners and other top posts. Four big jobs are vacant: the presidencies of the European commission, the European council and the European Central Bank, as well as the high representative for foreign policy. Evaluating the election result, Agata Gostynska-Jakubowska, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform think-tank said that “Greens could be kingmakers in the decision process,”
This year’s election showcased the expected fight between the voters outlook of Europeanism and Euroskepticism. In 1972, the first-ever referendum was held on a topic related to European integration: 68.3% of French voters agreed on membership of the United Kingdom in the then-European Economic Community. In 2016, not returning the earlier favor of the French, a narrow majority of British voters opted for leaving the European Union. The Brexit Vote was the 50th referendum held on an issue related to European integration.
Ludger Kuhnhardt, Director of the Center for European Integration Studies (ZEI) at the University of Bonn, Germany argued that there is just one problem with this exercise in democracy: With increasing levels of European integration, more and more people outside the country holding a referendum are affected by its result. The failed European Constitution was the most powerful example to this day. While a majority of EU citizens in a majority of EU member states had voted “yes” in 2003, relative majorities of those going to the polls in just two countries, France and the Netherlands, killed the constitution by saying “no.”
Ludger Kuhnhardt noted that little thought has been given to accommodate that misconstruction. But addressing this question is all the more important as a veritable wave of new referenda is waiting in the wings. In Italy, the focus may be on banking union, in Hungary on refugee settlement. As long as no pan-European referendum exists, these national votes end up distorting the picture of what European citizens want rather exponentially. That leaves in the hands of one country what affects all. The recent British referendum is the best example for this. Think of all the follow-on effects, whether on the Gibraltar-Spain issue, the impact on Ireland north and South, on global trade relations of the EU or on the prospects for EU defense.
Andres Ortega, Senior research fellow at the Elcano Royal Institute, a major Spanish foreign affairs think tank argued that the referenda is also a profoundly undemocratic exercise: The number of citizens in Europe who are not able to cast their vote compared, but have to live with the consequences of that vote, is immense. What is seen, by some, as a great leap forward in democratizing politics in fact turns into a substantial problem as it ends up delegitimizing politics in Europe.
According to Andres Ortega, referenda have become weapons of populist politics. They are intended to challenge the often boring and daunting processes of democratically elected and legitimized representative organs. They ultimately lead to the worst outcome, confusing representative democracy as defined by John Locke, and plebiscitary democracy as defined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This is the inevitable consequence when the two concepts are matched.
Here, people observed the process of creating deliberate confusion and false promises. This is precisely what the British Tories set out to do when they resolved to use the referendum on EU membership as a tool to tame the forces of populism and cool off public sentiments, including in their own ranks. The result is predictable enough: all-out paralysis. The people on the winning side now expect a result which the politicians will likely not be able to deliver, at least not without inflicting serious domestic pain.
The effort to promise a rosy garden, which many of the Leave campaigners resorted to, is bound to become their undoing.
From May 23rd to May 26th, more than 400 million Europeans voted in one of the largest democratic undertakings in the world (India’s is larger still) to elect the European Parliament. That chamber co-legislates with the European Council on many matters, and acts as a sounding board for a nascent European consciousness. The support harvested by the nationalist-populists and other Euroskeptics are an important gauge to look out for after the elections. They will have a crucial impact, for example, on some decisions taken by the European Parliament, such as the sanctions to be applied against countries threatening democratic norms and the rule of law, like Poland and Hungary, two countries where the Euroskeptics are strong.
Many of these Euroskeptics have changed their tune during the campaign. They know that the EU has gained in popularity, including in Hungary and more so in Poland, where people have a positive perception of their membership of the Union. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally now no longer advocates leaving the euro, but it does support a return to strong national borders and a Europe of sovereign states. The governments of recalcitrant countries, including Italy, may also choose to nominate fiercely anti-European figures as candidates for the College of Commissioners. This could potentially cause the institution to malfunction, even if the new Commission President assigns them secondary posts.
Agata Gostynska-Jakubowska stated that here are precedents. In certain cases, candidates aspiring to the Commission have been rejected for their past, albeit prior to their candidacies being made official. At the same time, the nationalist-populists or the hard-right do not form a cohesive unit. These forces are still too disparate and unalike to the regret primarily of Steve Bannon and his movement, to shatter the European project on the EU scale.
In any case, these European Parliament elections mark a new, more complex political era, with more challenges but also new possibilities. A key question is how the most pro-European parties, beyond the election of the President of the Commission, subsequently come together with an inspiring project for the EU. There is a clear need for not just halting but reversing the shift toward nationalist-populist movements.