The European elections of 22-25 May 2014 have generated unprecedented media attention inside and outside of the European Union (EU). Despite the fact that the lack of serious election campaigns in most EU countries confirms the enduring ‘second-order’ status of the European elections,’ i.e. secondary in importance to national parliamentary elections, the national and international media attention reflects the EU’s increased role in the lives of people inside and outside of its territory. This relevance is probably nowhere as big as it is in Southeastern Europe, where most countries are in the waiting room of the EU. What will the European elections bring them?
At first sight it looks like the European elections are not going to bring them anything good. If one is to believe the international media, as well as prominent commentators and European politicians, the elections will bring a victory of “anti-European populists” and will create a “self-hating European Parliament.” Far right parties in particular are expected to win big. While they might disagree on their exact position towards the EU – some Eurosceptic parties demand fundamental reform (e.g. the Austrian Freedom Party and Belgian Flemish Interest), while others want their country to ‘exit’ the EU (e.g. the Dutch Party for Freedom and the French National Front) – all anti-EUropean parties agree that there should be less EU in terms of both deepening and widening.
While the most ferocious enlargement opposition is usually reserved for Turkey, who the far right consider a “Muslim Trojan Horse,” Southeast European countries should not expect much more sympathy. Although some far right parties formerly held relatively close ties to similar parties in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, notably the French National Front and the Serbian Radical Party, new party leaderships and sharpened anti-EUropean positions have made these ties obsolete or irrelevant. For most anti-EUropean populists the countries of the Western Balkans are not ready for EU membership at best, and are considered ‘corrupt robbers’ nests’ that should never be admitted at worst. In addition, the sizeable Muslim populations in Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo are easy targets for Islamophobic campaigns, which fuel anti-enlargement positions.
All this notwithstanding, anti-EUropean parties are not going to rule the EU anytime soon. Even in the wildest prognostics, which are based on pure sensationalist speculation, anti-EUropean parties will get a maximum of one-third of the seats in the next European Parliament (EP) – and this includes far left as well as ‘soft’ right-wing Eurosceptic parties, which are much less adamantly opposed to EU enlargement into the Western Balkans. Given that EP decisions require a regular majority, which the established pro-European, center-right, EEP-ED, and center-left, S&D, political groups will easily get – even without the usual support of the liberal ALDE Party – one-third of the seats , which will give them little political power. On top of that, the EP is only one of the three main political institutions in the EU, and the only one that anti-EUropean populists will have representation in. Just two EU governments have some far right presence – the National Alliance is a junior partner in the Latvian coalition government and Attack supports the Bulgarian minority government – and even in these cases will not have a representative in the European Commission or the European Council of Heads of State or Government. In other words, although anti-EUropean parties will probably gain their best results in the upcoming European elections, they will remain irrelevant political actors within the EU.
This is not to say that their expected electoral success will have no influence on the politics of the EU and its member states. As long as anti-EUropean populists win, at least, some seats, most of the international media will focus a disproportionate part of their coverage of the European elections on them. The message will be that “Europeans turned their back on Europe” and mainstream parties will feel the need to respond to stave off electoral defeats in the (more important) national parliamentary elections in the future – Sweden in September 2014 and, particularly, the United Kingdom in 2015. While the main response will be in terms of rhetoric rather than policy, this will certainly not speed up the accession process of the Southeast European countries. At the same time, it will also not fundamentally change their accession status.
Although the European elections will not fundamentally change the relationships between the EU and the countries of the Western Balkans, it is important to note that ‘Europe’ has changed substantially. The economic crisis and EU responses to it, most notably the controversial combination of austerity and ‘bailouts,’ has not only deeply affected Europe’s economies, but also its populations. Support for the EU has tanked, with a plurality (and no longer a majority) of Europeans holding a positive view of the EU. Euroscepticism has reached an all-time high with remarkably large minorities of Europeans losing faith in the project altogether, and supporting an exit of their country from the EU. While I haven’t seen any reliable surveys on attitudes towards further enlargement, it seems safe to assume that enlargement fatigue is much more widespread among Europe’s masses than among the EU’s elites.
In summary, even though the European elections will not fundamentally change EU policies and Southeast European countries can still expect to join the EU at some point in the future, they will have to realize that they are going to become part of a very different EU than that of which they applied to years ago. Today, the EU is economically and politically weakened and run by a shrinking pro-European elite who lacks a clear ideological vision of, and a popular mandate for, neither the deepening nor widening of the EU.