What European election campaign?

June 4, 2009

Richard Whitaker- Richard Whitaker is a lecturer in European politics at the University of Leicester, UK. The opinions expressed are his own. -

Europe rarely features highly in European election campaigns in Britain. In the 2004 campaign the word Euro more often than not referred to a football tournament rather than the single currency. And for at least two reasons, we shouldn’t expect European integration to be much discussed.

First, parties have little incentive to campaign on Europe because it features a long way down the list of issues British voters consider important, well behind Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s leadership, expenses, the economy, immigration and crime. Second, to the extent that parties are internally divided on the question of how far Europe should go, they are less likely to push the issue up the agenda.

In the current campaign we might have expected what little talk there was about Europe to cover the Lisbon Treaty on which the Conservatives, in contrast to the two other main parties, have called for a referendum, and the question of whether Britain should remain a member of the EU amid calls from Eurosceptic parties on the right and left, for us to withdraw from the organisation.

While Lisbon and EU membership have been mentioned, the reality is that discussion of Europe seems to have featured even less than the low level we might have predicted. Such is the domination of the campaign by the issue of MPs’ allowances that most of the main parties’ European Election Broadcasts – a place where they have the opportunity to talk specifically about European issues – made little or no mention of Europe.

Perhaps the paucity of talk about European integration would matter little if there was nothing at stake. But, like it or not, the European Parliament’s (EP) legislative powers have greatly increased over recent years such that it is now heavily involved in the regulation of the EU’s single market.

The balance of power in the EP matters between those favouring greater control of markets and those preferring deregulation. The outcome of the EP elections will also have an effect on the choice of European Commission President, who will have to be approved by the Parliament before taking office.

The polls suggest that the big parties are likely to suffer on June 4th with minor parties doing much better than they would in general elections. Small parties doing well at EP elections is nothing new. UKIP came third last time around winning 12 seats and 16 percent of the vote.

Governing parties normally do badly at European elections but if Labour were to drop below 22 percent they would beat their own record for the lowest score by a governing party in a European election in Britain. Many of the smaller parties take an anti-EU stance, especially those likely to win seats in the election (UKIP and possibly the BNP).

So if we look simply at the results this time around, the expected victory for the Conservatives and the votes for small parties may send a largely Eurosceptic message from the UK to Brussels.

This is fine, if that’s how the electorate feels, and we have plenty of polling evidence that the British electorate is comparatively Eurosceptic. But crucially, for many voters the decision will have been made not on issues of European integration and EU membership, but on the question of MPs’ expenses.

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