The upcoming European elections might turn Brussels into a playground for populists,where the Commission will live in fear of a self-hating parliament, which will not only undermine the EU, but it could also sap the legitimacy of national politics, writes Mark Leonard.
Mark Leonard is the Co-Founderand Directorof the European Council on Foreign Relations, the first pan-European think-tank. This op-ed was first published on Reuters.
"Some are talking about the alliance last week of France’s national front leader Marine Le Pen and the Dutch populist Geert Wilders as a European Tea Party. Whether or not these two are functioning as Europe’s answer to Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz, their anti-EU policies are aimed at forming a broader alliance with parties in other member states.
The Eurosceptic bloc could be more damaging than the Tea Party. Tea Partiers are keen to get government out of peoples’ lives, but they don’t oppose the very existence of the union or of U.S. Congress. The Eurosceptics do not support the existence of the EU and by extension they oppose the European Parliament, into which they are seeking election. If, as polls predict, Eurosceptics emerge with strong support, we may see a “self-hating Parliament” that ultimately wants to secure its own abolition.
Le Pen and Wilders describe the alliance as the “start of the liberation of Europe from the monster of Brussels”. The European Parliament has the power to block the appointment of the European Commission (the EU’s main executive body), to veto the majority of European legislation, to block the signature of international treaties and trade agreements and even to hold up the EU’s annual budget.
There is some doubt about the seriousness of the Eurosceptic movement. International affairs analyst Cas Mudde, in a recent piece for the Washington Post, argued that talk of an EU legislative shutdown is overblown. Using the most recent national election results as a guide, Mudde predicts that Eurosceptic parties of left and right will win a mere 15 percent of the total seats.
There are reasons to doubt Mudde’s use of electoral results in general elections to predict European elections. European Union elections do not result in the election of a government. For most voters, the elections are a poll without consequence; a chance to vent their grievances. Opinion surveys give a different answer – showing Eurosceptic parties potentially topping the polls for the elections in many of Europe’s bigger member states. Le Pen promises to do well in France, the UK Independence Party in the UK, Wilders in the Netherlands, Beppe Grillo¹s 5-Star Movement in Italy, and leftist Syriza in Greece. Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, which narrowly failed to get a seat in the national parliament, might end up in double digits in the European poll.
The surge of Eurosceptic parties has hardened the approach of previously mainstream parties on the European issue. It is hard to distinguish between the policy positions of the British Conservative Party or the Polish Law and Justice Party (PIS) from UK Independence Party. The UKIP leader Nigel Farage said to me in a telephone interview that his goal is as much to change the position of mainstream parties as to win power himself: “The success or failure of UKIP is in the hands of the other parties,” he said. “If, for example, the Labour and Conservative parties came to those positions, the electoral appeal of UKIP will diminish. But UKIP would… have changed the political agenda.”
The other point in Mudde’s Washington Post piece is that the Eurosceptic parties are divided among themselves. Wilders and Le Pen may talk about uniting, however, leaders like Farage, as well as parties like The Finns and Alternative für Deutschland, have succeeded in breaking the link between themselves and the Neo-Nazi movements of the far-right.
Farage stresses his ideological differences with Le Pen’s National Front. However, he does not rule out the idea of tactical cooperation. In our interview he said, “The big [prize] would be the ability of the European Parliament to reject the European Commission. If the Parliament said, ‘we reject this commission because they believe in ever closer union,’ it would be huge. Given the way the EU is constructed, the Parliament could effectively bring the whole project into chaos if it wanted to.”
Even more dangerous to the EU project is the way that the mainstream parties will unite to fight a strong anti-European caucus. In order to face down the Eurosceptics, there is a danger that social democrats and liberals in the European Parliament will huddle in a “Europe Cartel” – thereby losing the ability to articulate real differences about the future direction of Europe. This would create a situation where the main political cleavages in Europe are between pro-European elite and Eurosceptic populists, rather than between left-wing and right-wing visions of Europe.
Eurosceptics claim that the EU is a project pursued by out-of-touch elites at the expense of the citizens. There is now a danger that the pro-European parties will prove them right. Just look at Austria, Finland, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany and you will find the old “mainstream” parties huddling together in pro-European coalitions. Their goal is admirable, to save the euro, but the effect has been that parliamentary majorities suck the political life out of Europe rather than use political arguments to defeat the Eurosceptics.
The result may be that the traditional dynamic at the core of European integration is turned on its head. In the past, it was assumed that Brussels was the capital of technocracy and bureaucracy, while the national sphere was rife with politics and populism. With the European elections, the game will be reversed. Brussels will become a playground for populists – with the European Commission living in fear of the destroyers in the European Parliament – while the European Council of heads of state and government is run by a “Europe Cartel.” The danger is that a self-hating parliament will not only undermine the EU – it could sap the legitimacy of national politics as well."