21st Feb 2019

More eurosceptic MEPs to be elected in future, experts predict

  • "The European protest vote will bring more and more eurosceptic parties into the parliament" (Photo: EUobserver)

Contrary to widespread belief, European Parliament elections are not only about national politics but are increasingly used to express discontent with European integration itself, German researchers have suggested.

This could result in ever-more eurosceptic MEPs being elected in the future.

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Two political scientists working at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies (MPIfG) in Cologne, in a recent article, challenge the widespread idea that it is mainly domestic considerations which determine how people vote in European elections.

The bulk of political science research has so far suggested that many citizens see EU elections above all as a good opportunity to punish their national governments, implying that European elections are not really about "Europe."

But this picture is incomplete, Philip Manow and Holger Doering write in the 2007-2008 MPIfG yearbook.

The researchers had a detailed look at the "pro-EU" and "contra-EU" positions of the European Parliament as well as national governments since 1979 – the year when the EU assembly was first directly elected by citizens.

They found that on average, governments have gradually become slightly more "pro-EU" over the years. The EU parliament, by contrast, has become more "contra-EU" since the mid-1990s - which means citizens have been electing an increasing number of eurosceptic MEPs.

'European protest vote'

Interpreting these data, the researchers claim that voters are increasingly using European Parliament elections to express dissatisfaction with the EU and with the pro-European attitudes of their national governments.

"Voters have a diffuse feeling that Europe has gone too far and that their national governments have a tendency to accept too much of further European integration," Mr Manow told EUobserver.

"In European Parliament elections, voters feel free to express their preferences. In the [scientific] literature it is assumed that voters simply express their national preferences, but we claim that they increasingly express their European preferences, which they - rightly - feel to be systematically misrepresented by their national governments."

This trend is only likely to continue in the upcoming European elections in 2009 and thereafter, he predicted. "We expect the European Parliament to become more eurosceptic over time, since a European protest vote will bring more and more eurosceptic parties into the parliament."

The fact that French and Dutch voters in 2005 rejected the EU constitution in popular referendums already hinted at this development, Mr Manow argued.

"[The referendums] fully fit the picture of an increased but as of yet not politically represented EU-scepticism. It's only that referenda bring out the populist dissatisfaction with the EU much more purely than the European Parliament elections did so far."

What about turnout?

Mr Manow however admits that his thesis of an ever-more eurosceptic European Parliament still leaves important questions open.

His research does not take into account what is arguably the most important development in European elections over the past decades – the downward trend in voter turnout. Average participation in the EU has been steadily dropping from 63 percent in 1979 to a record-low of 45.6 percent in 2004.

Asked how his findings relate to this trend, he stated "This is a very important, a very good and a very hard to answer question."

MPIfG researchers are currently tackling the issue by looking at individual voter behaviour data. But again, Mr Manow suspects that once again citizens' dissatisfaction with the EU - not with national politics - is the main factor at play.

"Why should voters over the years have felt a continuously decreasing need to use European elections to protest against the poor domestic performance of their national governments?"

"It seems rather plausible that the fact that in many member states, centre-left and centre-right governments have not differed much with respect to their generally pro-European stance, has left many voters wondering why they should vote in European Parliament elections at all."

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