By Daniel Jones
The 2014 European elections will be remembered in the UK as a time in which the debate as to the direction in which Europe is heading was more polarised than it has
ever been before. Europhiles now find themselves swimming against an ever-strengthening current of rejection of an ever-closer union, their voices lost within a
sea of cries demanding British ties to the European Union be severed once and for all. This can be attributed to the looming threat of a referendum which will, in all
likelihood, see Britain pull up the drawbridge to its European neighbours, and to the popularity of Eurosceptic party which has swallowed up more ground on the right of
the political spectrum faster than Nigel Farage has been able to finish off those pints of ale with which he is famously pictured.
Additionally, the 2014 elections will also be remembered for drawing attention to the Eurosceptic cause, and for compelling Europhiles to make a stronger, more
vocal case for Europe. While, in the lead-up to these elections, social media became littered with images of voters visibly rejecting UKIP’s policies through torn-up leaflets, many across the country were turning to the party as a means by which to turn back the clock on perceived troubles, such as high unemployment, strong levels of immigration and lingering domestic financial difficulties. The party’s triumphant victory in these elections, and its infiltration into Scottish territory – an occurrence
which would have otherwise been unimaginable for a nation which has long advocated the embracement of left-wing ideals – has helped UKIP to shake off its
image as a target for much ridicule, and has instead placed it among the contenders to become kingmakers in the Westminster Parliament following the 2015 General
election. However, is the groundswell of UKIP support symptomatic of a more general unease with domestic policy being outsourced to the European institutions?
This article examines the cases of Greece and Germany – the former being widely perceived to have been most adversely affected by the recent global economic
downturn, the latter seen to be a soft ‘leader’ in Europe – to find out.
Against a backdrop of governmental fracture, soaring levels of unemployment and a Troika seizure of the country’s financial reins in an attempt to regain control
over a national debt crisis which threatened to spiral out of control, it comes as little surprise that the more sovereignty Greece has found itself obligated to sacrifice to
the EU, the more support for this international body has dwindled. For example, Nanou and Verney (2013) found that negative attitudes towards the EU in Greece almost tripled in the three year period from November 2009 to November 2012 (those holding a negative opinion of the EU rising from 14% to 49% respectively).
The 2014 European Parliament elections have seen this increased hostility towards supranational representation translated into a victory for Syriza, a left-wing party
which has advocated the reversal of austerity measures put in place by the EU, and the return of three neo-Nazi MEPs from the Golden Dawn party.
Given the upsurge in support for Eurosceptic parties on British shores, it is tempting to draw parallels and conclude that a comparable anti-EU sentiment has
unwantedly flourished in Greece . However, it is worth noting that the conditions under which opposition to EU governance has proliferated in the Hellenic Republic
are discernibly dissimilar to those which are felt on British shores – where the Troika has become a ubiquitous presence in the day-to-day management of Greece’s
financial incomings and outgoings, Britain has found a convenient scapegoat for its recent economic difficulties in the shape of the EU’s freedom of movement policy.
The Mediterranean nation’s misrepresentation of its financial situation – and thus, lack of readiness to enter the Eurozone – has been held responsible for the
economic turmoil it has experienced in recent years. Britain, on the other hand, has been content to take a step back and point a finger at its Southern European
counterparts for lighting the fuse which caused the economic bubble to burst, and which in turn necessitated the bankrolling of what seemed to be European neighbour
after European neighbour.
Turning our attention now to the opposite end of the spectrum of difficulty in weathering the recent global economic downturn, and to a European nation viewed
as sitting at the altar of financial solvency and credibility, Germany has not been left unblemished by the events of recent years in terms of opposition to the EU. Whilst
the EU has continued to cultivate support among a majority of Germans (a poll by the German Marshall Fund finding in 2011 that 76% of Germans supported
supranational representation), the panoply of bailout requests which the German people have found themselves obliged to finance appears to have dented support for
the common currency project (with the aforementioned poll finding that only 48% were in favour of monetary union).
German disenfranchisement with monetary union has given rise to Eurosceptic party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which does not advocate
severing ties with the EU in line with its counterparts in other European nations, but instead calls for a looser union of nations, focussed solely upon free trade.
Following the most recent elections in 2013, and mere months after its inception, the party did not surpass the 5% threshold necessary to enter the German Bundestag.
However, the absence of restrictions in this year’s European parliamentary elections allowed the weight of responsibility and strain the German people felt at being
obliged to finance many of its European neighbours’ bailout packages to be converted into political representation, with AfD gaining seven MEPs.
It is perhaps Chancellor Merkel’s pivotal role in key decisions over the course of the Barroso Commission Presidency – including the conditions imposed upon
Greece in exchange for its bailout packages, the mitigation of the British threat to leave the EU, and the appointment of recently-elected Commission President
Juncker – which has served to offset any potential diminution in support for the EU project. Nonetheless, the position which Chancellor Merkel has found herself in is a
unique one, and it cannot be expected that the EU’s 28 Member States seek to use their national office-holders as figureheads to plug potentially declining levels of
support for the European project. This informal German leadership of the EU, coupled with the ideology of the AfD party and the reasons behind its entry into the
European Parliament, lends itself to the conclusion that a ‘soft’ form of Euroscepticism has permeated the German borders, albeit one which deservedly
merits the attention of the incoming Commission and European leaders.
The EU has found itself as the target for much of blame for the recent economic downturn in Europe, and it consequently comes as little surprise that
pockets of Eurosceptics across the continent have increased in size and grown in number in recent years. As has been identified in this article, the reasons behind
popular disenfranchisement with the European project vary from one nation to the next, however the outcome is the same – the image of the EU is not universally
positive, and to many it is now seen as an obstacle to economic and social stability. Where once the Eurosceptic parties may have been the subject of ridicule due to
their outlandish and unconventional policies, their entry into the European Parliament following the elections of May 2014 ought to make their colleagues sit up and take
notice and put an end to any form of apathy in the fight for championing the European cause.
The democratic deficit and the bureaucratic nature of the Brussels machinery have long been a source of concern for those peering into the finer workings of the
EU from the outside. This being said, significant steps have been taken in recent years to address these imbalances, starting with ensuring that political groups in the
European Parliament designate a candidate for the Commission Presidency prior to elections taking place. Nonetheless, if the EU is to effectively mitigate the threat
presented by the increased representation of Eurosceptic parties, it must ensure that it takes further, and more significant, steps to reform. This year sees Jean-Claude
Juncker taking over the Commission Presidency from President Barroso. One of his most salient priorities must be to bring the EU closer to the people it seeks to
represent. Although they have now been afforded political credibility, it does not appear probable that the Eurosceptic parties will seek to pull down the walls of Fortress Europe from within over the course of this parliamentary term. However, with prevention always coming as a more preferable option than cure, it would be
judicious to suggest that the EU begin to streamline and reform its activity now to make it a Europe for the people, and by the people once more.
Daniel Jones is a Masters graduate in European Politics and Law from the University of Glasgow and currently works with the Scottish Government.
Social Media Link: @danieldjones
Euroscepticism rises in crisis-weary Germany, EU Business, < http://www.eubusiness.com/news-eu/finance-economy.ca8>, accessed 14 July 2014
Nanou, K. & Verney, S. (2013), The Eurozone crisis has increased soft Euroscepticism in Greece, where Greeks wish to remain in the euro, but no longer trust the EU, London School of Economics and Political Science.
*Cover image ‘eurosceptic-anti-eu-graphic ‘ by EU Exposed