The results are in and the consensus view on last week’s elections to the European Parliament is that a rising tide of Euroscepticism washed across Europe. But among the hysteria that has accompanied the post-mortem of the election there are some more sober assessments that have pointed out the supposed electoral “earthquake” really only shook the ground in Denmark, France and the UK. Elsewhere, the performance of Eurosceptic parties was variable with some losing and others gaining a few percentage points of support compared to the last European Parliament elections in 2009. Even if we are to run with the ‘surge of Euroscepticism’ narrative then we at the very least need to acknowledge that this is a West, or “Old,” European phenomenon. In Central and Eastern Europe Eurosceptic parties found relatively little comfort in the elections, a point which many news organizations have overlooked.
Across Central and Eastern Europe anti-establishment Eurosceptic parties won around 5 percent of the total seats available in the 11 countries. We could also include the 12 seats won by Fidesz in Hungary, a party which sits with the center-right European People’s Party in the parliament but whose leader, Viktor Orbán, has expressed what he calls “Euro-realistic” rather than Eurosceptic views. This would take the proportion of seats held by Eurosceptic parties in Central and Eastern Europe to 11 percent which is not negligible but nor does it signal that the electoral earth moved in this part of the continent. Fidesz aside, the only Eurosceptic parties to emerge from the election with a reasonable share of the vote in the East are Jobbik (Hungary), Order and Justice (Lithuania), and the Congress of the New Right (KNP) in Poland. For Jobbik, the election was only a qualified success. The party received 14.7 percent of the vote but this represents a fall from the 20.5 percent share that it received just last month in the general election. On the other hand, the KNP can claim something of an electoral breakthrough in this year’s election having gained 7.1 percent of the vote compared to the 1.1 percent that the party received in the 2011 general election.
Both Jobbik and the KNP will represent a cause for concern for Europe’s progressives as members of both parties hold views that lie along a very narrow slither of the ideological spectrum, from the ultra-conservative to the extreme right. Jobbik have been accused of anti-Semitism, racism, and homophobia while KNP leader Janusz Korwen-Mikke is an avowed opponent of democracy who is prone to sexist remarks and holds the view that Hitler knew nothing of the Holocaust. It is perhaps unfair to bracket Lithuania’s Order and Justice with these two parties. Order and Justice, which gained 14.3 percent of the vote in the election, is a conservative party espousing “soft” Euroscepticism but despite past attempts to limit the public promotion of homosexual relations, the party does not share the anti-democratic and grossly intolerant attitudes of Jobbik or the KNP and it is unlikely that they would cooperate with these parties in the European Parliament.
So if the Eurosceptic “surge” didn’t reach Central and Eastern Europe which parties did do well? For the most part, it was business as usual as the leading parties continued to dominate proceedings. Governing parties in Bulgaria (GERB), Estonia (Estonian Reform Party), Hungary (Fidesz), Slovakia (Smer-SD), Poland (Civic Platform), and Romania (Social Democrats) all topped the polls though some will be happier than others. Smer could have expected to have gained an extra 1-2 seats based on opinion polls leading up to the election; Civic Platform on the other hand should be content that a solid campaign led to the party finishing ahead of Law and Justice who had been ahead in the opinion polls for most of the year. Arguably the most impressive performance by a single party in Central and Eastern Europe was Unity’s 46 percent share of the vote in the Latvian poll which represented an increase of 27 percentage points over their 2011 general election result. In Slovenia the primary opposition party, SDS, did not perform wildly beyond expectations but will be gratified to have finished the poll clear of their around 8.5 points clear of their nearest rivals with 25 percent of the vote. The leading party of the recently departed government, Positive Slovenia, suffered from the recent turmoil that resulted in the resignation of Prime Minister Alenka Bratusek and the party finished the election with just 6.6 percent of the vote, which was not enough for a seat in the European Parliament.
The absence of widespread Euroscepticism and the dominance of mainstream, broadly pro-European parties in Central and Eastern Europe should be some comfort to Europe’s democrats and moderates. But an equally large and potentially worrying challenge must be confronted: voter apathy. It is well-documented that European elections are second-order ballots that generally attract a lower turnout than national elections but the average for the 2014 elections in Central and Eastern Europe was just 28 percent, compared to 43 percent for Europe as a whole. In the worst case, turnout in Slovakia was 13 percent, which means that one party (Most-Híd) managed to win a seat with the votes of just 0.76 percent of the electorate.
Why turnout is so low in Central and Eastern Europe is an open question. The political elite in most countries are enthusiastic members of the EU and ordinary citizens generally look upon European political institutions more favourably than their own country’s institutions. Another explanation may lie in the extent to which Central and East Europeans feel they are integrated into the EU. Some countries have felt like marginal players in the politics of the Union over the last 10 years and even when given a chance to take a leading role, for example when handed the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, Central and East European states have been expected to conform to EU norms rather than seek to innovate. An exception may be Poland which is arguably the most integrated of the member states that joined from 2004. Since the election of Civic Platform in 2007 under the leadership of Donald Tusk, Poland has become a more prominent player in EU affairs and has taken a leading role in coordinating the EU’s response to the Ukraine crisis, led by foreign minister Radosław Sikorski. However, even in Poland turnout for the European elections was just 23 percent.
This all means that the European Parliament elections have resulted in very different challenges for Europe’s political elites in the East and West of the continent. In Central and Eastern Europe the challenges that European and national level policymakers need to address if the EU is to maintain its legitimacy come from complacency and apathy rather than Euroscepticism.