29. May 2014  |  European Union, Central Europe  |  Opinions

The latest round of European Elections has raised serious challenges for the future direction of the European Union. The influx of anti-EU, radical and nationalist forces to the parliament will challenge the consensus around key issues such as immigration and the balance between Brussels and the member-states.

In the latest instalment of our ‘A View from Central Europe’ series, CEPI asked three regional experts what the election results mean for the EU and Central Europe. While all three recognise the challenges that the rise of Euro-sceptic parties in some key member-states poses, they all argue that the real issue is how the mainstream parties and the EU institutions respond to this challenge.

For Visegrad Countries (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovak Republic), the main story of the elections was the extremely low turnout among voters. Apathy rather than anger appears to be the most difficult challenge to be overcome.

Pawel Swieboda, President of demosEUROPA: Centre for European Strategy, Warsaw

The impact of the Euro-sceptic parties will be more significant than we currently assume. The mainstream will be under assault; therefore they will absorb some of the anti-EU-radical nationalist agenda to defuse them. Unfortunately, when we have battled on their territory in the past it has always been counterproductive. Although the effect will be bigger than currently expected it will be concentrated in a handful of issue areas, that the Euro-sceptics really care about, in particular immigration and the devolution of power back to capitals. Therefore the final impact largely depends on the reaction of mainstream. We can push them aside and then they will be loud but irrelevant or absorb some of their agenda and allow them to shape the mainstream of EU politics.

The V4 faces a more anti-establishment atmosphere among the voters. This creates abstentions and apathy which are the basic and strong seeds for Euro-scepticism. On the other hand Euro-scepticism is an active way of engaging in European politics, and active participation was clearly not the case in V4.

The low turnout is also the legacy of the past. People in the region would rather fight against authority than contribute positively to an agenda. They also have a ‘late entrants’ syndrome. Central Europeans feel no ownership of the EU Agenda, as they were not part of its evolution and they think that they have little or no effect or influence on the current structures and key rules. There is a growing disillusionment with the establishment in Central European society and the European Parliament, with its extremely high salaries and huge administration compared to the Central European ones, represents the tip of the iceberg.

But apathy is not just the voters’ fault, the major parties’ showed no or little intent to run massive campaigns or mobilize citizens for the elections.

Jiří Schneider, Senior Fellow, Prague Security Studies Institute, Prague

The relative success of anti-EU parties is significant not in absolute numbers of mandates in the EP but because it’s a marker of further weakening of mainstream parties’ appeal to voters. It is a sign of a trend or a sentiment among EU citizens which is increasingly suspicious towards EU institutions. Political leaders have not convinced the European public of the case for further European integration and they have failed to foster a sense of EU ownership among its citizens.

The impact of non-mainstream parties on the political debate in the European Parliament may be twofold - an EU-critical or Euro-sceptic discourse might even be a refreshing and healthy disturbance of the Brussels consensus; but more nationalistic or even xenophobic rhetoric could become a real poison to European politics.

On national level the success of French FN or British UKIP has already set the agenda for French or British politics. For the French government it will be now politically even more difficult to implement necessary changes to cure structural weaknesses of its economy.

The election results in the Czech Republic have shown that so called Euro-sceptic (I would rather call them EU-critical) parties won only 3 seats out of 21, 2 for the former governing party, ODS and one for the Party of Free Citizens. Even if one adds the three communist seats, the Czechs who voted have shown much more pro-EU sentiment than expected by European pundits. I dare say that 15 of 21 Czech MEPs have been elected by more pro-EU voters than those of Hungary’s Fidesz. But it is fair to say that among the 80 per cent of non-voters in the Czech Republic there are a significant number of those who are sceptical, indifferent or apathetic about the EU or politics in general.

My take on the reasons for the low turnout in the Czech Republic is general disappointment with politics, indifference or general apathy. Former President Klaus publicly declared the EU elections to be meaningless, while President Zeman limited his appeal to once again criticising the media’s inability to explain to the public how the EU is relevant to their day-to-day life. No wonder so few Czechs bothered to cast their vote.

Jozef Bátora, Associate Professor and Jean Monnet Chair, Institute of European Studies and International Relations, Comenius University, Bratislava

The challenge posed by the new Euro-sceptic forces in the parliament will be determined by the extent to which these parties manage to form a faction or several factions in the European Parliament (EP). In general, this is going to be difficult as most of these parties actually cannot work together. The impact on the EP will be at the level of obstructive behaviour during sessions - while UKIP was a bit of an oddity and exception in the EP thus far, we are likely to see much more of such ridiculing (and ridiculous) behaviour. A further general impact could be that it might become more difficult for proponents of an "ever closer Union" in the governments of the member states to promote such a construct. There will be a need for deeper reflection on what principles should be at the core of European integration.

 What is encouraging in Slovakia is that the most radically Euro-sceptic parties were not successful. Slovakia is rather a paradoxical example of a highly euro-optimistic country in which there is disinterest in EU matters reflected in the low-turnout.

Partly, this might have to do with the fact that the economy is going relatively well and there are no major issues with EU governance, which would generate contestation and dissatisfaction among voters. Put differently, EU integration has had great benefits for Slovakia and those are being taken for granted. Partly, the low voter turnout could also be explained by historical legacies, where Slovakia is a country and society which has always been part of greater political units such as the Habsburg monarchy without being involved in the governance of these entities, so it is difficult to instil interest and engagement among the Slovaks in governance on the level beyond the nation state.