EP elections 2014: How to challenge a rise of radical and extremist parties?

In the EP elections in May (22 – 25) we may see a surge of eurosceptic and radical right and left wing parties. Would you say that the “mainstream” parties should put more focus on this during the campaign and, in general, how to address it in a few weeks campaign before the EP elections? Read Few comments.

Caterina FroioDepartment of Political and Social Sciences, European University Institute

The unfolding of the Eurozone crisis made European issues central to political debates at national level, as their relevance grew impressively for citizens and politicians alike. Yet, the austerity policies which have been implemented to tackle economic distress seem to have fuelled anti-European resentment in the political debate and public opinion both in the countries seriously affected by the crisis (Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Portugal and more recently Italy) and in those that are less affected by it (AFD om Germany, Wilders in the Netherlands and Le Pen in France for example). In the case of certain countries seriously affected by the crisis (in particular in Greece and Italy) euroscepticism took a peculiar form in the public debate: anti-Germanism and anti-merkelism.

Traditionally pro-European polities such as Italy and Greece were used to approach EP electoral campaigns on the basis of a strictly national agenda, counting on high public commitment to EU integration. This has drastically changed in the eve of the next elections: the public debate is characterized by an unprecedented degree of Europeanization, whilst according to the Eurobarometer (39-80) public support for the EU reaches an historical low.

In my view, the political decisions taken to tackle the crisis (and the public debate that is accompanying these processes) boosted the process of integration of national and EU party systems, that before the euro-crisis where still kept apart. This made national and EU policy-making arenas de facto inseparable and not distinguishable from one another. [A concrete sign of this integration between national and EU-party systems is for example the fact that for the first time EU-parties designed the name of their candidate for the Presidency of the EU-commission to create more clarity for the voters. This decision introduces a certain limited level of competition for EU executive office, that the Union is badly lacking and that has been identified by academic Simon Hix and Peter Mair as one of the reasons why the EU has a weak party system and why Eu citizens do not identify with EU-party groups]
Yet, this process of realignment between national and EU party systems has also reduced substantially the stakes of political competition and opposition at the national level, as European integration inevitably limits the available policy space and instruments for national parties, delegating decision-making in different policy areas to EU-level regulatory agencies. When this is the case, certain parties at the national level do not have incentives to organize a useless opposition in the EU polity and would rather mobilize opposition to the EU polity.

Several parties express euroscepticism in different forms and with different intensity. Observers in general tend to focus more on extreme parties, yet we often forget that they don’t have the monopoly of euroscepticism, As a matter of fact, in some countries (such as Italy) euroscepticism is spread also by certain governing parties (such as the Northern Ligue and Forza Italia). In a different form this is also what has been done by the Conservative Party in the UK, where David Cameron promised a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.

In this sense even governing parties sometimes display what has been called a “Gianus face” vis-à-vis of the EU, endorsing Euroscepticism under favorable conditions, but being open to compromise in times of low salience and popular resentment over EU affairs.

Concerning Euroscepicism of extreme parties, I think it is a mistake to state that extreme-right parties and extreme-left parties share the same type of euroscepticism. By looking at real-world, within the extreme-left there are few examples of opposition to the EU (conceived as a reject to the EU integration process, and willingness to give more powers to Nation States, e.g. a critic to the EU polity) that I can mention …I think here to the Greek KKE…whereas there are several examples of opposition in the EU, e.g. opposition to the EU policies that is the case of most leftist and (especially Nordic) Green parties in the Member States. Here, I would stress the fact that the same type of opposition at the national level would not be considered anti-polity, but simply as competition over different policy alternatives.

The Party of the European Left represented at the forthcoming EP elections by Alexis Tsipras, that is often quoted as being an “Eurosceptic party”, in its electoral platform does not reject the EU integration process either claims for dismantling the EU, and it does not claim for a devolution of powers to member states either. Their major focus is the economic policy of the EU, and they develop a proposal to change the economic line of the EU as well as a radical change of the current immigration policy of the EU (Frontex).

In this sense, parties such as the European Left , but also the European Green Party seem to express a different view of the EU, more than rejecting the EU integration process as a whole. I am not sure whether these types of positions may be defined “Eurosceptic” tout court…and if we define them as Eurosceptic, it would imply that the Eu as it exists until now is a polity that does not admit policy competition, therefore we could not understand why shall we have elections… Rather, I think these parties represent the most genuine expression of a “politicized” Europe resulting from increased salience of EU affairs in national polities.

In the case of the extreme-right things are completely different. The alliance that has been signed by Marine Le Pen (the leader of France’s rightwing nationalist Front National) and Geert Wilders (the leader of the Dutch Freedom Party) in the Hague is based on two of the few policy areas the two leaders have in common: anti-immigration and anti-EU.

If it is not sure that the extreme-right will be able to achieve important electoral results at the forthcoming European elections due to the big fragmentation within this party family [for example Wilders asserts he does not want any “right-wing extremist and racist” parties in his European group. This is why so far he has refused to dialogue with radical groups like the British National Party, the Jobbik party in Hungary, the Greek golden Dawn and Germany’s National Democratic Party (NPD)] there are other processes that should capture our attention, and that go beyond elections and that seriously challenge the mainstream parties. In particular, what Prof. Cas Mudde defines the “pathological normalcy” of the extreme-right discourse. In his understanding certain ideas of extreme-right parties are not just shared by a tiny minority of the European population but sometimes they connect well with broadly shared attitudes and policy positions among the population and among mainstream parties. A good example of this process may be found in the case of the discussion in the EU of the new asylum policy after the Lampedusa tragedy when a ship that had sailed from the Libyan city of Misrata with about 500 refugees on board caught fire and sank adding more than 300 deaths to the already crowded graveyard that is becoming the Mediterranean. In that occasion, Manfred Weber, a member of the European Parliament for the center-right Christian Social Union (CSU), the sister party to Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), said: “In view of the polls that predict up to 30 percent for euroskeptics in the new parliament, a more liberal immigration policy can currently not be introduced, because it would give the extremists even more of a boost.” This is exactly the “contagion effects” that mainstream parties must avoid: these stances go against the fundamental rights of the Union such as dignity, freedom, equality and solidarity.

In a nutshell, in my view, it is important to differentiate extreme-right and extreme-left euroscepticism. What differentiates the extreme-right from the extreme-left in the verge of the EP elections is that the former seem to be further incentivized to organize opposition to the EU (challenging the polity first), the latter prefer an opposition in the EU (challenging the policies it promulgates).

I think that the usage of the term euroscepticism is often inaccurate since it is used not only to refer to actors that express a strong reject of the EU polity, but also to actors that propose a different vision of the EU-integration. I think mainstream parties should avoid this confusion especially in the electoral campaigns. If they want to be successful they should spread a vision of the EU as a polity opened to policy competition and citizens participation, proposing alternatives and leaving space to alternative policy visions that are not against the Charter of the fundamental rights of the EU.

Christian SchweigerLecturer in Government, Department of Politics, Durham University

I think that the mainstream parties will definitely have to address the fact that an increasing section of the electorate in all member states are dissatisfied with mainstream politics and are therefore likely to support either populist or in some cases even fascist parties. These parties try to appeal to the disillusioned who feel left behind by mainstream politics by combining a generally anti-EU agenda with anti-immigration rhetoric and by offering what they brand as ‘common sense solutions’. UKIP in the UK is a good example for this and also the new Alternative fuer Deutschland in Germany.

I think that it would be very dangerous if politicians from the mainstream parties simply brush aside these concerns and fail to address genuine concerns about a perceived lack of democratic accountability in the EU and most of all concerns about jobs, wage levels and general living conditions. Especially the latter is in my opinion the main reason why the populist and radical parties gain support. We know from history that people tend to support extreme political parties during times of economic instability and
high unemployment. These are also the times when anti-immigration sentiments become most appealing to electorate as crisis conditions tend to create a general sentiment where countries would like to shut themselves off from external problems.

It is a good question if it will be sufficient to address these concerns so shortly before the EP elections to change people’s minds. As you know I have for some time held the view that it was very dangerous to have developed the policy agenda in response to the eurozone crisis as a predominantly elitist process which concentrated predominantly on reinstilling market confidence through fiscal austerity measures rather than to promote a comprehensive vision for the future of the EU which also addresses the grave social issues. The only sensible approach for mainstream politicians at this stage would be to try to expose the populist parties for their lack of coherent political agenda in terms of offering effective alternative policies. The problem is of course that most people have little concern about backing populist or radical parties in EP elections which they consider to have little impact on actual policy-making.

Jean-Yves CamusPolitical Analyst, Research Fellow, Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques (IRIS)

My answer is that there is a legitimate concern of the euroskeptic parties getting far more votes in this election than they ever managed to do since 1979 but on the other hand, I doubt that raising this issue would very much change the outcome of the vote.

According to me, the voters will cast their ballot according to two issues:

– the distrust of the mainstream, pro-EU parties
– their refusal of the austerity policies implemented by the EU, the IMF and the World Bank.

So, explaining that the anti-Eu parties do not offer any consistent alternative ( which by the way is true), does not hit the target.There will be a protest vote against the EU because it is an easy scapegoat for all the evils that befall on European countries, whether it is the economic crisis or the loss of national sovereignty, or immigration. At least in Western Europe, the idea of an integrated Europe does not make many people dream anymore.


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