Parties and Politics of Opposition in the European Union

By Von Sydow, Göran | The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Parties and Politics of Opposition in the European Union


Von Sydow, Göran, The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs


Introduction

After five years of crisis, the European Union is heavily burdened by low economic activity, drastic unemployment figures and a tangible degree of political mistrust, including declining support for European integration among citizens.1 The stream of new initiatives to deepen integration stemming from the efforts to save the common currency is giving even greater prominence to the debate about how to legitimise the EU. For a long time, the politicisation of European integration was avoided. The logic of the "permissive consensus"2 prevailed as long as European integration had a limited and low profile, and when citizens trusted national leaders to pursue policies at the obscure European level in their best interests. The logic behind the permissive consensus provided an important building-block in a model of deep integration and supranationalism without real democracy at the European level. Ever-deepening integration in areas which are i) closer to what many identify as the core of sovereignty and ii) more central to political competition within the Member States, makes the question of the European constitutional construction more acute than before.

The end of the permissive consensus can-beyond the falling public support-be observed in a number of recent phenomena. Voters have rejected European integration (or parts thereof at least) in several referendums during the last decades, for instance concerning the euro in Denmark (2000) and Sweden (2003), and about new treaties in Ireland (2001 and 2008), France and the Netherlands (both in 2005).3 The vote share gained by clearly Eurosceptic parties has risen in many countries. These parties tend to score on average about two per cent higher in European Parliament elections than in national elections.4 For a long time, party-based Euroscepticism in a "hard" form (that is scepticism that is "principled"), often coupled with a demand for exit from the EU,5 was primarily found in a handful of Member States (the highest vote share of "hard" Eurosceptic parties has been seen in Denmark, France and Sweden). But it is now increasingly a feature of many party systems across the EU. Of course, there are exceptions, and in some Member States, such as Spain, Portugal and Ireland, the pro-European consensus prevails.6 Still, it seems that European integration is currently being increasingly politicised. The question of the European dimension's salience has always been a weak spot for the study of Euroscepticism.7 It seems that the eurozone crisis has, in many Member States, increased the salience of the EU as an electoral theme.

Ahead of the May 2014 European Parliament elections there are several indications of a rise in Euroscepticism.8 A considerable degree of attention is being given to the emergence of a greater bloc of Eurosceptic and/or radical right populist parties. It is true that the overlap between "hard" Euroscepticism9 and populist radical right parties is increasing.10 All of the "hard" Eurosceptic parties share one feature, an anti-establishment component. These are parties which are normally found on the fringes of the party system and that do not (or very seldom) form part of government coalitions.11 Thus, the voice of protest against the EU comes from the peripheries, be it on the right or the left, of the party systems.

This paper will argue that the emergence of party-based Euroscepticism is an outcome of the changing role of parties and party competition. Drawing on theories of party democracy, I will show that the pressure on mainstream parties to live up to national European commitments and be responsible in EU affairs is challenging their ability to be responsive to voters' needs. Their efforts to stress classic left-right splits are falling flat in a political arena that relies on a degree of consensus between governments of all political hues, and which produces outcomes that do not fit neatly into either right or left schemes. …

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