Marley Morris of Counterpoint, a UK-based research group that focuses on cultural and social dynamics underpinning politics, economics and security, writes on the prospect of an increase in populist voices at the European elections:
The European Parliament elections contain a strange contradiction.
The next parliament, thanks to the Lisbon Treaty, will have more power than any of its predecessors. It will be able to elect the President of the European Commission for the first time. Vast areas of vital policy – not least the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – are at stake. And as the first pan-European elections since the worst moments of the eurozone crisis, the results will be analysed as a crucial gauge of public opinion.
And yet there is still a long way to go to making the European Parliament elections comparable in status to national polls. Eurobarometer tells us that only 54 per cent of European Union citizens are aware that the European Parliament is directly elected.
Efforts by the mainstream European-level parties to tout their ‘lead candidates’ seem to have had limited success, with many voters unaware of the contest, and numerous commentators suspecting that the next Commission president may well be someone else entirely.
A populist surge?
Ten days from the elections, the expectation is that apathy will translate into success for Eurosceptics and populists at the polls.
Marine Le Pen (right), the leader of France’s populist radical right National Front (FN) party, and Geert Wilders, leader of the anti-Islam and Eurosceptic Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands, pledged last year to join forces. They plan to form a political group with like-minded parties in the new Parliament. Wilders has said of the proposed alliance: “We will have an enormous influence… We are working on a historical project.”
But just as the mainstream parties’ efforts to promote lead candidates are laced with a dose of political wishful thinking, so is Geert Wilders’ claim to bring Brussels to its knees. Our analysis suggests a rather different scenario to that envisaged by Dutch politician and his allies.
Populism is not surging in every country. It is true that in many member state, populists are close to the top of the polls – as well as the FN and PVV, the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), the Finns Party, the Danish People’s Party and the UK Independence Party are all expected to perform well.
However, in many cases this does not constitute a significant rise in support: the PVV, for instance, is expected to win just one extra seat in the Parliament – hardly signalling a political revolution. In other countries, populist parties face heavy losses. Italy’s Northern League (Lega Nord – LN) has suffered considerably since a corruption scandal forced the resignation of long-time leader Umberto Bossi. It is expected to lose at least half of its nine seats in the European Parliament.
But what about analysis pointing to a quarter or even a third of seats in the Parliament turning against the mainstream?
These figures look large, but often conceal the sheer range of parties included: from the radical left to the extreme right, from parties that want to reform the EU, rather than dismantle it, to those that want to bring the whole structure down.
They also need to be put in perspective. Based on analysis by PollWatch 2014, we expect populists to take approximately 15 per cent of seats in the European Parliament (these numbers include populist parties ranging from Golden Dawn and the FN to Ukip and Italy’s Five Star Movement, but not the radical left or mainstream Eurosceptic parties such as the British Conservatives). In comparison, these populist parties have seven per cent of the seats in the outgoing parliament – so a big increase is predicted, but nowhere near enough to stop the Parliament from functioning.
Populists in the Parliament
Moreover, once these new MEPs arrive in the Parliament, they will face a whole host of problems.
First, there will be a serious case of fragmentation. The new alliance between Le Pen and Wilders is being hailed by some as the moment when the populist radical right in Europe will unite after years of discord. Other parties – including the FPÖ, LN and Belgium’s Flemish Interest (Vlaams Belang) – have since rallied to their cause.
But as soon as we look beyond this one show of unity, political divisions between populists are everywhere. Ukip and the Danish People’s Party have ruled out joining the new alliance, with Ukip’s leader, Nigel Farage (left), praising Le Pen but expressing concern over her party’s history of extremism and anti-Semitism.
Wilders and Le Pen have in turn refused to work with extreme right parties such as Golden Dawn and Hungary’s Jobbik. The Finns Party, currently in the same political group as Ukip, is said to be considering jumping ship to the more moderate European Conservatives and Reformists Group. The populists expected to enter the next Parliament may be numerous, but they will be far from cohesive.
On top of this, our research shows that they will struggle to have much policy influence within the European Parliament. VoteWatch Europe data highlights that in the outgoing parliament populists tended to not be involved in policy-making activities, such as drafting reports or opinions at the committee level. If, as expected, the centre-left and centre-right political groups join forces more regularly to ensure majorities on important votes, then populists will struggle to make a direct impact on EU legislation.
A standard political maxim is to lower expectations to avoid disappointment. But populism follows its own logic.
Ahead of these elections, populists – Le Pen and Wilders, as well as Farage – appear to be doing their best to conjure up an image of a vivid insurgency. As we have argued here, that is unlikely to happen. So why do they keep making this argument?
Perhaps the explanation goes back to the fundamental contradiction of these elections: a European Parliament with more political heft than ever, but capturing only minimal interest from the public. Because of this, it doesn’t matter much for the populists if they have little influence in the Parliament – voters won’t be that bothered anyway.
Instead, when Wilders and Le Pen claim that these elections will be historic, they are barely talking to their electorate: they are talking to nervous politicians from the mainstream.
The big question after the next elections is therefore not what populists will get up to in the European Parliament – it is what the mainstream parties will do in response.