Wider Eurasia
Eurosceptics in the European Parliament: A Failed Alternative for Europe 

On the eve of the next elections to the European Parliament (EP), which are due to take place on June 6-9, 2024, the attention of experts, as usual, is on the Eurosceptic parties, which are once again predicted to increase their presence. But is Euroscepticism as dangerous as they say, and will it be possible to shake the positions of the ruling centre-right coalition led by the European People’s Party (EPP)?

Euroscepticism has never been a strict party ideology, which allows parties with different views to take on the attribution. In the most general terms, Euroscepticism reflects an attitude of protest regarding deepening European integration, the transfer of states’ sovereign power to the supranational level and the power of European political elites at the expense of democratic legitimacy and transparency. The symbolic figure of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is considered a role model for a Eurosceptic politician. In the 1980s and 1990s, the voices of those who would like to curtail European integration began be heard more clearly, which could not go unnoticed by the EU establishment. In those years, the EP had rather modest powers and did not have the right of legislative initiative as it does now. The EP elections were considered something of a second round of national elections, characterized by protest voting and low turnout. However, even at that time there was an obvious tendency to strengthen the role of the EP in the institutional triangle (EU Council – Commission – Parliament) and it became clear that if sooner or later Eurosceptics settled in this institution, they would be able to seriously promote their alternative to European integration.

Electoral technologies against marginalised people

The first pan-European elections to the EP were held in 1979 (prior to this, members of the Assembly of the European Coal and Steel Community were appointed from among members of national representative bodies). The very first technology for containing Eurosceptics was the elementary lack of essential powers in the EP, when the intergovernmental method of governance was dominant. With the signing of the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997) and the subsequent Treaty of Nice (2001), the decision-making flywheel in the EU turned towards a supranational method of governance, giving greater powers to the EP as the main majoritarian institution of the EU political system. These measures were designed to increase the democracy, transparency and efficiency of EU institutions, which by the beginning of the 21st century, were already chronically suffering from a lack of legitimacy. Finally, with the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty in December 2009, the EP said goodbye to its reputation as a politically weak institution. Today it has the power to influence the appointment of a new Commission, reject bills proposed by the Commission, and approve or delay the entry into force of international treaties and trade agreements. Moreover, the EP has finally acquired the actual right of legislative initiative along with the Commission and a number of powers to adjust the EU’s annual budget.

It is not surprising that, acquiring new powers, the EP became an increasingly desirable target for various political forces, including opponents of integration. Therefore, to ensure that power remained in the hands of pro-European centrist parties, the elections to the EP were initially moderated in such a way as to smooth out the rough edges and make it difficult for small marginal (far-left and far-right) and Eurosceptic parties to gain parliamentary mandates. Some simple manipulations with election technologies include: the electoral threshold, the vote counting formula, the type of ballot, and the division into polling stations. Note that for elections to the EP, there are several uniform rules (for example, the voting date), but otherwise they follow national rules, which can differ significantly from country to country.

There is no electoral barrier in most EU countries, but in countries where the popularity of Eurosceptics has typically grown, it is as high as possible – 5% (France, Poland, Hungary, Romania, etc.) The exception is Germany, where there is no electoral barrier, but the division into electoral districts was abolished (only for elections to the EP) and closed lists were introduced, which do not allow voters to vote for individual candidates, but only for a pre-approved list of deputies from the party. This combination guarantees the passage of major parties and, year after year, reliably ensures that the CDU/CSU and SPD coalition enjoy a majority in European elections (35.4% and 27.3%, respectively, in 2014; 28.9% and 15.8% in 2019).

Formulas for counting votes differ in the rounding method and, as a result, in the distribution of mandates in favour of large or small parties. Most EU countries use the formula of the Belgian mathematician Victor D’Hondt, which gives an advantage to mainstream parties. Coupled with a 5% electoral threshold (Belgium, Croatia, Czech Republic), this effect is enhanced, as well as in combination with a ballot format, which is most often a closed list (Hungary, Romania, France). This combination of electoral techniques in the above countries gives small parties the least chance of winning mandates as MEPs. The use of other formulas, for example, Sainte-Lague (Latvia) and Niemeyer (Bulgaria, Germany, Poland), ensures neutral rounding, which, combined with the absence of an electoral threshold (Bulgaria, Germany), gives all parties an equal chance of being represented in absolute proportion to their votes.

Finally, the type of ballot matters; it can be a closed list, open list, or mixed ranked choice voting. A closed type of ballot involves choosing a party and does not allow voting for individual candidates or for changing their order on the list (Hungary, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Romania and France), so the main struggle is not between individual personalities, but between major political platforms. The EP will include 313 legislators chosen using the closed type of ballot out of 720 deputies in 2024. The alternative is an open list, where the voter himself creates a list of candidates for European MPs (Denmark, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Finland, Croatia and Estonia). The middle path offers mixed ranked voting, when the voter is asked to vote for a party with an approved list of candidates, but at the same time has the opportunity to choose an individual candidate, thereby increasing his chances of entering the EP (Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Latvia, the Netherlands, the Republic of Cyprus, Slovakia, Slovenia, Czech Republic and Sweden).

Thus, the presented set of electoral techniques contributes to the fact that heavyweight countries, which contribute more than half of the legislators in the European Parliament, conduct European elections according to rules that deliberately limit the chances of small and marginal parties being elected. In the future, it is this half who will provide the necessary majority in the EP for a coherent decision-making process.

Simple Arithmetic

In the current composition of the 2019 EP, the far right is divided into two party groups: European Conservatives and Reformists (68 seats) and Identity and Democracy (59 seats). The first group includes the Brothers of Italy, Poland’s Law and Justice party and the Spanish Vox party. The second group includes Alternative for Germany, the National Rally of France and the Italian League. According to forecasts, both groups will be able to increase their number of seats in the EP to 83 in the 2024 convocation, which, if unified, would provide the Eurosceptics with more than 160 seats. However, the leaders of both parliamentary groups have repeatedly stated that a merger is impossible due to too different political traditions and characteristics. A more likely scenario is that individual parties will move from one group to another. It is also not yet clear which group the populist unaffiliated parties, such as Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz of Hungary, will join. Be that as it may, even in the most incredible scenario, when all Eurosceptics are able to agree among themselves, the number of their seats in the EP will be slightly more than 200, which is clearly not enough to block those bills that will be promoted by the mainstream parties. The majority of decisions in the EP (95%) are made according to the usual legislative procedure, which involves decisions being made by an absolute majority of votes. In the new configuration of the EP there will be 720 deputy seats, which means that the absolute majority will presumably be fixed at 361 votes. In other words, even though Eurosceptics are expected to strengthen their positions in the EP, they are extremely far from forming a cohesive coalition that could offer a working political alternative to the centrists.

Failed alternative for Europe

Despite its half-century history, Euroscepticism has failed to generate an authentic alternative to traditional European political ideologies, which are now in crisis and experiencing fragmentation. There are two reasons for this: principled and structural. The first is expressed in the fact that the political programmes of the absolute majority of far-right, nationalist and conservative parties demonstrate that they, along with other systemic parties, are fighting for their voters and trying to adapt to the global problems of our time. They often combine opposing principles borrowed from traditional ideologies and try to play to their strengths, which in itself tends toward radical centrism.

The programs of the far-right party groups, which call themselves Eurorealists, do not offer truly revolutionary measures. They advocate for the decentralisation of power, greater EU accountability (primarily financial) and efficiency, the creation of new jobs, environmental protection, respect for the sovereign rights of member states, cooperation with global partners, etc. In short, their programs correspond to European values, obviously because they are already the result of a compromise between various national parties united into one party group in the EP. Here arises the second reason why Euroscepticism has become toothless – institutionality. Having gone through the European elections procedure, it entered parliament and became involved in this institutional game. The Eurosceptics have been forced to soften their rhetoric. So they have become a systemic opposition, rather than an alternative to the EU. According to the pattern derived by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, any participation in the work of institutions and inclusion in their procedures automatically makes you agree with their existence and increases their legitimacy. In addition, the main work of the EP is not concentrated in party groups, but in specialized committees that prepare reviews of bills and where MEPs are distributed without taking into account nationality and party affiliation. Thus, we are observing how the European political system is literally grinding down potentially dangerous political forces, once again demonstrating its stability and viability.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.