The Rise of the Eurosceptics – A threat to the European Parliament?

Anne-Sophie Behm is currently student of the Master of European Affairs at Sciences Po Paris. From 2012 to 2014 she worked as a research assistant at the Centre Emile Durkheim of Sciences Po Bordeaux, having contributed to several international projects (CITREP, ANR Europolix) and published articles on French national and local deputies.

The Rise of the Eurosceptics – A threat to the European Parliament?

PEThe good news after the last European elections in 2014: Turnout had not shrunk further since 2009. The bad news: However, not even half of the European population found the way to the ballot boxed and nearly a third of the remaining voted for Eurosceptic national parties.

Euroscepticism is all but a new phenomenon in the European Parliament (EP). Since its first direct election in 1979, the EP has always been an entrance door for smaller and populist parties from all over the continent, bypassing stricter access rules in their respective national governmental elections. Nevertheless, right-wing parties winning the majority of votes e.g. in France and the United Kingdom show the new and stronger dimension that Euroscepticism has reached among the population. Whereas discussions on the origin of this rise of Eurosceptics has already found place in the public and scientific discussion, less is known about the actual consequences the rising amount of Eurosceptic Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) has for the functioning of the latter.

Relying on pertinent literature on parliamentary role behaviour, we can consider that Eurosceptic MEPs have a different perception of their mandate and consequently also behave in a different way than other MEPs. Even if it needs to be clear that Eurosceptics are not all the same, it is generally assumed that they are more or less outsiders within the EP, that they are not very active, and if ever, operate in a more deconstructive than contributing way (on this topic, see especially the work of Nathalie Brack, lecturer at the Department of Political Science of the Université libre de Bruxelles). But if this is true, what would it mean for the functioning of the EP when nearly 30% of its deputies systematically boycott constructive participation to parliamentary work?

A very first insight on the question how the current Eurosceptic MEPs behave in an institution they are principally opposed to, can be provided by the analysis of some of their activities during the last nine months, including speeches in plenary, the authorship of reports etc. Taking over a rather simplistic approach, 222 of the currently 749 MEPs can be associated with a more or less Eurosceptic national movement (MEPs of the EFDD, ECR, GUE-NGL, NI).

Comparing their activities to those of other MEPs, however interesting results can be found. First of all it becomes obvious that speeches in plenary are the most popular activity in parliament pursued by nearly all of the MEPs (see chart 1). Eurosceptics are effectively much more active in deliberating in public holding on average 40,7 speeches compared to only 31,6 by the other MEPs (see chart 2). This tendency is also confirmed when analyzing the amount of speeches in sections. Regarding parliamentary questions, we observe the same phenomenon with an importantly higher mean for Eurosceptics even if they show a slightly lower percentage in terms of MEPs´ participation. Although the dispersion for speeches and parliamentary questions is very high, we can thus still identify the tendency of a stronger and more extensive use of these instruments by the Eurosceptics.

Coming to motions for resolutions, still more than 80% of the MEPs have at least put forward one of them since July 2014. Interestingly, in this case, the amount of Eurosceptics active in this regard is higher than for the Europhiles; they seem nevertheless to propose remarkably less motions for resolutions than the members of the mainstream pro-European groups.

On the contrary, Eurosceptics are less implicated in the authorship of written declarations, reports as well as opinions as rapporteur. At least for the reports and written declarations, it has however to be noticed that those Eurosceptics who decide to engage in the mentionned activities seem to do this to a greater extent than Europhiles. On average, they author more documents than pro-European MEPs. Analysing reports and opinions as shadow-rapporteur – a function with less responsibility – a stronger activity among the Eurosceptics becomes obvious: as much for the percentage of active MEPs as for the amount of submitted documents.

Even if this first simplistic analysis of the Eurosceptics´ parliamentary activities does not allow detailed prognostications on their behaviour during the current legislature, it provides however some important indications. It becomes obvious, that there might be “outsider” Eurosceptics in the EP, but they are far from being dominant. Nearly all MEPs hold speeches in plenary, submit parliamentary questions and put forward motions for resolutions. The difference between Eurosceptics and Europhiles in the amount of MEPs taking part in these activities is not significant and Eurosceptics work even more often on resolutions than other MEPs.

If this is only positive remains to be discussed – their outstanding activity in deliberating in public could also hint on a pronounced use of the public stage to denounce the EU political system without contributing to changes.

Indeed, Eurosceptics are less active in authoring declarations, reports and opinions. This could nevertheless also be due to their marginalised status and the kind of “cordon sanitaire” other MEPs built up around them, making it difficult for them to obtain reports at least on sensitive issues (Brack 2013: Euroscepticism at the Supranational Level : The Case of the ‘Untidy Right’ in the European Parliament). Data shows evidence that for most of the activities, the amount of involved Eurosceptics is weaker than for pro-European MEPs. But when they take part, they do this to a greater extent than Europhiles.

Further analyses need to take into account other crucial characteristics of parliamentary work, as the attendance rate in plenary sessions, the membership in committees and the takeover of responsibility positions. A deeper distinction among the Eurosceptics will also be necessary to be able to identify actual strategies of influence by the different groups in the EP. The delimitation of those Eurosceptic MEPs who decide to join or to found a group from those who remain non-attached, and thus in praxis more marginalised than group members, might already offer interesting insights.

This last point reveals the question of the potential for Eurosceptic MEPs to become kind of an institutionalised opposition force in the European Parliament – and thereby maybe even to contribute to a stronger legitimization of the institution. The strong heterogeneity in between the Eurosceptic group as well as the strong rise in the amount of non-attached MEPs since the last elections objects at least the hypothesis of an upcoming internal organisation of this opposition force. Concerning the legitimisation aspect, the however strong implication of the Eurosceptics in the here analysed parliamentary activities could fuel hope for a more constructive contribution of these after all 29% of MEPs to the Parliament´s activities. In this regard, the content of these contributions is nevertheless decisive – the reinforcement of traditional political cleavage lines and thus the strengthening of an opposition structure in the EP in general could lead to a great contribution to democratic dynamics in the institution. The stagnation on exclusively deconstructive and blaming input by so many MEPs – however strongly engaged in the parliamentary work – could on the contrary become even more dangerous than outsider, non-active Eurosceptics.

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Data source: Official homepage of the European Parliament, activities listed until March 20, 2015; analyses by the author.

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