In advance of the 2019 elections for the European Parliament, The Conversation France asked experts from six European countries to weigh in: The Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden, as well as Norway, home to a large number of EU citizens and also a member European Economic Area. They look at how the EU is perceived by their citizens and residents, issues of concern and also perspectives for the election.
Czech Republic: Eurosceptic, yet in no rush to leave
Vít Hloušek, Masaryk University, Brno.
When it entered the EU in 2004, the Czech Republic was then one of the most eurosceptic members and it remains so today. In an April survey, only 36% of the respondents were satisfied with EU membership, only 32% tend to trust the EU and of voters, only 38% tend to trust to the Parliament. Yet despite the doubt, a full 62% of respondents stated that country should remain a member of the EU.
There is a long tradition eurosceptic parties, creating dominant narratives in the debate. In the parliament’s lower house, the hard eurosceptic party Freedom and Direct Democracy controls 11% of the seats, soft eurosceptic parties (Civic Democrats, Communists, ANO) hold 59% and pro-EU parties only 30%. Another typical feature is extremely low voter turnout – just 18.2% in 2014.
The real campaign started only some three weeks before the poll. The dominant issue is the sought after reform of the EU presented nevertheless typically in an unclear way. The manifestos have “Europeanised” since 2004, yet the parties fail to grasp the real stakes of the EP or ignore them, so debates are more likely to deal with national issues than EU policies. Eurosceptic parties are likely to misuse voter concerns about immigration and terrorism. So far, only parties represented already in the Czech House of Deputies are expected to win any seats “in the Brussels”.
Germany: Europhile and holding tight
Kai Arzheimer, Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz.
In 2019, Germany remains one of the most europhile members of the EU. Only the radical right-wing “Alternative for Germany” (AfD) qualifies as eurosceptic, but barely – their manifesto lists a host of tests that the EU would have to fail before the AfD would demand a “Dexit”. More importantly, the leadership even changed their position on Germany’s EU membership from “negative” to “neutral” in the semi-official voting advice application “Wahl-o-mat.de” a few days after the application went online.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Greens are running a high-profile pro-EU campaign spearheaded by two prominent MEPs. The other parties’ campaigns are more low-key and shaped by their general ideological positions. Everyone agrees that EU is a good thing; the parties repeat their usual core messages, be it more redistribution, more market liberalism, or just more of the same – without many specifics. To raise turnout and awareness, 10 of Germany’s 16 states hold local elections on the same day as the EP elections. Judging from the content of the election posters, these local elections may well eclipse the European contest.
If polls are to be trusted, EP voting will be very much in line with recent subnational elections and the political mood: the CDU/CSU can expect around 30% of the vote, the Greens and the SPD can count on 15-20% each, and the FDP and the Die Linke are polling about 7% apiece. Importantly, support for the AfD has been stable between 10% and 14% for months. As far as Germany is concerned, news of a large-scale, far-right rebellion against the EU seem exaggerated.
Italy: From founder to fragmented
Gioacchino Garofoli, Università degli Studi dell'Insubria, Varese.
In 1957, Italy was one of the “inner six” members of the European Economic Community, which would later become the European Union. In the early years Italians were more Europhile than other EU states – for example, in 1998, 73% expressed support. The 2007-8 economic crisis pushed citizens toward more of a Eurosceptic stance, however, with only 36% being in favour of Europe in 2018. The major concerns of Italian citizens today are immigration (66%), youth unemployment (60%) and the country’s economic situation (57%).
In February the two leading parties/movements against Europe, the League and the Five Star Movement (M5S), took power, but they are mainly sovereignist rather than anti-Europe. In particular, leaving the Eurozone or the union aren’t on the agenda. Support for M5S has also collapsed, leading to an internal political crisis. Nicola Zingaretti, head of the center-left Democratic party, is more pro-European but has struggled to find wide support.
Outside the political parties, societal and cultural movements are working to mobilise Italian citizens and build a new conception of a social Europe, more federalist and cohesive, that would reduce inequalities and guarantee fundamental rights. All this should give the opportunity for a big push to close up the EU’s “democratic deficit” through networks, negotiation and coherent decision-making, from cities and regions to European Union itself.
Netherlands: Once critical, now more positive
Jacques Paulus Koenis, Maastricht University.
The Netherlands is still struggling through the comet-like rise of Thierry Baudet and his Forum for Democracy (FvD), the latest addition to the tribe of Dutch populists. The party was the largest in the March provincial elections, coming in ahead of the VVD of prime minister Mark Rutte. The FvD overshadows even Geert Wilders’ far-right Party for Freedom (PVV), and will probably also do well.
Despite the results of the March elections, Dutch public opinion on the EU is more positive than five years ago. There now seems to be more willingness to look at the EU for solutions to problems such as international migration, climate change and security. It is striking that the call for a “Nexit” is now heard far less often than in the previous EU elections. Even Baudet, a populist, hardly makes a point of it, while his climate-change denialism attracts more attention. Centrist parties such as the VVD and CDA (Christian Democrats) are also more positive about the EU. In international speeches, prime minister Mark Rutte asserts pride in being a European, but in Dutch parliament he says that he considers the EU election to be “not so relevant”, probably so as not to give in too much to the populists.
Rutte’s VVD is expected to get the most votes in the coming elections, while Baudet’s FvD will be a good second, before GroenLinks with Bas Eickhout, who together with Ska Keller is Spitzenkandidat (lead candidate) for the European Greens. Frans Timmermans, the Spitzenkandidat for the European social democrats, will not get many votes in the Netherlands because his Labour Party is severely weakened, but may hope to gather votes through the Party of European Socialists (PES).
Sweden: The environment above all
Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, Lund University.
In the run-up to 2019 European Parliament elections, environment protection and climate change are at the top of the agenda for Swedish voters, according to the latest opinion poll. The topic has been brought to the fore by the internationally known Swedish teen Greta Thunberg, and by last year’s extensive wildfires. Interest in the environment is a longstanding tradition, however, both in national politics and previous EP elections, where it was among the top five concerns. In terms of issues that Swedes would like to see the EU tackle, refugees and the fight against terrorism and crime come in the second and third place.
According to the latest poll, a third of the Swedes have yet to decide for whom to vote. Turnout will be higher this time (around 58%) compared to 2014 (51%), in part driven by the climate question, a central issue for youth who will likely exercise their voting right in higher numbers now compared to 2019. According to a Novus poll, 66% of the 18-29 segment trust the EU, more than the population as a whole (59% according to Eurobarometer.
Even though the Greens own the environmental issue, the party seems to be on a downhill course, with just 11% support, down 4% compared to 2014. However, the “biggest loss” prize goes to the Liberals, polling at 3,6%, below the 4% threshold. This risks to be the first election since 1999 in which the categorically pro-EU party will not send any representatives to the European Parliament. At the other end of the political spectrum, the anti-immigration eurosceptic Sweden Democrats are polling at 16.9%, up 7% compared to 2014, when they obtained nearly 10% of the vote and two EP seats.
Norway: Linked to the EU, yet disconnected
John Erik Fossum, University of Oslo.
Norway is not a member of the European Union and thus does not elect representatives to the parliament, but two factors that make the upcoming elections important for the country. First, more than 7% of the country’s residents are citizens of EU countries and are thus entitled to vote. Second, as a member of the European Economic Area, Norway is subject to roughly 75% of EU legal provisions.
A survey of the mainstream media shows a number of references to the EP elections, and some of the actors and issues that figure prominently on the European political scene are front and centre in Norway – Emmanuel Macron in France, Angela Merkel and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer in Germany, and Victor Orban in Hungary. However, the main focus is on political leaders not parliamentarians. Other than Manfred Weber of the German European People’s Party, there are basically no other references to other MEPs.
The lack of direct EP representation affects engagement and debate. The Norwegian political parties are not in election mode which affects attention and media reporting. That becomes patchy because it is disconnected from the EP election cycle. The absence of opinion polls further amplifies this, leaving Norwegian citizens disconnected. They cannot understand themselves as participants empowered to send representatives to Brussels, and so are reduced to spectators who watch the unfolding events that will bear on them significantly.