Comment: Why Euro elections could kill Cameron’s renegotiation hopes

By Pawel Swidlicki

Despite a record vote share for anti-EU and protest parties across Europe, the next European parliament could be even more pro-integration.

In three weeks’ time, voters across the EU will head to the polls to elect their new parliamentary representatives in Brussels and Strasbourg. Anyone in the UK with even the slightest interest in politics is aware of the rise of UKIP and Nigel Farage but this is far from an isolated story – all across Europe polls show there will be a surge in support for a range of populist anti-EU, anti-austerity, anti-immigrant and anti-establishment parties.

Aside from UKIP, parties that are set to do particularly well include Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France, Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands and Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy. Our own analysis, based on Vote Watch Europe’s projections, has found that overall, these parties could win up to 31% of the vote – up from 25% in 2009 – and 218 out of 751 seats in the new parliament.

So what impact will this actually have on the European Parliament and the EU more generally? For a start it must be stressed that these parties – loosely termed by Open Europe as the ‘Malcontents Block’ – will be unable to seriously impede the functioning of the parliament. Firstly, they will simply not have the numbers, and secondly, despite many similarities, they are simply not a coherent group ranging as they do from far-left to far right, from broadly mainstream parties with experience of government through to fringe protest parties. Co-operation between them will be further hampered by differing perspectives on issues such as immigration, the Eurozone, free trade vs protectionism and wider social issues.

Ironically, the biggest impact the ‘Malcontents Block’ could have is on the established parties in the European Parliament that broadly favour the status quo or further European integration by pushing them to close ranks. The danger is that overall, this could make the EP more integrationist by locking out not only the malcontents but also ‘critical reformers’ – parties that have a constructive agenda for fundamental (as opposed to superficial) reform of the EU. This would intensify the already existing corporatist dynamic that exists within the EP, whereby the socialist group and the centre-right EPP group often stitch up agreements on appointments to key committees and votes on key pieces of legislation in backroom deals.

In addition to the status quo/more integration parties sticking closer together within the EP, there is also a risk that the EP as a whole could develop closer links with the European Commission in order to reassert the EU institutions’ control over the EU policy agenda which since the outbreak of the Eurozone crisis has shifted in favour of national governments (and Berlin in particular).

The two institutions could cheer each other on and club together to secure mutually beneficial outcomes in negotiations with member states over new EU laws. The result is likely to be fewer rules designed to facilitate trade and more regulation – or “more Europe” – for the sake of it. This effect could be exacerbated if MEPs get their wish of selecting the next Commission President who will be instrumental in setting the policy agenda for the term of the next Commission.

The cumulative effect could be very damaging to David Cameron’s pledge to renegotiate the UK’s terms of EU membership if re-elected in 2015 ahead of a 2017 referendum. Although the majority of Cameron’s strategy is in fact premised on securing EU wide reforms as opposed to UK-specific arrangements, their broad decentralising thrust goes against the prevailing integrationist tendency within the EU. With its substantial powers over issues like financial services regulation, free trade agreements and EU migrants’ access to welfare, the EP could emerge as one of the biggest obstacles to Cameron’s strategy.

Despite its substantial powers, the European parliament’s democratic mandate is weak. Turnout has fallen in every single European election since 1979 when direct voting was first introduced, standing at a miserable 43% in 2009. If that were to be repeated later this month, we estimate that almost 75% of all voters will have voted against the EU, for radical change, or not bothered to vote at all, with only 25.6% of all eligible voters actively voting in favour of status quo/more integration parties.

For the EP to pursue an explicitly integrationist agenda on such a thin public mandate would not be democratically honest, and indeed would be counter-productive, only serving to fuel anti-EU sentiments even further.

Pawel Swidlicki is a research analyst at Open Europe, an independent think-tank campaigning for EU reform, where he covers UK, German and Polish politics as well as the EU institutions.

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