Rising Euroscepticism and the dominance of national interests

Second-rate elections in national contexts

The 2014 Euro­pean elec­tions were the first to be held after the rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the Lis­bon treaty, which increased the pow­ers of the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment in areas such as agri­cul­tur­al pol­i­cy, jus­tice and home affairs and finan­cial mat­ters (set­ting the EU’s bud­get). Despite this trans­fer of com­pe­tences, Euro­pean cit­i­zens did not show greater inter­est in or sup­port for EU pol­i­tics than in 2009 — when the pre­vi­ous Euro­pean Par­lia­ment elec­tions were held. Turnout remained much low­er than in nation­al elec­tions and Euroscep­tic par­ties gained ground in sev­er­al mem­ber states.

The failure to Europeanise the political debate

The cam­paign for the May 2014 Euro­pean elec­tions focused pri­mar­i­ly on nation­al issues. When Europe-wide top­ics were addressed, nation­al per­spec­tives and inter­ests pre­vailed in the debate. This was par­tic­u­lar­ly notice­able in the two most wide­ly dis­cussed Euro­pean-lev­el issues, the eco­nom­ic cri­sis and immi­gra­tion. In Italy, for instance, most polit­i­cal par­ties agreed that growth mea­sures should be tak­en at the Euro­pean lev­el and that oth­er EU mem­ber states should help Italy deal with the influx of immi­grants. The debate was con­fined to the nation­al are­na and, as no strong oppos­ing views were voiced, it was nei­ther live­ly nor rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the dif­fer­ent opin­ions that exist at EU lev­el on these issues.

With very few excep­tions, the EU-wide can­di­dates for the post of Pres­i­dent of the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion (or Spitzenkan­di­dat­en, as they were often referred to in the media) hard­ly played any role in nation­al debates. The Spitzenkan­di­dat­en had con­sid­er­able vis­i­bil­i­ty only in their coun­tries of ori­gin – Mar­tin Schulz in Ger­many, Jean-Claude Junck­er in Lux­em­bourg and Alex­is Tsipras in Greece — a fact that reflects the fail­ure of Euro­peanis­ing the debate on the elec­tion of the Pres­i­dent of the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion. The deci­sion of the Ger­man Chris­t­ian Demo­c­ra­t­ic Union to focus the cam­paign on the per­son­al­i­ty of Angela Merkel, rather than the Spitzenkan­di­dat it sup­port­ed (Jean-Claude Junck­er), is also symp­to­matic of this failure.

The data con­cern­ing turnout exposed wide­spread lack of inter­est in Euro­pean elec­tions. Only 42.5 per­cent of Euro­pean elec­tors went to vote. In most mem­ber states turnout was much low­er than in nation­al elec­tions. The only pos­i­tive note was that the decline in turnout at Euro­pean elec­tions, which had been steady from 1979 (62 per­cent) to 2009 (43 per­cent), seems to have stopped. How­ev­er, this obser­va­tion must be treat­ed with cau­tion. Com­pared to the 2009 Euro­pean elec­tions, turnout declined in 14 mem­ber states, stayed the same (with a vari­a­tion small­er than 1 per­cent) in anoth­er 6 and increased in 7 countries.[1] Fur­ther­more, in two of the coun­tries where turnout increased, hard Euroscep­tic par­ties (the Nation­al Front in France and Gold­en Dawn in Greece) and polit­i­cal forces that are very crit­i­cal of cur­rent EU eco­nom­ic poli­cies (Syriza in Greece) won the elections.

The turnout reached a his­toric low in Slo­va­kia (13 per­cent) and was very dis­ap­point­ing in most of the oth­er ‘new’ mem­ber states — 18.2 per­cent in the Czech Repub­lic, 23.8 per­cent in Poland, 24.5 per­cent in Slove­nia, 29 per­cent in Hun­gary and below 37 per­cent in all oth­er for­mer Sovi­et bloc coun­tries except for Lithua­nia.  Low turnout was a major issue also in some of the old­er mem­ber states, most notably the Unit­ed King­dom (35.4 per­cent, while it had reached 65 per­cent at the last nation­al elec­tions) and the Nether­lands (37.2 per­cent, as opposed to 74.6 per­cent at the last Dutch gen­er­al elections).

Weakness of mainstream pro-European parties

Elec­toral results high­light­ed the rel­a­tive weak­ness of main­stream pro-Euro­pean par­ties, name­ly the Social Democ­rats, the Chris­t­ian Democ­rats, the Greens and the Alliance of Lib­er­als and Democ­rats. Despite the slight increase in the num­ber of seats won (from 184 to 192 and 25.4 per­cent of votes), the results empha­sised the pro­tract­ed cri­sis of Euro­pean Social Democ­ra­cy, which has lost most of its tra­di­tion­al elec­torate of blue-col­lar work­ers and strug­gles to attract young voters.[2] Par­ties affil­i­at­ed to the Pro­gres­sive Alliance of Social­ists and Democ­rats (the Euro­pean group­ing of Social Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ties) won the elec­tions in only 4 coun­tries (Italy, Por­tu­gal, Roma­nia and Swe­den). In France, Spain and Greece – coun­tries with a sol­id Social Demo­c­ra­t­ic tra­di­tion – the Social Democ­rats suf­fered heavy defeats.

In for­mer Sovi­et bloc coun­tries, with the excep­tion of Roma­nia and (par­tial­ly) the Czech Repub­lic, Social Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ties are weak and mar­gin­al. This emerges clear­ly from an analy­sis of the vote in Poland and Hun­gary, coun­tries where the cen­tre-left was the main polit­i­cal force until the mid-2000s. Pol­ish and Hun­gar­i­an Social Democ­rats got respec­tive­ly 9.4 and 10.9 per­cent of the votes. Even in coun­tries where Social Democ­rats did not lose, such as Swe­den (24.2 per­cent, first par­ty at nation­al lev­el) and Ger­many (27.2 per­cent, sec­ond par­ty), the results were not par­tic­u­lar­ly encour­ag­ing in the light of the greater sup­port they enjoyed in the past. The excel­lent result of the Ital­ian Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty (near­ly 41 per­cent) con­sti­tut­ed an excep­tion in this con­text. How­ev­er, it is impor­tant to note that this par­ty does not come from the Euro­pean Social Demo­c­ra­t­ic tra­di­tion, as it was the result of a merg­er of Chris­t­ian Democ­rats and for­mer Communists.[3] There­fore, the Ital­ian case does not refute the argu­ment about the over­all, long-term decline of Euro­pean Social Democracy.

The Euro­pean People’s Par­ty (EPP — rep­re­sent­ing Euro­pean Chris­t­ian Democ­ra­cy) obtained the rel­a­tive major­i­ty in the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment (with 29 per­cent of the votes and 221 seats). How­ev­er, at a clos­er look, its result was far from suc­cess­ful. The par­ty lost 53 seats com­pared to the 2009 elec­tions (from 274 to 221). In the larg­er mem­ber states, Chris­t­ian Democ­rats won only in Ger­many and suf­fered defeats in France and Italy (in the Unit­ed King­dom, they have had no rep­re­sen­ta­tion since 2009). Although the People’s Par­ty remained the first polit­i­cal force in Spain, its per­for­mance can hard­ly be seen as a vic­to­ry, as it lost 2.6 mil­lion votes, one third of its seats in the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment (from 24 to 16) and 16 per­cent­age points com­pared to the 2009 Euro­pean elec­tions (from 42 to 26 percent).

Ulti­mate­ly, the Euro­pean People’s Par­ty was able to retain the rel­a­tive major­i­ty of votes and seats most­ly thanks to the over­all good results of affil­i­at­ed par­ties in East-Cen­tral Euro­pean mem­ber states (which per­formed much bet­ter than Social Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ties there). The EPP’s will­ing­ness to keep in its ranks a mot­ley com­po­si­tion of nation­al par­ties also played a key role in this respect. For instance, with­out the seats of Forza Italia (17) and the Hun­gar­i­an Fidesz (12) – which have very dif­fer­ent views from oth­er Chris­t­ian Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ties on key ques­tions such as the trans­fer of nation­al pow­ers to the EU lev­el and the com­mon cur­ren­cy – the Euro­pean People’s Par­ty would have lost its rel­a­tive majority.

The oth­er par­ty groups that large­ly sup­port cur­rent EU insti­tu­tion­al arrange­ments and poli­cies, the Alliance for Lib­er­als and Democ­rats for Europe (ALDE) and the Greens-Euro­pean Free Alliance, also lost a good share of their sup­port. The ALDE group saw its num­ber of seats dimin­ished from 85 to 67, with most of the loss­es occur­ring in the Unit­ed King­dom (11 seats lost) and Ger­many (8 seats lost).[4] In the new Euro­pean Par­lia­ment, the Greens have 7 seats less than in 2009; this is due most­ly to their poor result in France, where they only gained 6 seats (com­pared to 15 in 2009).

The rise of far-right parties

The 2014 Euro­pean elec­tions saw the rise of far-right par­ties, which won the elec­tions in two large mem­ber states, France and Britain. In France, the Nation­al Front received 24.7 per­cent of the votes (and 24 out France’s 74 seats in the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment) after run­ning a cam­paign that vir­u­lent­ly attacked the EU, the com­mon cur­ren­cy and immi­grants. On the oth­er side of the Chan­nel, the Unit­ed King­dom Inde­pen­dence Par­ty (UKIP) obtained a very sim­i­lar result: it was the first par­ty, with 24.5 per­cent of the votes and 24 seats. The cam­paign of UKIP includ­ed a gen­er­al­ized attack on the British polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment, includ­ing its posi­tion on Euro­pean issues (the par­ty advo­cates leav­ing the EU). Promi­nent British tabloids great­ly con­tributed to UKIP’s vic­to­ry by shar­ing and dis­sem­i­nat­ing the party’s view on the EU and on cur­tail­ing immi­gra­tion. Both in the Unit­ed King­dom and France, main­stream pro-EU par­ties were unable to for­mu­late a strong dis­course coun­ter­ing that of the far right on these key topics.

The far right also made con­sid­er­able advances in oth­er mem­ber states too. The extreme right par­ties Gold­en Dawn in Greece and Job­bik in Hun­gary obtained respec­tive­ly 9.4 and 14.6 per­cent of the votes. Both are deeply anti-EU, xeno­pho­bic and homo­pho­bic. Cam­paign­ing with an anti-immi­gra­tion and hard Euroscep­tic agen­da, the Dan­ish People’s par­ty (26.6 per­cent, first par­ty in Den­mark), the Aus­tri­an Free­dom Par­ty (19.7 per­cent) and the Swe­den Democ­rats (9.7 per­cent) increased their sup­port and strength­ened their rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment. On the oth­er hand, the Dutch Par­ty for Free­dom and the Ital­ian North­ern League obtained few­er votes than in the 2009 Euro­pean elec­tion. Over­all, pop­ulist, right-wing and far-right par­ties are much more strong­ly rep­re­sent­ed in the new Euro­pean Par­lia­ment: the Europe of Free­dom and Direct Democ­ra­cy group has 48 seats (17 more than in 2009), while the num­ber of non-attached mem­bers – who are almost exclu­sive­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the xeno­pho­bic far right – rose from 33 to 52.

The Left: successes and weaknesses

For the Par­ty of the Euro­pean Left, the elec­tions had a mod­er­ate­ly pos­i­tive out­come. Its num­ber of seats in the new Euro­pean Par­lia­ment will rise from 35 to 52 and an affil­i­at­ed par­ty, Syriza, has become the first polit­i­cal force in Greece. The Left achieved good results in some of the mem­ber states that were more affect­ed by the eco­nom­ic cri­sis, notably Spain (where it obtained 11 seats, com­pared to only 1 in 2009) and Ire­land. How­ev­er, with the excep­tion of the Czech Repub­lic, it has no MEPs from for­mer Sovi­et bloc coun­tries, where ex-Com­mu­nist and Social­ist par­ties under­went a process of trans­for­ma­tion after 1989 and joined the Pro­gres­sive Alliance of Social­ists and Democ­rats at the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment. The cam­paign of most par­ties affil­i­at­ed to the Euro­pean Left crit­i­cised pre­dom­i­nant EU eco­nom­ic and social poli­cies and took a lib­er­al stance on the issue of immi­gra­tion. Despite its strong crit­i­cism of some EU poli­cies, the Par­ty of the Euro­pean Left sup­ports Euro­pean inte­gra­tion and argues for a more social Europe.

Hard and soft Euroscepticism on the rise

Euroscep­ti­cism was a major fac­tor in the elec­tion cam­paign in numer­ous mem­ber states. In France and the Unit­ed King­dom, hard Euroscep­ti­cism (advo­cat­ing exit from the EU and the com­mon cur­ren­cy) was a key com­po­nent in the cam­paign of win­ning par­ties. As pre­vi­ous­ly shown, all suc­cess­ful extreme right par­ties reject the very idea of Euro­pean inte­gra­tion. More­over, soft­er forms of Euroscep­ti­cism have become much more wide­spread. Dur­ing the cri­sis, pub­lic opin­ion has gen­er­al­ly become more hos­tile or crit­i­cal of the EU, par­tic­u­lar­ly in South­ern Euro­pean mem­ber states. The Five Star Move­ment, now the sec­ond polit­i­cal force in Italy, pro­posed to hold a ref­er­en­dum on the country’s con­tin­ued mem­ber­ship of the Euro­zone. Rul­ing par­ties in Hun­gary, Latvia and Lithua­nia argued for a “Europe of the nation states” and opposed fur­ther trans­fers of sov­er­eign­ty to Brus­sels. In Swe­den, the con­cept of sub­sidiar­i­ty was a key top­ic in pre-elec­tion debates; politi­cians gen­er­al­ly agreed that EU insti­tu­tions should focus on the pol­i­cy areas where they are more effi­cient and leave oth­er fields with­in the com­pe­tence of mem­ber states. Final­ly, the very low turnout in East-Cen­tral Euro­pean mem­ber states high­light­ed the wide­spread indif­fer­ence of local vot­ers vis-à-vis the Euro­pean demo­c­ra­t­ic process.


The rise of Euroscep­ti­cism sent a seri­ous warn­ing to pol­i­cy-mak­ers in Brus­sels and main­stream pro-EU par­ties. As the Union strug­gles to recov­er from the eco­nom­ic cri­sis (near­ly 6 years after its incep­tion), a size­able part of the elec­torate overt­ly reject­ed the project of Euro­pean inte­gra­tion. This rejec­tion was par­tic­u­lar­ly explic­it in France and the Unit­ed King­dom, respec­tive­ly the sec­ond- and third-largest eco­nom­ic pow­ers in the EU. The Unit­ed King­dom also opposed the Spitzenkan­di­dat­en sys­tem for the elec­tion of the EU Com­mis­sion pres­i­dent. Due to British oppo­si­tion and to its fail­ure to gain demo­c­ra­t­ic legit­i­ma­cy, the sys­tem will need to be revised before the next Euro­pean elec­tions. The June 2014 Euro­pean Coun­cil has already high­light­ed this necessity.

Most impor­tant­ly, if no eco­nom­ic recov­ery takes place, Euroscep­tic par­ties may win nation­al elec­tions in key mem­ber states and reverse the inte­gra­tion process with­in the next few years. The Unit­ed King­dom may hold a ref­er­en­dum on EU mem­ber­ship in 2017. Also in 2017, the next French pres­i­den­tial elec­tion will take place; the prospect of a vic­to­ry of Marine Le Pen, the can­di­date of the far right and Euroscep­tic Nation­al Front, is no longer unre­al­is­tic. Until then, the already frail sup­port for pro-EU gov­ern­ments in South­ern Euro­pean mem­ber states (such as Spain and Italy) will have dis­ap­peared, unless they man­age to curb unem­ploy­ment and restart the economy.

This sur­vey was con­duct­ed on the basis of a ques­tion­naire that has been elab­o­rat­ed in March 2014. Most of the reports were deliv­ered in June 2014. This issue and all pre­vi­ous issues are avail­able on the EU-28 Watch web­site: www.eu-28watch.org.

The EU-28 Watch No. 10 receives sig­nif­i­cant fund­ing from the Otto Wolff-Foun­da­tion, Cologne, in the frame­work of the ‘Dia­log Europa der Otto Wolff-Stiftung’, and finan­cial sup­port from the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion. The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion is not respon­si­ble for any use that may be made of the infor­ma­tion con­tained therein.