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A European shutdown? The 2014 European elections and the great recession

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This is a guest post by Cas Mudde, assistant professor in the Department of International Affairs of the University of Georgia. He is the author of Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2007) and co-editor of Populism in Europe and the Americas: Threat or Corrective for Democracy? (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

– Erik Voeten

The last weeks have seen a barrage of high-profile warnings of a “European populist backlash” in the international media. Among those warning the increasingly frustrated European population were the two most powerful EU politicians, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and European Parliament President Martin Schultz, as well as several prominent national politicians, including Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta and Dutch Deputy Prime Minister Lodewijk Asscher. The warnings were echoed by commentators like Julian Priestley, the former secretary-general of the European Parliament, who is now at the influential center-left think tank Policy Network, and even the editors of the New York Times.

Although they emphasize different so-called threats to European democracy, the main three points made in the various articles and interviews are: (1) The far right is gaining (strong) support because of the economic crisis; (2) “Anti-Europeans” are going to win big in the upcoming European elections; and (3) This could lead to a European “shutdown,” similar to the one recently experienced in the United States. While statements like these have been made for several years now, by EU President Herman van Rompuy in 2010 among others, they have been largely based on generalizations of specific elections results (notably the French and Greek parliamentary elections of 2012) or opinion polls (particularly in the Netherlands and in the United Kingdom).

It is difficult to test the statements in a truly scientific manner, if only because they are mostly based on predictions of an election almost seven months away, and many things can still happen that could change the outcome fundamentally. Instead, I simply assess them on the basis of the available information upon which, I assume, the various statements are based.

The idea that economic crises lead to a sharp rise in the support of far-right parties goes back to the German Weimar Republic (1918-1933) and the ascendance of Adolf Hitler’s German National Socialist Workers’ Party (NSDAP) following Black Tuesday of October 29, 1929. It has been the leading narrative of the Great Recession in Europe, backed up most recently by references to the electoral successes of the radical right Front National (FN) in the French presidential and parliamentary elections of 2012 and the shocking successes of the extreme right Golden Dawn party in the May and June Greek parliamentary elections of 2012. As I have argued in more detail elsewhere, these generalizations are highly problematic. If one compares the electoral results of far-right parties just before and during the current economic crisis, there are roughly as many examples of electoral gain as there are of electoral loss (see figure below).

In short, only 19 of the 28 EU member states have a far-right party that has gained over 1 percent of the vote in national elections in the period 2005-2013.  The far-right has gained votes in ten countries since the beginning of the economic crisis, although in only four was the difference relatively large, i.e. more than 5 percent (Austria, France, Hungary and Latvia). Against that stand nine countries with losses, of which three larger than 5 percent (Belgium, Italy and Slovakia). In other words, in only ten of the 28 EU member states (35 percent) did the far-right actually gain during the economic crisis and in a mere four (14 percent) were the gains relatively large, i.e. over 5 percent.

Based on the (largely misguided) idea that far-right parties are gaining as a consequence of the economic crisis, mainstream commentators and politicians are warning for a strong far-right presence in the next European Parliament. The next elections for the European Parliament will take place between 22 and 25 May 2014, during which period all 28 EU member states individually organize elections for their national representatives to the supranational legislature. While the specific electoral systems differ, almost all use some form of proportional representations, often combined with an electoral threshold (of 4 or 5 percent normally). The number of contested seats ranges from 6 (e.g. Luxembourg and Malta) to 97 (Germany); consequently, in countries with less than 20 seats the European threshold is (much) higher than 5 percent, which means that fewer parties make it into the European parliament than into the national parliament.

I have calculated the predicted seats of far-right parties in the next European Parliament on the basis of the most recent results in the national parliamentary elections – in all cases the last parliamentary election was during the economic crisis and in most countries it was in the past two years. While people vote differently in first-order (national) and second-order (e.g. European) elections, it is impossible to exactly predict what the effects are going to be. Although depending on the scheduling of the elections, second-order elections tend to have (much) lower turnout and (somewhat) higher protest voting. That said, the most striking differences between national and European results of far-right parties are caused by the fact that two of the largest countries use proportional representation in European elections but a plurality system in national elections (i.e. France and the United Kingdom).

Based on the results of the most recent national parliamentary elections far-right parties from 12 of the 28 EU member states would make it into the European Parliament. The far right would gain a total of 34 seats, which is roughly 4 percent of all EP seats. This rather poor result is mostly the results of three factors: (1) the far right is only relevant in just over half of all EU countries; (2) even in those countries they are generally a rather modest electoral factor; and (3) only one of those countries is a large EU state with many EP seats (France). Even if we base ourselves on the more favorable recent opinion polls, the results change little. With the FN at ca. 24 percent, the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV) at 15 percent, and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) at 10 percent, the total of far-right seats would go up to 50, or 6.5 percent of the European Parliament.

It is important to note that even if far-right parties will gain 50 seats, this does not mean that there will be a 50-seat strong far-right parliamentary group in the next European Parliament. While there have recently been unexpected overtures between Marine Le Pen (FN) and Geert Wilders (PVV), about collaboration in both the election campaign and the next EP, history has shown that far-right parties seldom work effectively together within the European arena. In several legislative periods they had either no official group, had a group that fell apart, or were divided over different (right-wing and far-right) parliamentary groups. A recent report on far-right politicians in the European Parliament, by the British think tank Counterpoint, concluded that there was much bark but little bite: “Our analysis suggests that the populist radical right focuses its role on gaining publicity rather than participating in policy-making activities in the European Parliament.”

Finally, commentators and politicians have warned for a ‘shutdown’ of the European Union, similar to the government shutdown in the United States last month. As they do admit, the EU and US work very differently and an EU ‘shutdown,’ if even possible through the isolated actions of the European Parliament, would have much less impact on the lives of Europeans than the US government shutdown had on Americans – in large part because the EU budget is still small compared to that of the member states, which are also largely responsible for most of the essential services. In any case, the main argument is that if the next parliament is going to be the most Eurosceptic European parliament ever, which is almost a certainty given the almost complete absence of (hard) Euroscepticism in previous parliaments, the European Parliament will be frustrated by obstinate ‘anti-European populists’ that prevent it from solving the issues of the day.

While it is not always clear who these “Eurosceptics” are, it is clear that they are “a well-diversified lot” (Schultz), and include far-right parties like the FN, far left parties like the Dutch Socialist Party and the Greek Syriza, (single-issue) Eurosceptics like The Finns and the Alternative for Germany (AfD), and sui generis protest parties like Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy. I have calculated their predicted seats in the next European Parliament on the basis of the same method, i.e. the most recent national parliamentary election, and come to the following results: the combined far left will get 38 seats (or ca. 5 percent), Eurosceptic parties 5 (ca. 1 percent), and protest parties 19 (or 3 percent), which is exclusively Grillo’s Five Star Movement. If we predict that the German AfD will get just above the 5 percent threshold in the European elections, because of lower turnout and the specificity of the European elections, and use the opinion poll results for the far-right, we get a total of 117 seats. This means that the ‘anti-European populists’ will occupy 15 percent of the seats in the European Parliament, a record for sure, but hardly a serious hindrance for the 85 percent of ‘responsible, pro-European’ MEPs.

To be sure, there are other so-called ‘soft’ Eurosceptics, like the British Conservatives and the Polish Law and Justice (PiS), who might get a bit more obstinate because of the backing of, or pressure from, the ‘hard’ Eurosceptics. Still, these mainstream Eurosceptics have been around for a while now and have never been truly obstructive forces. In short, while the upcoming European elections will undoubtedly see an unprecedented success for ‘anti-EU populist’ parties, the next European Parliament will remain a bastion of pro-EU and soft Eurosceptic forces, with all the power to enforce its will on the tiny minority of disorganized dissenters.