Front National leader Marine Le Pen during a press conference at the party's headquarters in Nanterre. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Eurosceptics will do well in May, but the federalists will retain their grip

The parliamentary alliance between the the centre-right and the centre-left means the increase in the number of eurosceptic MEPs will have a largely symbolic effect.

Most people believe that Europe needs to integrate for the eurozone to survive. As such, the makeup of the Commission and European Parliament may be about to become rather more important than it has been previously. This is thanks in large part to the Lisbon Treaty, which has bolstered the powers of the Parliament, extending its influence over the Commission, and prompting the main European party groups to insist on selecting their own candidates for the role of Commission President (currently held by José Manuel Barroso).

The overwhelmingly pro-European profile of the European Parliament could also be about to change, with a number of new eurosceptic nationalists likely to be elected at this May's European elections. With no obvious explicit basis for banking union or financial solidarity in the existing treaties, fears are growing among the European cognoscenti that the integration process, such as it is, could be at risk of derailment by Europe’s increasingly restive electorate.

The political duopoly of the centre-left and centre-right has been eroding since the onset of the global recession in 2008 (chart 2). Since then the combined support of the big, pro-EU, pro-market parties, which have held power in most of western Europe since the 1970s, has dropped from 67 per cent to 57 per cent. The average support of "hard" eurosceptic parties, meanwhile, has jumped from 5 per cent to 14 per cent in the same period (chart 1). Both of these measures are weighted, so the rise of the Five Star Movement in Italy, or UKIP in the UK, has a far greater impact than the dwindling of Vlaams Belang in Belgium (where eurosceptics have faded).

Precise projections for seat numbers at the European elections are tricky thanks to the varied electoral systems employed by each country, but the broadly proportional nature of the overall system resulted in the 8.1 per cent that hard eurosceptic parties polled in 2009 translating to 65 or so seats (8.6 per cent of the total). Based on current trends, we can expect such parties to poll between 16 per cent and 22 per cent, which would translate to between 120 and 165 seats.

These numbers should not be construed as constituting one monolithic, eurosceptic bloc. They include parties of both the hard left and hard right who would be highly unlikely to work together. They also include neo-fascist parties like Greece’s Golden Dawn and Hungary’s Jobbik, who are shunned even by right-wing parties like France’s Front Nationale. Indeed, Front Nationale is currently taking steps to expand the eurosceptic, anti-immigration party of which it is a member, European Alliance for Freedom, but has ruled out including neo-fascist parties and has also failed to bring on board Europe’s other big eurosceptic party, UKIP. European parliamentary history is littered with attempts to construct nationalist, anti-immigration parties which eventually broke up in disagreement and recrimination. Such parties do not play well with others and their influence is less potent as a result.

So the data indicate that the centre-right and centre-left will retain their legislative grip on the European Parliament. They vote together on most of the important bills (e.g. the general budget for the European Union). It’s worth noting that there is no mechanism for small groups of recalcitrant MEPs to filibuster legislation that has majority support (as in the US). Speaking time is allotted to parties in proportion to their size and those parliamentarians who go over their allotted time are liable to being physically removed from the chamber.

There will almost certainly be a significant boost to the number of eurosceptic MEPs, but it will likely be of little more than symbolic effect. In fact, we expect it to be more or less business as usual in the European Parliament after the election dust has settled. That’s good for stability, though whether it’s a good thing for Europe long term is another matter. If the toxic mix of political inaction and high unemployment continues in, then the trends in the charts below will likely continue to deteriorate, pushing an ultimate resolution to the crisis even further beyond reach.

Chart 1: Support for eurosceptic parties on the rise, but still relatively modest

Source: ASR Ltd.

 

Chart 2: Europe’s biggest established parties are losing support

Source: ASR Ltd.

Richard Mylles is a political analyst at Absolute Strategy Research, an independent consultancy based in London.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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