The European Union, it seems, is never far from the headlines these days. Chancellor Merkel’s visit to the UK last week provoked another round of fevered speculation as to what concessions, if any, David Cameron might be able to extract from his European partners in his quest for a renegotiation of the UK’s EU settlement. Nigel Farage, for his part, observed caustically at UKIP’s Spring Conference that ‘fundamental renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the European Union… is not obtainable. [It] is a con’. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats have launched an unashamedly pro-European campaign for the forthcoming European Parliament elections, while the Labour Party seem happy to sit this one out, refusing to commit to a referendum on EU membership while criticising the Conservatives for their ‘euro obsession’.
What, then, will the election reveal about the state of UK public opinion on the EU? Will UKIP benefit from its hostility to membership and cause a political earthquake by receiving the largest number of votes? Are the Conservatives set to finish third in a national election under universal suffrage for the first time? What, more broadly, will be the implications of the outcome?
Polls provide at least some answers to these questions. At a “Europe in Crisis” project event run by King’s Policy Institute last week, Peter Kellner, President of YouGov, argued that ‘if the elections were held tomorrow, UKIP would overtake the Conservatives’. UKIP, he pointed out, has improved its performance in successive European elections, moving from 4th in 1992, to 3rd with 16.1% of the vote in 2004, to 2nd with 16.5% of the vote in 2009. The numbers, he observed, speak for themselves.
As to why the mainstream parties are unable to challenge UKIP’s narrative, Kellner had a striking argument. The crisis itself is not the main driver for the relative success of UKIP style populism. Rather, ‘Marx,’ he declared, ‘was right.’ The development of capitalism in recent decades mirrored Marxist predictions from the mid nineteenth century. The neoliberal turn of the 1980s unleashed a process of freeing markets. As a direct result, we saw a reversal of trends from the post-war period, with rising inequality, job insecurity, and a larger share of GDP going towards profits than labour. The real driver of the kind of populism that UKIP represents, then, is growing alienation – the sense that ‘life is not what it used to be’.
However, the implications for the mainstream political parties are, perhaps, not as dire as they may seem. Levels of awareness about the EU and its institutions are extremely low in the UK. As David Cowling, a Visiting Senior Research fellow at King’s Policy Institute pointed out, ‘Europe’ really does not matter to the overwhelming majority of British voters when it comes to voting patterns in general elections. Yet the political parties place disproportionate emphasis on the issue. Hence the consistent refusal of the Conservative Party to elect its most popular (and one of its most Europhile) MPs – Ken Clarke – as leader.
A strong anti-EU line has not, however, benefitted a political party in any of the ten General Elections held since UK accession. The Labour party was committed to UK exit in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 2001, the Conservatives campaigned under the slogan of ‘a countdown to save the pound,’ but slumped to their worst defeat of the twentieth century. Europe, quite simply, ‘does not float the boat of the British public’. In the MORI issues index, which involves the spontaneous selection of the most important issue facing Britain by those surveyed, the EU comes out top for only 2 per cent of respondents.
Although Europe will probably not be a major issue for the 2015 general election, the European Parliament elections will, nonetheless, represent an opportunity to kick the political establishment. The election will also, across Europe, represent an opportunity for voters to register their declining levels of trust in the EU itself. This is hardly surprising given the Union’s perceived lack of democratic legitimacy, the austerity measures associated with Brussels and, in the minds of many, responsibility for significant rises of (in particular, youth) unemployment.
The fact that polls indicate decreasing levels of trust in EU institutions, however, is not necessarily a bad thing, as Catherine de Vries, Professor in European Politics at the University of Oxford, argued at the same event. James Madison, she pointed out, argued not only that citizens do not need to trust their representatives, but also that scepticism is a sign of a functioning, healthy political system. In the case of the EU, data suggests not only that lack of trust in the EU is increasing, but also that there has been a gradual decline in the number of people who respond ‘don’t know’ when asked if they trust the EU. This suggests that public attitudes are crystallising and that Europeans are becoming increasingly engaged with debates on the EU.
The picture is thus mixed. In the UK, whilst the EU itself still fails to provoke much in the way of popular interest, the elections represent an opportunity for the electorate to punish the political mainstream. Across the continent as a whole, whilst such motives will certainly not be absent, voters will also be registering their genuine unease at the actions of the EU and their impact.