Next week millions will vote in the elections for the European Parliament, with many expected to favour parties that want their countries to leave the EU or radically change it.
Who are the Eurosceptics?
From the EU’s earliest days there have always been politicians opposed to its aim of creating an ever-closer political and economic union between its member countries. Nowadays every country has at least one party whose main purpose is to leave the EU or severely limit its powers. The British one is the UK Independence Party (UKIP), led by Nigel Farage.
Why are we talking about them?
They are more popular now than ever. After the last elections for the European Parliament in 2009, around 12% of the 751 MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) could be described as ‘Eurosceptic’. After next week’s elections they are expected to more than double their numbers. UKIP hopes to top the poll in the UK.
What has made them so popular?
The eurozone crisis, mostly. After the global financial crash of 2008, a second one took place in 2009 among countries who had joined the Single European Currency, the euro. Ten of them, including Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy, found it impossible to repay the money their governments had borrowed without help from the European Central Bank. In return for this bailout, these countries had to make very painful cuts in their spending. National economies shrank, wages fell and unemployment, particularly among the young, rose dramatically. Many people blamed the EU for their declining wealth and Eurosceptic parties everywhere began to attract more support.
Other reasons for their rising appeal include fears about immigration, frustration with over-regulation by the EU, and the lack of any direct democratic control over what the EU does.
But does this matter? I thought that not many people voted in the European elections.
That’s true. Turnout has been falling steadily since the first elections were held in 1979. In 2009, the overall turnout was just 43%. But although fewer people vote for it, the power of the European Parliament has been steadily increasing. It is now almost equal in stature to the Council of Ministers in approving legislation. But If a third of its MEPs don’t even believe that the Parliament should exist, this may start to cause problems.
What sort of problems?
More Eurosceptics in Parliament will not mean that they will be able to influence legislation directly, but there will be subtler effects. First, their numbers will make it harder for EU institutions to argue that the answer to every problem is always ‘more Europe’. Second, they will force all the mainstream parties into a grand coalition to get their legislation approved, which will make the Parliament even less democratically responsible to its voters. And third, their success will frighten many national governments into more Eurosceptic policies. The EU certainly needs reform, particularly in order to fix the problems of the eurozone, but all of this will make it much harder than before.
Is all this definitely going to happen?
Well, the polls predict that the Eurosceptics will do well in these elections. However, apart from being united as Eurosceptics, the different parties that fall under this banner have little else in common. Some, like the Hungarian party Jobbik and Greece’s Golden Dawn, are neo-fascists. France’s Front Nationale led by Marine Le Pen, the Dutch Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders and the Finns Party led by Timo Soini have all had worryingly racist and anti-semitic connections. Others, like UKIP and the Alternative for Germany (which is anti-euro but not anti-EU), take care to distance themselves from neo-Nazis. All these groups may find it difficult to work together successfully.
- European banks are estimated to have incurred losses approaching €1 trillion between the outbreak of the financial crisis in 2007 and 2010. The European Commission approved some €4.5 trillion in state aid for banks between October 2008 and October 2011.
- More Europe
- Some critics have observed that the absence of contingency plans for anything less than the total success of the euro is a typical feature of policymaking at EU level, reflecting the ‘political culture of total optimism’ of EU leaders.
- At a speech in The Hague last month Geert Wilders asked his supporters: ‘Do you want more or fewer Moroccans in this city and in the Netherlands?’ The response came loud and clear: ‘Fewer!’ ‘We’ll take care of that,’ their leader replied.