On May 25, Europeans will elect their 751 MEPs. This 8th Europe-wide election will likely see the rise of Eurosceptics, nationalists, and far-right politics. In countries like France, the UK and Hungary, anti-EU parties lead second in the polls, with their share of the vote higher than in 2009. Over the past few months, Front National's leader, Marine Le Pen, has been talking about building alliances for this election, in order to eventually form a Eurosceptic group. Will the EP 2014 elections be the dawn of hard Euroscepticism? Albeit popular discontent towards EU policies, don't expect to see an irreparable earthquake on May 25th.
Euroscepticism or Euroscepticisms?
Although populist groups and parties underlined Euroscepticism's presence in the past years, it is nothing of a new phenomenon. Euroscepticism has been around European politics more or less since the EU's inception. The UK is renowned to be the birthplace of the term, where it was first coined in the mid-1980s. Margaret Thatcher's 1988 Bruges speech marks a turning point. As a response to Jacques Delors' pledge for closer economic and political co-operation, Thatcher's speech sparked collective reflections on the pros and cons of European integration (see Usherwood and Startin 2013).
Since the enactment of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, Euroscepticism slowly drifted away from being an elite-driven phenomenon to being more popular and society-centered. As a matter of fact, the rise of plebiscitary politics (e.g. Dutch and French rejection by referendum of the 2005 Constitution), the progressive transfer of competences from the national to the European level, and the creation of a single currency put the EU legitimacy debate at the forefront of European politics (see Vasilopoulou 2013).
In the aftermath of the recent economic recession, populist parties gained momentum, building their rhetoric on popular anger and despair. Greece's Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi party, secured 6,92% of the vote in the June 2012 parliamentary elections, gaining 18 seats. Thankfully, this is not the case for all Europe.
In their 2002 study on the Party Politics of Euroscepticism, Paul Taggart and Aleks Szczerbiak distinguish between two groups of Euroscepticisms : hard Euroscepticism and soft Euroscepticism. The former represents a principled opposition to the EU, while the latter points out to policy concerns regarding certain aspects of the EU. Drawing up on Taggart and Szczerbiak's study, Vasilopoulou (2011) identifies three patterns of Euroscepticism. The most radical parties reject outright any form of European cooperation, while more moderate ones oppose the current state of EU cooperation and share divergent views on the future EU polity.
Today, MEPs are organized into seven political groups. A political group comprises a minimum of 25 members from at least seven EU countries. Of those seven groups, three are home to Eurosceptics: European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR), Confederal Group of the European United Left - Nordic Green Left (GUE-NGL), and the Europe of Freedom and Democracy Group (EFD). The 2009 legislature has also 33 non-attached members (that don't belong to any group), among whom some are staunch Eurosceptics. The GUE-NGL is composed of leftist members more or less opposed to the current EU structure, but committed to integration. ECR and EFD are also home to soft Eurosceptics, with the exception probably being the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), supporter of a UK exit from the EU.
Therefore, it is not surprising that Marine Le Pen wants to form a new political group of hard Eurosceptics. The question is: will the far-right folks from seven countries be able to work together, and will they be able to significantly upset the day-to-day activities of the EP?
Unlikely to succeed
If we look at the PollWatch poll numbers released on April 23, we note that far-right parties and Eurosceptics are on the rise. In France, the Front National is expected to win 20 seats. In the UK, PollWatch projects 19 seats for UKIP. Wilders' PVV is set to win 4 seats, Italy's Five Star Movement is projected 20 seats, Golden Dawn 2, Jokkik (Hungary) 5, and 4 for the FPÖ in Austria. We already have seven countries with a potential of 74 hard Eurosceptic MEPs. But would they work together?
During my trip to Paris in January, I interviewed Eric Domard, one of Marine Le Pen's political advisors. He told me that it is out of the question to form alliances with extreme-right political parties like Jobbik or the Golden Dawn. For his part, UKIP refuses to make alliances with the FN because of its anti-Semitic legacy. What about the PVV? Besides its anti-Islam and anti-EU rhetoric, the party is an advocate of liberalism and social progress, contrary to the FN protectionist stance. Moreover, these populist parties are more interested in working inside their respective countries, and don't have many ideas or projects for the EU, besides wishing its dismantling. As a result, unless they are able to form a political group around a set of principles and guiding ideas and/or build ad hoc alliances with other groups, the election of those hard Eurosceptic populists will more likely account for a wave of popular protest rather than a force capable of altering the day-to-day operation of the EP. Time will tell.