Recently, the Dutch Parliament has discussed a citizens’ initiative that calls upon the legislators to stop the creeping transfer of national powers to Brussels and demands a referendum on major EU decisions such as the ones taken in the framework of tackling the euro crisis. While not all the traditional parties are in principle against a popular vote, they rejected holding a plebiscite now. The left wing populist political group, the Socialist Party (SP), however wholeheartedly supported the initiative. The PVV (Party of Freedom) of Geert Wilders went even a step further by insisting that a referendum on EU membership as such should be held as soon as possible.
And it is exactly these two parties at the political fringes that are currently leading in the opinion polls and are expected to do very well in the upcoming European elections. For the time being, the referendum is off the table in the Netherlands, but soon new legislation will allow citizens to demand a corrective referendum (on laws and regulations already adopted) if they collect at least 300.000 signatures. This change in the constitution was initiated by the progressive parties and is supported by a majority in parliament. One shouldn’t forget that the EU debate in the Netherlands has become very much linked to referenda. The first time in 200 years that the Dutch citizens could directly give their opinion on a legislative proposal was in 2005 – the outcome was a rejection of the EU Constitutional Treaty by 61% of the voters.
While the traditional party families in a joint effort plan to make the upcoming European elections more attractive and democratic by fielding their own candidates for the presidency of the European Commission and to give faces to the their campaigns, things are also happening on the fringes. Support for right and left wing populist parties has grown all over Europe, as have referendum movements. Some predict that populist Eurosceptic groups will occupy 40% of the seats in the European Parliament after the May elections. This seems a wild exaggeration not based on facts – unless one would include in these ranks Euro-critical parties such as the British Tories or the Dutch conservative-liberals.
A snapshot of the present situation in the EU member states shows strong support for left wing, anti-EU parties in Greece (SYRIZA), The Netherlands (SP) and France (Radical Left) for example. Right-wing (and often xenophobic) anti-EU parties manifest themselves in The Netherlands (PVV), France (FN), Sweden (SD), Denmark (DP), Greece (Golden Dawn), Germany (AfD), Italy (LN), UK (UKIP), Austria (FPÖ) and in some new member states like Jobbik in Hungary and Ataka in Bulgaria. It is unlikely that all of them together would ever get near 40% of EP seats since opinion polls do not justify this figure and it is unclear how the predicted low turnout will in the end affect their results.
Moreover, they will certainly not join forces in the European Parliament given the substantive differences between and even among the right wing and left wing populists who will end up in different camps after the European elections. The suggestion that these parties will figure as the Brussels tea party is therefore also somewhat misleading. Consider the situation on the right flank: Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen have the intention to form a joint fraction in the future EP but some important anti-EU parties like UKIP distance themselves from this initiative. Though they will not create a joint political bloc, the anti-Europeans will probably be a force to reckon with by having great nuisance power.
Traditional Parties Will Have a Difficult Time In The Upcoming European Elections
The traditional parties will have a difficult time during the upcoming election battle, as criticism of the EU will be louder and have more popular support than ever before. A sceptical electorate, blaming the EU for the social and economic crisis, might turn away from the parties that they hold responsible and vote for those that carry no responsibility at all. The battle ground is no longer exclusively defined by conservatives, liberals, social democrats or greens, but – more than in the past – also by the parties operating on their fringes exploiting anti-European sentiments.
There is a real risk that the debates will not be about what kind of Europe (eg. neoliberal versus social democratic model), but whether there should be an EU at all. This will force the traditional parties into the pro-European corner defending the status quo while the populist anti-EU politicians can call for abandoning the whole idea of European integration. Such a negative frame will put the traditional European political families exclusively on the defensive and hamper their efforts to highlight the substantive differences between them and their candidates for the presidency of the European Commission.
Besides the battle between the major parties now dominating the EP, and the contest between the pro’s and the con’s, there will be a third front: the struggle to overcome the differences within the political families. How to reconcile the Dutch conservative VVD with the liberal candidate for the presidency of the European Commission Guy Verhofstad, a man openly striving for the federalisation of the European Union; how to bridge the gap between left-wing PASOK leader and Greek deputy Prime Minister Evangelos Venizelos and Eurogroup chair Jeroen Dijsselbloem of the Dutch Labour party? The national parties belonging to the same political families are also divided about the question of how to confront the populist threat: total isolation, strong opposition or adopting elements of their agenda in order to lure away voters?
It is obvious that the last point will have to be dealt with first. A joint agenda and strategy will have to be developed by the traditional party families. This will demand some flexibility in order to allow for differences under the same general heading. The danger is of course that vague compromise texts will be produced instead of clear messages on where the European parties stand on major issues and how they want to confront the outright anti-Europeans. We have seen this in the past – certainly also in the case of the socialists and social democrats. Hopefully this time they feel the urgency to make a difference and produce a clear and concrete message instead of leaving the public with the feeling that the emperor wears no clothes, and that there is no real choice. Then Martin Schulz, the candidate of the PES, can do what he is good at: speak clear language as he has recently shown at the SPD conference.
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