The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The real effects of the European elections may be felt in London and Edinburgh rather than in Brussels

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).

If anyone has still missed it, despite the onslaught of media attention, there will be European elections this year. Between May 22 and 25, 2014, more than 300 million citizens of the 28 member states of the European Union are eligible to vote for their (national) representative in the European Parliament in Brussels (and Strasbourg). For months now high-ranking E.U. and national politicians have been warning us for the “European populist backlash” that will unleash in May. Europhiles and Europhobes seem to agree on just one thing: the upcoming European elections are going to be crucial to the future of the European Union. ‘If the “anti-European populists” will win the elections, the European Union is doomed,’ is the message coming out of the ivory towers of Brussels. ‘If we win the European elections, the nation states are saved,’ is the message from the ‘anti-European populists.’

Both camps grossly exaggerate the importance of the upcoming elections for the functioning of the European Union. While the role of the European Parliament (EP) has grown significantly in the past decades, and particularly with the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, the European Parliament remains the weakest link in the E.U. power triangle.  Although it has now become a co-lawmaker, the political agenda is still mainly set by the European Commission and approved by the European Council. Consequently, as the late Peter Mair already noted in a seminal article (pay wall) in 2000, the paradox of E.U. politics is that if you want to influence the European level, you have to vote in national elections. After all, it is at the national level that the members of the European Council and the European Commission are decided. In that sense, the 2013 German parliamentary elections were probably more important for E.U. politics than the 2014 European elections will be.

In a similar paradox, the importance of the European elections will not so much be at the European level, but at the national level of some E.U. member states. Journalists and politicians use the European elections often as a barometer of public opinion. In countries with national elections within roughly a year of May 2014, the national results of the European elections, and particularly the interpretation of them by the media, will be taken as indicators for the upcoming campaign to fight of new challengers and (re)gain volatile electorates. This will be the case in Hungary, which holds national elections on June 30 (although recent changes to the election laws have made these a shoo-in for the ruling Fidesz party), and Sweden, where parliamentary elections are scheduled for Sept. 14.

Of most importance to the future of Europe, however, will be British parliamentary elections, currently scheduled for May 7, 2015. Fighting off a Europhile coalition partner (the LibDems) on the one side, and an anti-EU opposition party on steroids (UKIP) on the other, the ruling Conservative Party is even more divided over its E.U. course than ever before. Both the Europhile and the Europhobe factions within the party are awaiting the European elections with great anticipation, hoping to find electoral arguments to pull the Conservative Party more clearly toward their position.

And this time around their E.U. position is not just important for the further development of E.U. policies, because it could influence the next British government. Even more importantly, it could also be a crucial factor in the Scottish independence referendum of Sept. 18, 2014. With the Scots being much more left-wing and more pro-E.U. than the English majority of the British population, “English euroscepticism could doom the Union.” With the gap closing, and proponents of Scottish independence only 9 percent behind opponents, an even stronger Tory Euroskepticism could sway Scots to exchange a Euroskeptic Britain, increasingly marginalized within the European Union, for a solidly pro-European Union independent Scotland.

And the European ramifications of Scottish independence go well beyond those of a possible one-third minority of ‘anti-European populists’ in the European Parliament. While it is an exaggeration to predict a “re-balkanization of Europe”, there is no doubt that the Scottish referendum will have consequences for other E.U. member states. For example, Belgium is feeling the pressure of the increasingly popular and radical separatist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), the most popular party within the Dutch-speaking part of Flanders, while Spain has been confronted with mass demonstrations in favor of Basque and Catalan independence. So far the national elites have tried to stave off separatist claims by arguing that the new states would be too small to survive economically and that the European Union will not allow them to join as independent states. But if Scotland can pull it off, this important argument will have run its course.