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The party's over

Rise of Euroscepticism masks general apathy about EU vote

Nigel Farage launches UKIP’s European election campaign. Peter Byrne/PA Wire

One month to go until the 2014 European Parliament (EP) elections. The candidates have been chosen, the posters printed and the media interpretation of the results (probably) decided. “A wake-up call for Europe”, “Euroscepticism triumphs”, “Europe’s populist revolt” and the inevitable “Return of the far-right in Europe” are the types of headline I expect to see on opinion pieces in the last days of May.

Certainly, the great and the good of the international media have been rehearsing their lines for long enough. Both The Guardian and the The New York Times ran op-eds best described as misguided in November 2013 about how the far-right was supposedly on the march once again across Europe. Likewise, The Economist dedicated a whole special section in January 2014 to the apparently sudden rise of Europe’s “populist insurgents”.

My favourite line from The New York Times piece (by Federico Finchelstein and Fabián Bosoeris) is “many fear that the European Parliament may be at risk of a right-wing populist takeover following elections in May 2014”. Finchelstein and Bosoeris don’t tell us who “many” is, which is probably just as well for the unnamed “many”, given that there is no chance whatsoever of this actually happening. Nor, as claimed by John Palmer in The Guardian, has the post-2008 economic crisis in Europe caused a clear and uniform rise of the far-right – see Cas Mudde’s fine piece here debunking that particular myth. And nor is there anything particularly new in Europe about populist parties doing well. They have been increasing their share of the vote for the past two decades.

All the above notwithstanding, 2014 will indeed almost certainly be a “Eurosceptic success” since the total Eurosceptic vote is likely to reach its highest level to date. The key point though here is that we are talking about a “total vote”, not that of a single, unified block. Euroscepticism does not denote a homogenous ideological category or a single party family. Rather, it encompasses parties not only of the radical Left and Right, but also environmental and conservative ones – most of which would not entertain the idea of sitting alongside one another simply due to some shared Eurosceptical beliefs.

Indeed, one party’s Euroscepticism may be very different from another’s. The term includes a vast range of conflicting positions on Europe – from left-wing parties which denounce the EU’s pro-market policies to right-wing ones which condemn the loss of national sovereignty; from parties which are critical of the EU’s current direction and want to change it (but deem integration a fundamentally good idea), to those that reject European integration as a ruinous elite-driven project which should be quickly abandoned.

Runner and riders

Their many differences aside, who are the Eurosceptic runners and riders worth keeping an eye on over the next month? Looking at the surveys on the excellent Metapolls website, a number of interesting races stand out for me. In Denmark, the Danish People’s Party is very impressively leading the pack with around a quarter of the vote (having finished fourth in the 2009 EP election), while in Italy the Five-Star Movement may improve on its spectacular February 2013 debut general election result of 25.6% – leaving those commentators who foolishly predicted it would decline after poor local election results last year with a lot of egg on their faces.

Eurosceptic: Five-Star Movement’s Beppe Grillo. EPA/Angelo Carconi

Likewise, in Britain, UKIP appears to be going from strength to strength in the polls, having just been placed first on 31% in a YouGov survey published on Sunday. Although far less significant in terms of its vote share, the possible breakthrough of the Alternative for Germany (AFD) – currently on 6-7% in polls – is another one to watch given that country’s absence to date of a notable right-wing Eurosceptic party.

A lot of media attention will of course be focused on the members of the new radical right Eurosceptic alliance fronted by Marine Le Pen’s Front National and Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party. Its star performer looks certain to be Le Pen’s party which is vying for first place with the mainstream centre-right on 22-24% – which would be by far its best election result to date and a massive improvement on the 6.3% it took in the 2009 EP elections under Le Pen senior.

As for Wilders’s party, it has slipped back over the past month, but remains well-placed with support ranging from 15 to 18% in different polls. The Austrian Freedom Party has also declined slightly of late, still easily above its 13% result in 2009, but firmly in third place. Bringing up the rear of this group will be the Northern League in Italy – which looks set to gain just half of the 10% share it received in 2009 – and the Sweden Democrats on around 5%.

Anti-Islam: Geert Wilders. EPA/Valerie Kuypers

Some of the above will be the main “Eurosceptic winners” we’ll be reading about in a month’s time in assorted opinion columns. The consolation for Europhiles is that, even taken as an implausible whole, the Eurosceptics will receive only a fraction of the total votes given to those parties which continue to support the EU and European integration.

However, the very broad and divided churches of Europhiles and Eurosceptics will almost certainly each be outnumbered by a less vocal category, which will be the real “winner” of these elections: the Euroabstainers. [Turnout has declined]( at each of the six European Parliament elections since 1979, reaching a new low of 43% in 2009. And while it may not make for such an appealing headline, it is the extent of this apathy rather than Euroscepticism, populism or the purported rise of a new right which – at least for the moment – should really worry those who profess to believe in the EU.

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