Last week, media outlets were flooded by information regarding the Swiss referendum that will result in Switzerland leaving the EU’s free movement zone. Even though Switzerland is not a member of the EU, the result of this vote tells a lot about the Eurosceptic trend that is currently gaining popularity among the Europeans.
Next to the result of the Swiss referendum, there have been other worrying signs coming from some Member States that could overshadow the 2014 Elections, namely the rise in popularity of the far right-wing parties.
In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders and his populist Party for Freedom (PVV) lead the polls, with over 21 percent of the vote. Wilders has been advocating for the Netherlands to leave the EU as well as is known to be extremely anti-immigration.
In France, 34 percent of voters identify with the policies of Marine Le Pen’s National Front. Meanwhile, David Cameron has been constantly threatening EU that UK will leave the Union since last year. There are also anti-European feelings growing in Austria, Germany but also in younger EU Member States such as Hungary or Slovakia.
The rise in popularity of right-wing candidates was well expected, as the ongoing crisis, unemployment and economic stagnation are often blamed on the European Union. The history has shown many times that when facing crisis, people tend to turn to extremist parties that promise economic restoration by coming back to fundamental, national values.
It is usually in times of crisis, when populism reaches its peak, gaining support from the electorate. Mainly because it is the dissatisfied that are more prone to participate in the elections, rather than the supporters of mainstream parties such as centre-right EPP or socialist S&D.
At the current moment, experts predict that the European Parliament will be dominated by two largest political groups – Socialists & Democrats as well as centre-right European People’s Party. That was expected as these two parties have led the European Parliament since its early days. The problematic issue is the Eurosceptics who, if we are to believe the predictions, might win together up to 182 out of 751 seats (That is 61 seats won by moderate conservatives and Eurosceptics, 32 by Eurosceptics and 89 by others, including Eurosceptics; data obtained from: Jacques Delors Institute). Should they form a coalition, they will become the third largest voice in the European Parliament.
To what extent will Eurosceptics have an impact on the work of European institutions? Luckily, they will be rather unable to have a significant legislative influence. The Eurosceptics would have to gain 30 percent of the seats in the Parliament to create a blocking minority and that is a rather unattainable goal, especially that they would then have to unite in forming one group with MEPs from at least seven different member states.
In the past, radicals have proven that it is very difficult for them to maintain coherence in their views and agree on a common strategy. As the Eurosceptics come from different member states, it will be difficult for them to find a common voice as the interests as well as goals of each of them will vary as the origins of their national parties may be completely different.
The real challenge will be rather caused by the fact that the populists will be very eager to stir up the debates, questioning the possible impact of the acts discussed and generally speaking, make the job more difficult for everybody in Brussels. And by questioning and contesting the EU’s standing, they might negatively influence the position of the Parliament as well as of the European institutions, which will further fuel the European fatigue.
Could the Eurosceptics impact Romania and in what way could that happen? The large number of radicals will surely have a negative impact on how the EU is presented in the media and thus perceived by the citizens. We can already predict that that the newer member states, that joined the EU after 2004 are going to be scrutinized as these Easter European countries are still struggling and are significantly poorer than the rest of the EU, therefore requiring more development support from the EU.
As the majority of Eurosceptics should be coming from Western European countries, it can be expected that they will pick the newer member states as the underdogs, pulling down the EU’s stability and resources.
That can have an especially negative effect on Romania and Bulgaria that are still sometimes referred to as ‘second class members’ due to the fact that they are still outside the Schengen zone. At this point, the European Commission has on numerous occasions re-affirmed the readiness of these two countries to access the border-free zone. It is now up to 28 member states from the EU Council to agree for the enlargement of the zone.
With the rising popularity of right-wing parties in many governments, including Dutch, French and the British in particular, the Schengen enlargement can be an even more unattainable goal than it was before. The popularity of Eurosceptics can be associated with the current moods in the society, as EU citizens do not trust the European institutions and their representatives. These moods cannot be simply ignored by those in power and therefore will have to be addressed by the future Parliament, regardless whether is dominated by the mainstream or the Eurosceptic parties. That can put Romania’s Schengen accession on further hold.
The outcome of the Swiss referendum proves that the extent of European fatigue is constantly growing and the citizens are no longer afraid to distance themselves from the European Union. With more negative press, the chances of member states expressing their will to renegotiate their EU membership may be higher as the pressure from their citizens will be growing.
People respond very eagerly to Eurosceptics’ demagogic views and ideas as they are presented in a very appealing way – last week Sunday Times conveyed a survey amongst the Poles residing in the UK, asking which British politician is the most effective. Nigel Farage, known especially for his strong stand on restricting immigration, took second place with over 16 percent support from Polish immigrants. This proves the power of populist rhetoric, able to gain support even among the ones it is targeting at.
The outcome of EP 2014 elections is very difficult to predict, but should the turnout be even lower than the last elections (43 percent), the chances of populists having a numerous representation in the Parliament are very high. It will then only depend on the Eurosceptics themselves to form a strong coalition. Is that an option? Unfortunately, yes – Wilders and Le Pen have already been discussing a possible alliance. The question is whether the rest of radicals would be eager to join.
One thing is sure – these elections will have a fundamental importance on the future of the European Union as the likelihood of ‘EU a la carte’ is slowly becoming a possibility rather than just a dark scenario. And that will unquestionably have a negative effect on Romania and Romanian expats living abroad.
By Zuzanna Kurek, guest writer