Eurosceptic and populist MEPs may be just what the EU needs


Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

The barbarians are at the EU’s gates! Scarcely a day goes by in Brussels without a conference speech or high-profile article warning of the legions of eurosceptic populists who will be invading the European Parliament after this summer’s elections. The message is always the same; the malevolent newcomers will be bent on destroying the last 60 years of progressive European integration, and will be numerous enough to block parliamentary business and so create political chaos across the EU.

Maybe. But it’s worth taking a look at a different scenario. Perhaps the euro-barbarians’ arrival will have an unexpectedly positive effect.

The European Union has a perception problem, and the European Parliament is part of it. Although an increasingly effective player in the institutional power game, the parliament fails to reassure public opinion that the EU is democratic.

In the theatre of politics, the European Parliament has no charisma. Its detailed and highly technical work lacks drama or human interest. There’s scarcely any debate there over the need for a more united Europe, despite growing voter scepticism, because the overwhelming majority of MEPs see closer integration in one form or another as the only way forward.

Most of the arguments advanced by eurosceptic politicians have a touch of madness about them; they appeal to nostalgia for a bygone age when global economic competition wasn’t so fierce and when national identity seemed an attractive rallying cry. Where they really hit home is with the charge that the EU is a power grab by a small group of the unelected and self-selecting who are advancing their own interests under the guise of “Europe”.

Few members of the European Parliament convincingly articulate the EU’s very real contribution to Europeans’ living standards and its vital political and security role in defusing frictions. They haven’t needed to because there have been so few adversaries among them.

But soon there may very well be a large and powerful group of new MEPs whose agenda is to challenge almost every aspect of EU policymaking. It’s useless to speculate how many seats they may win in the end-May elections, but it seems clear that between them the UK Independence Party, France’s Front National, the PVV Freedom Party in the Netherlands and other extreme Left or Right-wing parties around Europe will be a formidable force.

The obvious point about nationalist politicians is that they’ll find international unity difficult. But that probably won’t stop them from regularly gumming up the work of the European Parliament, and thus the EU as a whole. That would at last turn the spotlight of media attention on it and give the majority of MEPs a heaven-sent opportunity to explain what it is they do, and why. It may sound counter-intuitive, but I say ‘bring on the crazies; they’ll quickly discredit themselves.’

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