European Elections: Resurgence or Write-Off?

Florence Haegel (fr), head of Sciences Po’s Centre for European Studies and Comparative Politics, studies political parties and the process of politicisation. As part of the “Waiting for European Elections” lecture series, she analyses the challenges for future European elections. 

In your opinion, will these elections lead to a renewed interest in the European Union or a rejection of it? What does your research show?

Research has long shown that citizens of the member states feel a certain indifference rather than a desire to reject the European Union. Europe used to seem distant and complicated; we spoke very little about it in the daily course of our national and political lives. The fact that every five years Europe came up in each country’s national agenda, on the eve of European elections, did not change anything. Researchers found that two key moments in the EU’s history, the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht and the vote on the Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe in 2005, contributed greatly to a heightened critical current, even hostility towards the European project. This critical current is considered to be a means to draw citizens’ attention away from the debate over the technocratic and elitist nature of the institution. In reality, since the first European election, in 1979, the global rate of participation has decreased, even if the participation in each country may vary from election to election. In general, Eastern European countries (Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland) participate the least.  Despite profound dissension directed at the European project, as of yet this has not led European citizens to rise up against it on the occasion of the elections.  

After Brexit, do you see other countries asking to leave the European Union? 

The latest Eurobarometer survey, conducted in autumn 2018, indicate that in the light of the tense Brexit negotiations, European citizens are more likely than ever before to see the European Union in a positive guise. It seems that the uncertainty hanging in the air and the steadfastness of the EU in the saga provided them with reasons to be satisfied. On average, more than half of EU citizens stated that they would vote to remain in the European Union if they happened to be consulted on the matter. Nevertheless, the Italians and Czechs seem tempted by a vote to leave, and more Romanians, Greeks, Croatians, and Slovenians sympathise with Great Britain’s choice rather than condemn it. 

Populism tends to spread in many countries, even those outside of the European Union. Are there any features specific to European populism?

According to analysis, populism is a “thin ideology”, that is to say a heterogenous movement which constructs itself around the defence of “the People” against the elite. It can thus take various different forms and we see it manifested all over the world. Different variants have shot up on European soil. Furthermore, in the European parliament, those referred to as “right-wing populists” were up until now split into several groups. One of the challenges of the European elections is to figure out whether a united radical right will take shape. The Italian League has been working hard, trying to form closer ties with the Polish Law and Justice party - it is worthy of note that in the European Parliament the Polish are the fourth largest delegation in terms of numbers. But opinions differ on matters of migration and relations with Putin’s Russia, etc. 

Despite the reforms which have given more power to the Parliament, one of the main grievances put to the EU is its lack of democracy. Does that correspond to the reality of things? 

The status of the European Parliament has been, as a matter of fact, reinforced in several sectors: legislative, budgetary, as well as in the choice of commissioners and the president of the European Commission. But the imbalance between the Parliament and the Council remains a problem; the activities of the European Parliament remain secretive and out of sight. Opinions are difficult to decipher as the Parliament has a confusing method of organisation. The majorities vary according to subject matters, and people who might be interested in following votes or decisions can very easily get lost in a labyrinth of complex decisions. In France, Thomas Piketty and Stéphanie Hennette-Vauchez have proposed giving the Parliament a true role in budgetary matters, and that way strengthening its position. They also suggested that 80% of this Assembly in charge of the budget should come from national parliaments to bring the Strasbourg institution closer to the people. Contrastingly, the head of the AFD, the radical German right, advocates the removal of the Parliament altogether. At a time when the European Parliament is under the spotlight, because of its representative regime in the name of participative democracy, it is an easy target. 

Questions over migration seem to have strengthened citizens’ defiance. Is it one of the challenges which these elections must tackle?

Migration policy is under attack on two fronts. Such policies were at the very heart of the Brexit vote and the radical right will make it their battering ram throughout the campaign period. Even so, when one digs deeper into the details of things, we notice that no European leaders are in agreement over what solutions should be put into place. On the left, European policy is also strongly criticised as they restrict the application of the Stockholm convention over rights to seek asylum. In parallel with the migration wave coming from outside of Europe, it is also interesting to note that there is a great deal of inter-European migration. This is the case for Romania, in Poland, in the Baltic countries, and also in Italy. These countries are suffering as a result of the young who leave their homeland. The challenge of free movement, refugees, posted workers, and students, is today at the heart of Europe. 

You are in the process of organising several lectures on the European elections. Could you tell us a bit more about this?

Yes, the Centre for European Studies and Comparative Politics is organising in collaboration with the Paris School of International Affairs (PSIA), the School of Public Affairs, and the French Economic Observatory (OFCE), a lecture series called “Waiting for European Elections” which focuses on the challenges faced in the 2019 European Elections. The first one will take place on the 20th February, and will be focused on Brexit. Xavier Ragot, from OFCE, will lead discussion with John Burton, the former Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland, Fiona Hyslop, member of the Scottish Parliament and of the Scottish National Party, Kalypso Nicolaidis, Professor at the University of Oxford, and Colin Hay, Professor at Sciences Po. Three other lectures will follow every month up until the elections, we will tackle institutional questions, migration, and finally populism.

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