The prospect of Eurosceptic parties performing strongly in European and national elections has haunted EU officials and pro-Europeans for the last 15 years.
Britain’s impending departure from the bloc, and the fact that the slow countdown to the next European elections in May 2019 is now underway, is focusing minds on how to avoid a repeat and, above all, how to understand what makes people Eurosceptic.
“Scepticism is good,” said Giles Pelayo, head of unit at the European Commission’s ‘Europe for Citizens’ programme at a EURACTIV event in Brussels. “Citizens should be the controllers (of the European project). It is right that they are very demanding,” he added.
But while UKIP, Marine Le Pen’s Front National and Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) are perhaps the most famous Eurosceptic parties in Europe, the phenomenon is just as prevalent in the EU’s newest members, particularly in Poland and Hungary, two states that openly defy Brussels’ authority.
“There were high expectations from the 2004-7 enlargement,” said Pavol Babos, co-leader of the ‘Comprehending and Debating Euroscepticism’ (CODES) project at Comenius University in Bratislava, which organised a series of local public meetings in Slovakia, Hungary, Germany, Austria, Bulgaria and Latvia.
Babos explained that voters “are no different in the west or east. What is different is the justification that they use.”
He said that people in the new accession countries had expected to quickly close their economic gap with their wealthy neighbours and have an equal voice at the EU table, and now feel that these expectations have not been met.
“It’s not just perception, it’s reality,” said Benedek Javor, a Hungarian Green MEP. “Whether it is just or not, we have to be aware of it”.
Javor added that the aftershocks from the 2007-8 financial crash, and the eurozone debt crisis that followed it, are still being felt and are a key factor in driving Euroscepticism and disillusionment.
“We went through a deep economic crisis and we are not fully out of it,” he said.
Luc Van den Brande, a special advisor to Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, pointed to “a lack of trust and antagonism between the EU and the national space”.
Several of his proposals centre around increasing awareness of European integration among young people.
“The European project and its history should be part of the education curriculum,” he said, adding that the Erasmus student exchange programme, one of the most popular and identifiable EU policies, could also be expanded to cover students and young people who are not at university.
Electing a group of MEPs via a transnational party list has long been touted as a means to develop a European ‘demos’ and prevent the European elections from being reduced to 27 separate national polls.
The concept is now being championed by French President Emmanuel Macron and appears to be closer than ever to becoming reality, although the European Parliament’s EPP faction torpedoed proposals to introduce a transnational list at next May’s elections.
“We should talk about European issues at European elections…but they tend to be about national politics so this concept of transnational lists… is interesting,” Mairead McGuiness MEP, Vice-President of the EPP group, told EURACTIV.
“I think it’s in its infancy…but it might get people thinking beyond national issues at European elections. The concept is well worth exploring,” she added.
The EPP group has hinted that it would support the introduction of a transnational list, but not until 2024.
With or without transnational lists and ‘Spitzenkandidaten’, nationalist and eurosceptic parties are set to perform well in May 2019. AfD, FN, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy, and the Swedish Democrats are all polling more strongly than they did five years ago.
But not everyone is gloomy about the future.
“The EU is far more resilient than tabloid headlines would have you believe, and the refugee crisis isn’t going to lead to the collapse of the European Union any time soon. But we can see from the results that crises do have an impact on citizen engagement,” said Josef Janning of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“We need to shift away from institutional integration and financial transfers between states, towards incentives that citizens can relate to more directly, like exchange programmes, or the abolition of roaming charges if we want to keep people engaged and supportive of the European Union.”