Indeed, watching the campaign launches by certain Eurosceptic parties on television, I was wondering if, agnostically speaking, I could be convinced by the arguments Eurosceptic parties put forward. And if, on the basis of the often-mentioned manifestos or programmes, I could vote for a Eurosceptic party. This formed the start of a brief research on the party websites of the British UK Independence Party, the French Front National and the Belgian/Flemish Vlaams Belang. I considered these three parties as Eurosceptic parties, although this term is more often misused than used rightly. For this reason, it is perhaps first important to consider what exactly Euroscepticism means, as opposed to e.g. Eurocriticism, Europhobia or anti-EU programmes.
Euroscepticism, as I understand it, has to be placed in between Eurocriticism and anti-EU or Europhobia. Eurocriticism, on the one hand, represents a common noun for all those individuals or groups who criticise the European Union, its institutions and its organisation, but who do not formally oppose themselves to or campaign against the European Union. Europhobia or anti-EU, on the other hand, are the common nouns for everyone who opposes him or herself clearly and radically against the European Union, the so-called European idea and everything related to it. In between them, Euroscepticism can be found. It is important to stress that so-called Eurosceptics are not against the European Union or its ideas, but are against the idea of integration, the ‘moving towards an ever closer union’ and the idea of a ‘finalité politique’.
From a democratic point of view, Eurosceptic parties should not be left out of the European Parliament or the parliamentary elections, as some might claim. Although their MEPs might be the least popular few around in the neighbourhood of Brussels’ Place de Luxembourg, they exactly form the dissent that justifies the project and make the unaccountable accounted for. In a sense, they could be considered as the brake on the integration wheel. Nonetheless, it usually needs some courage to become convinced or to convince others to vote for such parties, as this is considered as ‘not to be done’ or ‘because that makes you anti-EU’, or often because one is then linked to what these parties stand for at the national level – usually anti-immigration propaganda or other populist claims. Exactly for these reasons, however, other people wish to vote for Eurosceptic parties. This aspect is therefore an important one both in favour and against Eurosceptic parties, and something these parties undoubtedly take into consideration when designing their respective campaigns. It also leads to the question : what do Eurosceptic voters really vote for ?
In the light of this, I picked four points out of the manifestos of the three parties mentioned above, of which I thought they could interest me as an agnostic voter. As already said, I wanted to know to what extent the arguments they present are ‘waterproof’ and therefore good tools to convince voters that identify themselves in one way or another with a particular Eurosceptic party.
The first point I found was the fact that the Eurosceptic parties often call themselves the ‘opposition voice’ in Brussels. In this sense, European voters might be attracted by the image of a strong opposition party in a national government – which is coincidentally or not often the case for Eurosceptic parties. It can not be denied that there is indeed a need in the European Parliament for such an ‘opposition voice’, in order to maintain a sound balance between the different political orientations. As already said, forbidding such a thing would fundamentally go against the European democratic ideals.
Nevertheless, the way in which Eurosceptic parties juggle with the opposition image is not right, as a comparison between an opposition party in a national parliament and a so-called opposition party in the European Parliament can simply not be made. Most national parliaments are organised along the governing coalition/opposition divide. The European Parliament does not have such a divide and works in a more consensual way with (theoretically speaking) varying coalitions in function of the tabled issue. Saying that a Eurosceptic party presents the ‘opposition voice’ in Brussels therefore is in my view a difficult claim to make.
- « Turkey in Europe and a Constitution : I vote no »
Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of French Front National and Member of the European Parliament, during his campaign against the European Constitution in 2005 which linked the new Treaty with the accession of Turkey to the EU
Another argument that is often brought up is that voting for a Eurosceptic party would mean that the accession of Turkey to the EU will be stopped or at least be slowed down. The highly-debated Turkish accession rightfully is a good horse to bet on for Eurosceptic parties. On the one hand, it represents the enlargement-related problems the European Union is facing ; on the other hand, it might attract voters that are sceptical vis-à-vis the country, its citizens or the Islamic religion – despite the country being secular – and this often for the most logical or illogical reasons.
The problem with the Turkish accession, however, is that the decision on which it ultimately rests, lies mainly with the European member states. For enlargement, the so-called assent procedure is being used. In this procedure, the Parliament has to give its assent to the proposal, but it can not amend it. The Council therefore has a much greater say than the European Parliament in the decision-making process. Except perhaps for some tour de magie, it is virtually impossible for an individual political grouping in the EP to block or even slow down an enlargement process.
Immigration stop and nationalistic positions
A third argument which I found interesting, is the claim that voting for a Eurosceptic party will stop immigration. Indeed, Eurosceptics openly criticise the influx of immigrants from all possible regions and do often not fail to mention a list of negative consequences if ‘immigration does not stop soon’. As pointed out already, the electorate of Eurosceptic parties is often itself sceptical vis-à-vis immigrants and therefore an ‘easy catch’ in terms of points on immigration.
The problem I often found, however, was that it was not really explained in great detail how immigration could be stopped. Vlaams Belang insists on a tightening of the already-existing (legal) immigration stop, but illegal immigration has always been and will always be an issue against which solutions are extremely hard to find. Moreover, other parties accuse individual member states of encouraging immigrants to move to other countries. Such a nationalistic stance could indeed inspire people to vote against immigration and against the whole European idea in general. However, is voting for a Eurosceptic MEP into the European Parliament not exactly the contrary of the intention that some nationalistic voters might have in mind when casting their vote for a Eurosceptic party ? Do Eurosceptic MEPs not indirectly sustain the European project and its institutions by seating in the European Parliament – and is that not what Eurosceptic parties exactly try to avoid ?
Undemocratic Lisbon Treaty
- After the Irish referendum against the Lisbon Treaty, June 2008
Eurosceptic Members of the European Parliament setting symbols
A final issue which attracted my intention was the Lisbon Treaty and the various way of expressing one’s discontentment with the way in which the Lisbon Treaty and, while we are at it, the European Constitution was forced upon the European citizens. Voting for a Eurosceptic party would lead people to believe they vote ‘no’ to an undemocratic Union that seemingly ratifies everything through backdoors and Europhile strategies anyway, as was proven again by the Lisbon Treaty.
It first has to be pointed out that the Lisbon Treaty is very explicit in its intentions to make the European Union more democratic. Amongst others, the European Parliament would be involved even further in decision-making, which would indeed give more power to the MEPs people will be voting for in June. Moreover, the Lisbon Treaty would introduce a withdrawal possibility for member states too. As leaving the EU seems to be the goal of a number of Eurosceptic parties, with the UK Independence Party in the front row here, I was left wondering why Eurosceptic parties can be against the possibly only legal possibility to achieve their goal ?
The different arguments presented above led me to believe that here too, populist claims certainly are not hard to make when elections are coming up, but they are perhaps harder to sustain afterwards. Moreover, a basic knowledge of the European Union could provide voters with insights that the role of Eurosceptic parties can be very different in Brussels from its role at home. Perhaps the primary role of all European parties should be to inform their electorate correctly about the role they can play within the European Parliament. In my view, the famous distance between Brussels and the European citizens is not correlated with the people’s interest in its institutions, a card which Eurosceptic parties often tend to play. It just needs time, courage and willingness to explain the system. Although not very attractive at first sight, this might be the most sustainable way of attracting and keeping voters. Eurosceptic parties, on their part, could benefit from developing a common, Europe-wide strategy, although setting up a meeting to discuss this might be against Eurosceptic values, of course.