European Parliament Elections and the Rise of Anti-Establishment Parties

Populism is on the rise in Europe. If polls are to be trusted, anti-establishment parties might grab around 25-30 percent of the 766 seats of the European Parliament (EP) in this weekend’s election, up from today’s 12 percent. Political consequences are hard to predict, as these parties by no means form a cohesive bloc.

The non-mainstream camp is extremely varied. Not only do these parties stand on both the left and right end of the political spectrum, but large differences exist even among ideologically closer groupings.

France’s National Front (NF) and the Netherlands’ Freedom Party (PVV), the leading parties on the right, have gone the extra mile to avoid being associated with Greece’s Nazi-nostalgic Golden Dawn, or even the slightly more respectable Jobbik party in Hungary, which hosts racist and anti-Semitic feelings. This illustrates how far to the right the pendulum has swung in their countries, as until fairly recently PVV and NF were considered the extremists.

NF’s record on racism is not yet entirely reassuring, despite the effort to improve it by its charismatic leader Marine Le Pen (her late father and FN founder, Jean-Marie, once referred to Nazi gas chambers as a “detail”). This is enough for groups like the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) to keep distance.

Differences are more blurred with regard to attitudes towards the European Union (EU). UKIP advocates the UK’s exit from the Union, as do the True Finns in Finland. NF and PVV stop short of it, but want France and the Netherlands to leave the Eurozone. Similarly critical of the euro are the non-partisan 5 Star Movement in Italy (which is supportive of a national referendum on Italy’s Eurozone membership) and Alternative for Germany. Greece’s leftist party, Syriza, supports the euro but is extremely critical of the EU’s economic governance system.

Driving Voter Turnout

According to the polls, Syriza, NF, UKIP and Denmark’s anti-euro People Party might win a plurality of votes on Sunday, while Italy’s 5 Star Movement, the True Finns and Jobbik would be close second (but PVV seems to have performed worse than expected in the Netherlands, where an early vote took place on May 22).

In part, a strong showing would hinge on the unique character of EP elections. In the EU jargon, the EP is a ‘communitarian’ institution, meaning that it represents the interests of the Union as a whole. Accordingly, its members form groups along political, not national, lines. Yet, although the EP has important EU budget oversight prerogatives and regulatory powers, average voters perceive it as a distant and ineffective body. As a result, votes of protest are more commonly cast in EP than in national elections. The fact that EP seats are apportioned according to a proportional system further increases the chances of fringe parties, as does the generally low turnout.

EP elections take place on a national basis and consequently tend to be an occasion to test the popular confidence in incumbent governments. This time around, however, “Europe” is definitely an issue for voters, as many of them associate their governments’ failure to revive the economy with the mainstream parties’ support for the EU.

Europe Fatigue

In Southern Europe, where the economic crisis has hit hardest, the main target of criticism is the austerity course that has dominated EU fiscal and economic policies in the last few years. Large sections of the public hold ruling coalitions responsible for giving in to a German-led coalition of member states that has forced them to savagely cut public spending in return for assistance. Social anger has grown as the costs paid so far in terms of rising unemployment and wage reduction have not been offset by any significant increase in growth rates, which remain anemic.

While austerity has more supporters in Northern Europe, particularly Germany and the Nordic countries, criticisms are present here too, though for different reasons. EU institutions are blamed because they are seen as an instrument by which profligate countries get access to the finances of more parsimonious member states.

Thus, while the substance of the criticism is different, the target is the same. From both south and north, the EU is viewed as an opaque, unaccountable decision-making machine which tramples the sovereign rights of states and individual citizens.

Fringe parties accuse mainstream parties, left and right of center alike, to have supported this disempowerment process, whereby the traditional conservative-progressive divide is losing importance. Increasingly critical to the voters is the question of which party is better placed to ensure that citizens do not lose control over decision-making processes entirely.

Populism Rises

Some of the non-mainstream forces were actually born with this purpose in mind, such as the 5 Star Movement in Italy or UKIP. Others, particularly on the right, have linked the EU’s failure to address the crisis to their narrative of a Europe threatened by the combined forces of supra-nationalism, immigration, multiculturalism and free trade. The outlier here is Syriza, which insists that democratic re-empowerment of EU citizens can go hand in hand with European integration, but only if the EU abandons once and for all the neo-liberal dogma.

Populist parties occupy the always enviable position of being in the opposition in times of crises. A strong showing at the EP elections will not alter the picture. Mainstream parties will control around 70 percent of the seats. Even if populist forces were to vote as a cohesive bloc – which is improbable to say the least – they will lack the critical mass needed to block resolutions championed by mainstream parties. In addition, the EP has little control over fiscal and economic policy, which largely remains in the hands of the intergovernmental EU Council.

Yet, if the political pendulum swings in their direction, populist parties are likely to influence national debates about Europe in a disproportionate manner compared to the actual share of the votes they win. Under pressure to re-connect with an estranged public, mainstream parties will be tempted to adopt positions resembling those of populist forces. The sense of detachment most EU citizens feel vis-à-vis EU institutions risks becoming permanent (at 31 percent, trust is at an all-time low), and building an intra-EU consensus on how to move the fiscal and economic agenda forward much more difficult.