How the old “pro-anti” EU framing becomes obsolete after EU elections

Our high-profile partners are asking us the right question with regards to the elections and we thought to share with you a summary of the answer. At VoteWatch Europe we filter out the noise and guide our partners through the EU decision-making jungle with our unrivaled fact-based analytics that allows them to see who are the actual opponents and supporters of any initiative or piece of regulation.

The right question is no longer how many pro and anti Europeans, or “populists” there will be in the Parliament. And the answer cannot be as light as “there will be enough pro-EU forces for a majority”. Such kind of framing is a gross over-simplification of the post-elections dynamics and ignores the way in which majorities are actually formed in the European Parliament. The composition of the majority in the EP changes on an issue-by-issue basis, e.g. on some decisions we’re seeing broad centrist coalitions, while on other occasions we see the left-wing forces fighting the right-wing forces. One thing is clear: no matter the combination of political forces involved, the majorities will be smaller and less stable, with a few (deviating) votes making the difference on key matters. For this reason, the wise stakeholders want to know concretely who will support various pillars of European integration and who will oppose them, or who will push a specific piece of legislation in one direction or another. In this report, we give several examples, in the form of a grid. 

Various political parties support different dimensions of integration and this applies to both the new parties and traditional parties, ie. some of the largely called “eurosceptics” support some of the EU’s policies, while some of the traditional parties resist other pillars of integration. The post-elections balance of power in the EU institutions will push leaders to adapt their tactics and this will make policy-making a much more pragmatic exercise, characterized by issue-by-issue alliances. When EU legislation will be made, the positions of the parties will become much more nuanced, compared to the electoral rhetoric.

In this brief we filter out the typical electoral (and media) noise and we summarise the actual positions of some key political forces as observed when real decisions were made in the EU institutions (NB: we hold the voting records of all MEPs and governments on all matters decided since 2009 in both the European Parliament and the Council). We now look into specific topics, such as Eurozone integration, migration, the four fundamental freedoms (goods, services, capital, labour), budget, common trade policy, energy policy and defense. This research reveals that sometimes “Europe” means different things for different forces and shows how the picture is more complicated than a simple pro-EU or/and left-right representation. In fact, we will have to deal with a more pragmatic grid of analysis of individual positions.

By now, and even less so after the elections, there are very few (relevant) political forces that want their country to leave the EU, or want to dissolve the EU as such. Rather, each of them wants to shape and use the EU instruments to achieve specific policy objectives that are important to them. As a result, we will see a lot of ad-hoc coalition building (especially in the European Parliament, but also in broader EU politics), between and among traditional and new parties.

The EU elections will finally close the gap between the strength of the societal and political forces that have grown substantially over the past few years (since the previous EU elections) and their actual representation in the EU decision-making. The lack, or the disproportionately low representation in decision-making (read: access to shaping the policies) is what leads forces to oppose a government (be it national or supra-national) as such. However, this will change after the elections, as the new parties (both centrist ones like En Marche or fringe ones like the League) will be in position to influence the EU decisions more proportionally to their actual electoral base.

Some of the new, rising parties want to show that they have become mature enough to responsibly take part in the act of governing, which involves moderation, the search for allies and compromises. For their part, traditional parties do not want to lose ground even further and will try to adapt their positions to “absorb” some of the demands of the new parties and thus ring-fence their growth.

But what are the rising parties likely to support? If we take a bird-eye view of the overall EU political landscape, we can see that political forces that are labelled as Eurosceptic often critize the EU for different reasons (which also means that they oppose different pillars of EU integration). Simplifying somewhat, we can observe broadly 3 clusters of parties that oppose various aspects of EU integration (for different reasons): the North-Western ‘small-government’ Euro-sceptics, the Southern ‘interventionist’ Euro-sceptics and the Central Eastern European ‘conservative’ Euro-sceptics. Below you can see a summary of the positions of some of  of the parties that could fit into these categories.  

North-Western ‘small government’ Euro-sceptics

The best way to understand what we will see in the next few years is to look at who opposes “the EU” in different countries: in North-Western Europe, some of the Eurosceptics tend to be more economically-liberal when compared to Eurosceptics from Southern Europe. These are critical of the EU because, in their view, the EU over-regulates the economy and “wastes” a lot of money with financially-unsound projects.

However, these political players do see as positive the fact that the EU has created and manages a common market for goods, services and capital from which they are benefiting. Hence, they support the EU when the Union protects these freedoms, but not when the EU takes too much initiative to regulate the economy and spend money.

These political forces would also like the EU to deepen trade-relations with third countries (preferably those from the Anglo-sphere) and they have supported some of the EU-driven trade liberalization agreements. Moreover, these political parties feel that the EU protectionist approach to agriculture is creating unnecessary hurdles to the achievement of trade agreements with other economic powers (e.g. the latest opposition lead by the French government to restart EU-US negotiations).  Finally, ‘small government’ Eurosceptics are rather critical of the monetary Union, which they perceive to be dysfunctional and under the inflationary influence of Southern (less economically liberal) countries.

This ‘small government’ Eurosceptic approach is more common among parties coming from net contributor countries to the EU budget and countries where free-market discourse tends to be more prominent, such as the Netherlands, the UK and, to a lesser extent, Scandinavian countries (as well as Germany and Austria). However, there are also some who fear that too much economic integration would hurt their social system (left-wing Nordic parties are much more critical of EU integration than their counter-parts from other European regions).

Another common feature among the North-Western ‘small government’ Euro-sceptics is their hostility towards the establishment of new EU structures. For instance, even the main ruling party in the Netherlands, Rutte’s VVD, as well as most of the other Dutch traditional parties (and the Flemish N-VA) oppose creating a budget for the Eurozone and have nuanced views on the Defense Union. They also want to diminish (or at least contain) the budget of the current EU institutions and they are skeptical of further Eurozone integration. In this, also the Austrian and British traditional parties concur. On the other hand, these traditional parties are keener on strengthening EU’s powers to be able to defend the Rule of Law inside its Member States.

Southern ‘interventionist’ Euro-sceptics

In other countries, it is the opposite: those who oppose the EU are primarily those who are (very) economically interventionists. For instance, in France, supporters of both Marine le Pen and Melenchon believe the EU is promoting too economically-liberal policies and that the current Eurozone governance is hurting the French economy. They are both very critical of most EU trade agreements and trade liberalization in general. However, they are not very critical (but somewhat supportive) of EU funding for farmers and initiatives that aim at protecting European agricultural production. The Common Agricultural Policy has been a key pillar of the EU, and, although it has decreased over time, close to 40% of the EU budget still goes into supporting agricultural-related projects.

However, these two parties have contrasting views on other issues, such as security and migration. Differently from Melenchon, right-wing French Eurosceptics tend to criticize the EU for supporting migration and multiculturalism. Criticism of the EU freedom of movement is not limited to Marine le Pen’s party, as French EPP members (the Republicans) also tend to be quite critical of the Schengen rules, which facilitate free movement of people across the Union.

While the new Italian government is often seen as a trouble-maker at the EU level, the ruling 5 Star Movement often complains about too little EU-level action with regards to migration and economic crises (the opposite discourse of several ‘small government’ North-Western parties, which would prefer the EU to do less on these matters). The 5 Star have supported several key initiatives in the European Parliament, such as the establishment of a European Defence Fund, the European Public Prosecutor Office and the (failed) introduction of a transnational constituency for EU elections. However, both the 5 Star Movement and the League do tend to be very critical of the Eurozone governance as it has been exerted in the past years, as these parties blame the poor performance of the Italian economy on the common budgetary rules and tight monetary policy.

The League tends to be more critical of the EU than the 5 Star (the two parties also have very different views on migration, environment, social and economic policy). Quite interestingly, Salvini’s League and Marine Le Pen’s RS have voted in favour of the EU initiative to strengthen the cooperation between the national social security systems, which was opposed by the (pro-European) EPP and ALDE. The initiative would make it easier for French and Italian frontier workers to get access to the social benefit systems of the country where they worked (e.g. Luxembourg or Switzerland).

Other political forces in Southern Europe, such as Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece also feels that the EU is economically overly-liberal and tend to oppose EU-driven liberalization of the internal market and international trade. However, there also are some exceptions, as liberal criticism of the EU is also featured in the Southern political debate. For instance, Spanish VOX believes that the EU is hampering the economy with over-regulation.

Central and Eastern ‘conservative’ Euro-sceptics

How about Central and Eastern Europe? The strongest party in the region, the Polish Law and Justice (largely seen as anti-EU in Brussels), sees itself as a supporter of Europe.  Similarly to the economically liberals, Polish Law and Justice and most of the CEE parties (including Orban’s FIDESZ) have shown strong support (including through concrete votes in the European Parliament) for EU’s trade agenda, ie. they backed European Commission’s efforts to sign free trade agreements with other international players. Comparatively, French En Marche is opposing trade deals with both the US or Mercosur (on agriculture-related concerns).

As their counterparts in the UK or the Netherlands, most CEE parties support the freedom of goods, services, capital and do acknowledge the benefits that these bring. Moreover, as many of their own citizens work in the EU’s Western countries (and send billions of euros in remittances to their families back home), these CEE parties are strong supporters of  free-movement of labour. As observed recently, this position puts them in conflict with some of their counterparts in Western Europe which are reserved about the extent of this freedom either because of socio-economic reasons (e.g. pressure from the Western trade unions, especially in France and Belgium) or cultural reasons. For instance, Hungarian Fidesz was the only main EPP party that voted alongside the left to restrict the possibility to introduce temporary border controls in the Schengen area

Consequently, from the perspective of these CEE parties, some of the policies promoted by Macron are anti-European: the recent legislation pushed by the French through the EU institutions that will make it more difficult for the CEE drivers to compete on the French (and Western) labour market are seen as a move that undermines one of the fundamental freedoms of the EU, ie. the freedom of movement of labour.  CEE ‘conservative’ Eurosceptics are also more supportive of a bigger EU budget, projects related to the Defense Union and stronger border security. For these reasons, the CEE forces feel that their North-Western counterparts who want a smaller EU budget and especially fewer funds for projects that aim to ensure cohesion among EU’s regions are the “anti-European”. 

So then where are the CEE parties “Euro-sceptic”? These parties have strong views on what they perceive as the EU imposition of social and cultural liberalism (in particular migration). It is for this reason that they were at the forefront of the opposition to EU mandatory relocation quota for asylum seekers. They also tend to be more critical of the EU playing a role in judicial matters (such as the EU enforcement of rule of law and the recent establishment of the European Public Prosecutor Office). Finally, CEE Eurosceptics criticize the EU for introducing strict environmental regulation, which could take a toll on their rising economies. Very tellingly, CEE governments tend be more frequently outvoted in the EU Council on dossiers regarding environmental matters than on other policy areas. 

Traditional parties, not always enthusiastic about EU integration

As we have seen, the opposition to various components of the EU integration is not limited to the rising (and confusingly labelled “populist” parties), but also among the traditional parties. Here are a few more examples: in Germany, the CDU/CSU and SPD have supported most EU integration projects. However, CDU/CSU has resisted creating common financial schemes that would allow all countries to borrow at the same rate from the financial markets (e.g. creating Eurobonds), while SPD is skeptical of the integration of defense capabilities. Both of them are wary of creating a powerful Energy Union, as moving too much power at EU level might hamper Germany’s ability to control energy routes (see the trouble Germany got into during the recent intra-EU conflict on North-Stream pipeline coming from Russia).

Similar cases can also be observed among other traditional governing parties. While the degree of opposition to EU initiatives has been clearly different, ie. traditional centrist parties tend to oppose a smaller number of EU initiatives in comparison to the nationalist ones, as the new rising parties get access to governmental channels of influence (both at national and EU levels) this gap may get smaller, ie. the distinctions may become blurrier.

Our voting records show that there is a substantial degree of variation in the coalition building dynamics in the European Parliament, ie. the majorities are formed on an issue-by-issue basis. We expect this variation to further increase in the next European Parliament due to the fragmentation of the political systems and the changing balance of power among the factions (ie. small groups becoming bigger, big groups becoming smaller).

At VoteWatch Europe we will continue to keep a close eye on the actual positions of MEPs, parties and governments and we will provide our partners with unrivaled fact-based analytics of the new trends. Contact us at [email protected] if you are interested to know more.