Despite austerity-led frustration, participants in next year’s EU elections must be aware that voting eurosceptics into the European Parliament may have important knock-on effects for EU legislation, including on border issues and the environment, say the authors of a new report.
The report, ’10 votes that shaped the 7th European Parliament’, by transparency group VoteWatch, breaks MEP voting habits down by political group and nationality, revealing the trends that have shaped the current Parliament and threaten to fracture the next.
The Treaty of Lisbon, which entered into force in December 2009, gave the European Parliament more power to shape EU rules. To Votewatch chair Simon Hix, MEPs now matter.
The paper aims to “make the case that the make-up of the Parliament matters, the number of seats for each political group is important and how cohesive they are within groups and the sorts of coalitions that form,” he told media at the launch in Brussels.
The report found that in the current Parliament MEPs voting habits conformed more to their EU political family party line than calls from their national electorate. The authors found “classic” left-right divides on the contentious issues outlined in the report, such as tax on financial transactions and CO2 emissions and trade.
‘Wave of eurosceptics’
“My belief is that we will see a rise in eurosceptic votes,” Hix said, referring to strong surges by anti-European groups and poor performance of socialists in national opinion polls.
“Coalitions that we may think of as stable now may be very different with a different make-up of the Parliament in the future. If more anti-European than pro-European forces are in the Parliament, we could see a strong effect.”
This might pose problems for the other major EU institutions. “It is difficult to see how the European Commission and the Council are going to respond to what might a wave of euroscepticism,” he said.
As eurosceptics usually belong to parties on the far-right, this could have knock-on effects for key pieces of European legislation.
One issue may be the EU rules permitting the free movement of persons. Hix, a European politics professor at the London School of Economics, thinks that future eurosceptic MEPs may find scope to return EU rules on the free movement of persons to the movement of labour.
With EU unemployment at a record high, eurosceptic politicians have sought political gains by pledging to tighten up border controls.
“We could see on the agenda the issue of the free movement of labour, which became persons, as the treaties say,” Hix stressed.
Euroscepticism may also leave its mark on the environment, one of the most divisive issues in the current Parliament, Hix said. According to the report, MEPs have made more amendments to environmental proposals than to any other pieces of legislation.
“This may well be seen in environmental issues, with groups opposed to ‘European interference’ on these issues,” Hix said.
Sanjeev Kumar, of the environmental consultancy E3, said: “As an environmentalist I am very worried about the next Parliament, with eurosceptics dominating the opinion polls.”
Kathalijne Buitenweg, a VoteWatch board member and former Green MEP for the Netherlands, said the potential effects of rising anti-European sentiment in the next Parliament were difficult to predict. “Not all anti-Europeans have the same ideas. When you see them Europeanised you may see some different ideas.”
Kathalijne Buitenweg, a VoteWatch board member and former Green MEP for the Netherlands, said, referring to the report: "It may seem obvious when you're working the Parliament that you're working within ideological groups but that whole idea has never come home in the Netherlands. It is interesting not a whole national delegation deviates form the party line but individuals, maybe because they are in another committee or something."
Votewatch policy director Doru Frantescu said part of the value of the report was that it allows voters to better choose their allegiances in the 2014 European elections by laying out what the political groups "stood for in the past".
He added that for voters in Eastern Europe, the main issues were the European budget and subsidies for the region coming under EU cohesion policy.
Eurosceptics are citizens or politicians who present themselves as ‘sceptical’ - critical - of the union which they say takes powers away from their national government and poses a threat to their national sovereignty.
Political analysts refer to two forms of euroscepticism - ‘hard’ and ‘soft’.
‘Hard’ or ‘withdrawalist’ euroscepticism is the opposition to membership or the existence of the EU. The European Parliament’s Europe of Freedom and Democracy group, which includes the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), is hard eurosceptic.
‘Soft’ or ‘reformist’ euroscepticism supports the existence of the EU and membership to the Union, but opposes further integrationist EU policies and the idea of a federal Europe. The European Conservatives and Reformists group, including the British Conservative Party and the European United Left-Nordic Green Left alliance, can be described as soft eurosceptics.
- 22-25 May 2014: European Elections