A sideshow, or a showdown? Sussex political experts examine the impact of the European elections

With the European election campaigns now entering their final stretch before next week’s voting, Professor Aleks Szczerbiak and Professor Paul Taggart, conveners of Sussex European Institute’s  European Parties Elections & Referendums Network, predict the likely winners and losers, review the rise in extremism and protest votes, and question just how ‘European’ the elections really are.

Q: How does the average UK voter view the European Parliamentary elections? And how might this view differ/coincide with the opinions of voters across the EU?

A:The European Parliament (EP) elections in the UK are not high on the radar of British voters except as a way of firing the starting pistol for the UK general election next year. They are little more than a sideshow for most voters. As a result we know that turnout will be low as the UK has never had as much as 40% in the past. What is different about the UK is that the issue of EU membership is a live issue of domestic politics more than it is in any other EU member state. While we can see the growth of other Eurosceptic parties and debates about European integration in other member states, the debates are more about European economic issues than about membership. In addition, the UK has the most sustained levels of public hostility to the EU than any other member state, but this does not necessarily mean that these levels of hostility will translate into high EP election turnout.

Q: What will the UK government/opposition be hoping for from the Election results? 

A: The government and the opposition will want different things from the result. Both parties in the coalition will be hoping to minimise their loss of support and to see UKIP not meet the expectations of some that it can gain the highest percentage of the vote. The Conservatives fear UKIP because much of the support comes from Conservative voters, while the Liberal Democrats as an instinctively pro-European party will want to see the anti-European sentiments dampened down. For the Labour Party, the EP elections will be seen as an opportunity to test their appeal as the challenger to the UK governing parties and would benefit from an expanded UKIP vote that will damage the government parties.

Q: Who is likely to do well in the European elections this time round? Will the protest vote rise to the fore? And protest about what?

A: EP elections are, like local government polls, what political scientists call ‘second order’ elections. Voters know that the composition of the next government is not at stake so often use them to cast a cost-free mid-term ‘protest vote’. People are sometimes protesting against their incumbent governing parties, because it is carrying out unpopular measures, or simply because they want to give it a ‘kick’, so they often vote for opposition parties in ‘second order’ elections. But sometimes they want to give a ‘kick’ to the whole political establishment whom they feel distant from, particularly now that the policy differences between centre-left and centre-right parties are more difficult to discern and the links between parties and their voters are much weaker than before, making electorates more ‘open’ and volatile.

This is why fringe and minor parties, including those on the radical right and left, often perform disproportionately well in EP elections. They are likely to do so again this time around and so we can expect minor, protest and radical parties to perform well. There is some evidence that these parties will increase their vote but this will be to do with the circumstances in particular countries rather than representing some kind of pan-European trend, and many of these voters often return to the main, centrist parties at national elections. We should also be careful because the media (and some political scientists, to be fair) often focus on those countries where radical parties have done well but don’t report those where they have continued to vote for mainstream parties or where radical parties have done well in the past but their support has collapsed (as, say, is likely to be the case with the British National Party [BNP]).

The only real ‘trend’ here is that the links between parties and their voters are much weaker so that they are much more vulnerable to the emergence of protest parties, especially in ‘second order’ polls. So in Britain, we can expect the Labour Party, as the main opposition party, to do well, and UKIP, which has done well in last few EP elections as a strong repository for protest voters and has strengthened its position in recent years, to also perform very strongly. One of these two will almost certainly emerge as the largest party in the UK EP election.

Q:Who is not likely to do well?

A: Again, this will vary from country-to-country. Given the ‘second order’ character of these elections, incumbent governing parties are likely to do badly - although this depends on whereabouts in the electoral cycle they are. Newly elected governing parties often get a ‘bounce’ immediately after their election to office even in second-order polls - this happened to the British Conservatives in the May 2011 UK local elections, for example, and could well be the case for Angela Merkel’s German Christian Democrats who were re-elected last September – but then lose support and perform badly in mid-term polls because many of their supporters stay at home while opposition voters are more motivated to turn out.

As you approach the next national election, supporters tend to return to the governing parties even if not necessarily in the same numbers as before. In the UK, therefore, both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are likely to take a hammering this time around; especially the Liberal Democrats many of whose left-of-centre supporters are still angry with them for entering a coalition government with David Cameron and supporting policies like the introduction of full-cost University tuition fees. Indeed, more broadly there is evidence that liberal parties are likely to do especially badly across Europe and that the liberal EP party grouping, which has played a pivotal role in previous parliaments, could possibly even lose its status as the EP’s third force, although this is looking less likely now than at the beginning of the campaign.

Q: What are the main issues exercising candidates in the elections? What do their interests tell us about the state of the Union?

A: One of the most striking things about EP elections is that they are not actually very ‘European’. You might expect them to be as they are the only EU-wide elections to a European institution, but given the lack of what political scientists term a ‘European polity’ (a political community where citizens identify as much with Europe and European institutions as they do with their own state), the EP election is actually a series of 28 national elections. Moreover, research conducted by the SEI-based European Parties Elections and Referendums Network (EPERN) shows that it is very rare indeed for European integration to be a salient issue - one that parties campaign on and determines how people vote - in any election, even European ones. The issues in this election are likely to be whatever are the main issues are in that particular country, so it Britain it is likely to be the economy and immigration but in other countries it could be something completely different.

One might have expected it to be a bit different this time. Given the importance of the euro zone crisis  and current European-wide economic problems, there is a chance that ‘Europe’ may emerge as a much more substantial issue in its own right this time around. But we need to be clear that the nature of the economic crisis in general, and the euro issue specifically, are highly differentiated and dependent upon the country context. The fact that voters in, say, Greece and Germany may use the elections to pass judgement on the impact of ‘the European issue’ in their countries does not mean that they will be passing the same judgement or even judging the same policies.

As a consequence, it is very difficult to draw conclusions about the state of the Union from EP elections, except in two senses. Firstly, most voters view EU institutions as part of the political establishment, so any votes for protest parties can reasonably be assumed to be at least in part a protest against these institutions, although not necessarily a specifically anti-EU one. Secondly, the very low turnout that we are once again likely to see in these elections will remind us how little connection voters feel with the EP; and, therefore, how problematic an instrument it is in terms for tackling the EU’s so-called ‘democratic deficit’.

Q:Just how important is the rise of extremism in European politics? How might this be reflected in the European elections?

A: There is certainly a slew of parties that have taken positions designed to be at the extremes of their national politics. The economic crisis has combined with a growing distrust in politics in general to provide a fertile ground for parties of protest and in some case for parties of extremism. We can see extremism growing in parties such as Jobbik in Hungary and Golden Dawn in Greece. But, in a way, the stronger force is a politics of protest where parties do not challenge the basic norms of democracy but rather attack the established forces of politics. We can see this in the Freedom Party in the Netherlands, the Front National in France, the Alternative for Germany, the Danish People’s Party, the Finns in Finland, the Freedom Party in Austria and in UKIP in the UK. These are the parties that are likely to garner relatively high levels of the vote in the EP elections. But we also can expect that they will find it hard to co-operate together once in the EP as these parties, unlike the established political party ‘families’, have great difficulty maintaining sustainable cross-national groupings.

Q: Do you think these elections will show Europe as more integrated, or more prone to schism in future times?

A: The elections will show quite a diverse picture. We know that different member states have different reactions to the EU and they start from different positions. There will be a temptation to look for EU-wide trends but these sorts of perspectives tend to be very selective and only look at the spectacular examples and ignore cases that do not fit the trend. With 28 states, we know we will see diversity. With a growing EU there is the increased likelihood of schisms but, at the same time, with the larger scale comes the decreasing importance of schisms. In many ways, we already have a number of different ‘Europes’ within the EU (e.g. the Eurozone, the Schengen free movement area).

Q: Is Green politics in Europe a spent force - or does Europe remain the movement's most important platform?

A: The Greens are well entrenched niche parties in a number of European countries (although they are very weak in the post-communist states in central and Eastern Europe) – and in some of these (such as France) they are also governing parties. In the outgoing EP, most Green MEPs were in a caucus with regionalist parties which was the fourth largest after the Christian Democrats, social democrats and liberals, although some of the Scandinavian Greens were in an EP grouping with the radical left. As minor (originally protest) parties they have often done well in EP elections, although where they have been governing parties they have suffered electorally along with other incumbents (this is likely to happen to the French Greens this time around, for example).

In the UK, the Greens had their first electoral breakthrough in the 1989 EP election when they finished third with 15% of the vote, although due to Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system this did not translate into any MEPs. When a more proportional EP voting system was introduced in 1999, the Greens won EP seats, including Caroline Lucas - who is, of course, now our local MP. Ms Lucas used her EP electoral success as a springboard to win election to the UK parliament in 2010 and the local Green party did the same to win control of Brighton and Hove Council the next year (the Greens won the most votes across the city in the previous 2009 EP election). However, this time around, in Brighton and Hove at least, the local Greens could find themselves on the end of a ‘second-order election’ protest as they are seen as the ‘incumbents’ in terms of local politics, and evidence from local opinion polls and by-elections suggests that their support has declined considerably since they took office three years ago.

By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Tuesday, 13 May 2014