New poll reveals divisions among voters of eurosceptic parties ahead of 2024 European Parliament elections

While there will be a surge of support for far-right and anti-European parties, the pro-European political mainstream could end up in a much better position than many expect in the June 2024 European Parliament elections – including with a workable majority in the house – according to a new polling-backed report published on March 21 by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

The report’s authors and foreign policy experts, Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard, argue that pro-European parties must avoid “aping” far-right policies, such as migration, if this is to materialise.

Among its key findings, the study, “A new political map: Getting the European Parliament election right, reveals that the salience of migration, as a vote driver, is comparatively low across Europe; the ‘far right’ is not seen as a unitary phenomenon, with some parties having successfully detoxified themselves while others are seen as radical and dangerous, even on key issues relating to EU membership; and perceptions of the EU’s response to crises such as Covid-19, climate change and Ukraine are broadly viewed in a ‘negative’ light, so organising a campaign on the European Commission’s record could backfire.

Citing new YouGov and Datapraxis survey data, from Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, and Sweden, the co-authors, Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard, note that the current strategy of pro-Europeans of neutralising migration as a political issue by “aping” right-wing policies and championing the European Commission’s response to Covid-19 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is in danger of failing. Instead, European leaders should pursue targeted national campaigns to “wake up” key voter groups to the importance of maintaining a pro-European direction in the next legislature.

ECFR survey findings, in the context of the European Parliament elections, include:

Lesson One: The EU’s agenda will not be defined by the far-right because the anti-European movement is divided in its aims and ambitions.

  • In only four member states – Austria (58%), Germany (55%), the Netherlands (63%) and Sweden (59%) – are leaders of far-right parties recognised by a majority of the broader electorate as plotting their country’s exit from the EU. Interestingly, very few supporters (15%) of Italy’s governing party, Fratelli D’Italia, believe that Giorgia Meloni’s wants to pull Italy out of the EU – and the wider Italian electorate (17%) seem to doubt this too. Accordingly, the Italian opposition may struggle to mobilise voters by claiming that a good result by Fratelli D’Italia risks putting the EU – and their country’s position inside it – in danger. Pro-Europeans in Spain, Portugal, and Romania face a similar constraint. This contrasts with how the leader of Poland’s PiS, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, is perceived in his country. Only one in five (21%) of respondents to ECFR’s survey, who plan to vote for PiS, believe he wants to exit the EU, while 52% of wider society see this as his objective. This could provide Polish pro-European forces with an opportunity to mobilise mainstream voters around the dangers of the PiS’s electoral success; and also allow them to demobilise others tempted by PiS, by drawing their attention to the increasingly anti-European elements of the party’s current political stances.
  • There are also splits in the anti-European movement across key issues, including migration and the war in Ukraine. Voters of PiS and the Sweden Democrats are strongly supportive of the Ukrainian war effort, with 58% and 52%, respectively, indicating that Europe should continue to support Ukraine win back its lost territory. This view is often shared by Portugal’s Chega (42% supporting) and Spain’s Vox (35% supporting). However, elsewhere, 88% of voters of Hungary’s Fidesz, 70% of those allied with Austria’s Freedom Party (FPO), and 69% of Germany’s AfD oppose such action, and instead believe that Europe should push Ukraine towards a negotiated settlement with Russia. On migration, supporters of anti-European parties (81% of Dutch PVV and 72% of FPO, followed by 60% of Sweden Democrats, 59% of AfD, 59% of France’s Rassemblement National, and 57% of PiS) stand out as those most worried by people coming to their countries – rather than by emigration. However, again, this is not uniform. Supporters of Fratelli D’Italia (54%), Vox (53%), Chega (56%), and Fidesz (54%), are principally concerned by emigration or by both emigration and immigration equally.

Lesson Two: Migration policy won’t define the election

  • Although many observers are predicting a far-right surge, driven by a fear of immigration, the issue’s salience is overstated. Of the options presented, just 15% of respondents across the polled countries view immigration as the leading crisis of the past decade, compared to 21% selecting global economic turmoil, 19% the Covid pandemic, 16% climate change, and 16% the war in Ukraine. Immigration, as a lead concern, is exclusive to Germany and Austria, of the countries surveyed. ECFR’s dataset also shows that in some countries voters are concerned less by immigration than by emigration or by “both equally”, particularly in Romania (14% by immigration vs 65% by emigration or both equally), Italy (25% vs 60%), Spain (25% vs 66%), Hungary (22% vs 63%) and Greece (19% vs 73%).
  • Voters are more interested in the motivations of leaders than their policiesSome citizens in Europe believe their leaders are deliberately working to bring more migrants into the EU, raise energy prices, and transfer political powers to Brussels. Large numbers of Europeans (45%) think that leaders of pro-European parties in their countries want to open up their countries to greater migrant and refugee entries; raise energy prices to combat climate change (43%); and transfer their country’s political powers to Brussels (33%). The view that pro-European leaders want to bring more migrants and refugees into the EU is most prevalent among those allied to anti-European parties. 66% of PiS supporters, 57% AfD, and 53% Vox, believe this is a top priority of their country’s leaders, Donald Tusk, Olaf Scholz, and Pedro Sanchez. This is also the case for a majority of PiS (66%), Fidesz (60%), and AfD (50%) supporters, when asked about Ursula Von der Leyen’s motives on migration. But such perceptions are not limited only to voters of Eurosceptic parties. For instance, 28% of CDU/CSU voters think that Olaf Scholz wants, “above all”, to increase petrol and energy prices to help with climate change. 24% of the centre-right opposition voters in Portugal and Spain think the same about their countries’ left-wing government leaders. Krastev and Leonard note that European leaders risk exacerbating the problem, by focusing “too much on policy while appearing removed from their electorates’ core concerns”.

Lesson Three: Don’t campaign on the EU’s response to crises

  • European leaders may be tempted to highlight the EU’s record on Covid-19, the Green New Deal, and support for Ukraine. But its successful performance on these crises is not recognised by many voters. For example, on the pandemic, only in Portugal (56%) and Spain (42%) do large numbers see the EU as having played a positive, rather than negative, role. On Ukraine, the EU’s role is also viewed in a negative light by a plurality of respondents (37% on average), with some country exceptions, in Sweden, Portugal, Netherlands, and Poland, where the prevailing view (41%, 39%, 37% and 34%, respectively) is that the EU’s role has been positive. And, on its handling of the financial crisis, only 20% of respondents across the countries surveyed believe the EU’s role had been positive, versus 41%, a plurality, who feel it had been negative.
  • Moreover, the EU’s climate policies are divisive. When confronted with a hypothetical trade-off, between pursuing climate ambitions “even if that means energy bills would need to rise” or avoiding a rise in energy bills “even if that means missing the carbon emission targets”, a plurality of respondents (41% on average) preferred the latter, while 25% chose the former. Only in Sweden and Portugal was the prevailing view (with 37% and 31%, respectively) that European governments should do all possible to reach carbon emission targets.

An Alternative Strategy for the Election

Instead of aping the far-right or focusing on the European Commission’s record, pro-European leaders should consider re-evaluating their approach to June’s elections. To achieve this, and rally wider backing for the pro-European movement, Krastev and Leonard suggest a strategy of:

  1. Polarisation and demobilisation to peel votes away from the far-right. In 2019, pro-Europeans effectively put the survival of the EU on the ballot – but this will be much harder in 2024 and could end up aiding the Eurosceptics in many countries. To counter a spike in support for the far-right, European leaders should pursue polarising strategies in places where these parties are perceived as extreme outside of their own voting base, including Austria, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and Sweden. This is especially true in Austria, France, Germany and Poland, where 20% or more see exiting the EU as a priority agenda for their leading anti-European party. In tandem with efforts to mobilise their own voter base, pro-Europeans should also seek to de-mobilise those allied with anti-European parties. Eurosceptics are unlikely to change political camp, but they could be dissuaded from turning out on polling day – particularly if they don’t subscribe to certain elements of a party’s platform or are confronted with narratives that speak to the uncertainties that anti-establishment parties could present to their own country and the EU. Exposing the inconsistencies and dangers of the anti-European platform could prompt some supporters to reconsider their choice – although, in Germany, France, and Austria, for example, this could prove difficult given the highly mobilised nature of these parties.
  2. Making the case for a stronger Europe in the world. Putting the Ukraine war front and centre of a political campaign is likely to backfire, according to Krastev and Leonard, given waning belief in Ukraine’s ability to secure victory (just 10% of respondents now hold the view that Ukraine can win the war, according to ECFR’s dataset). Championing the track record of the European Commission and its flagship policies, including the European Green Deal, will also yield little benefit, since many Europeans see it as having performed poorly in the face of numerous Instead, leaders should make the case for a stronger and more defensive-minded Europe, which can counter possible US policy shifts under Donald Trump and further acts of Russian aggression along Europe’s borders. This strategy could “wake up” voter groups wary of Trump’s return to the importance of preserving a pro-European direction in the next parliament.

Commenting on the new survey report, co-author and founding director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, Mark Leonard, said:

“People are wrong to think that the best way to beat the far right is by aping its policies on migration. Our polling shows that migration isn’t the main issue for most voters in most countries and that simply copying far-right policies can make mainstream parties look inauthentic. The better alternative is to focus on the weaknesses of Eurosceptic parties and make a geopolitical case for Europe in the time of Trump.”

Ivan Krastev, co-author and Chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, added:

“European leaders should not make this an election about migration, but rather about the nature of European borders – military, economic, and human. They should not mobilise people out of solidarity with Ukraine – but rather out of a concern for European sovereignty and security. Faced with uncertainty in American politics and the aggression of Putin, they should argue that we are in a moment in which if the EU did not exist, it would need to be invented.”

(Photo (c) European Union. Source: European Parliament)

The Sofia Globe staff

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