European elections results show a decisive transformation in EU politics. With a historical increase in participation, the dissolution of the traditional dominant blocs (the Socialists & Democrats and the European Popular Party) at the benefit of the Greens and the Liberals (ALDE) and the (slight) rise of populists, the European Parliament appears to be more divided, polarised and politicised than ever before. These tendencies offer an opportunity to look into political science for insights on politicisation and EU governance.
What is politicisation?
Politicisation is usually defined as the combination of an increased salience of issues (on media, old and new, i.e. social), an expansion in the number of actors involved in the discussion about a given issue, and polarization. EU elections results confirm that indeed, after decades of having been a polity with policy but no politics, EU politics do exist:
- With a participation rate at almost 51%, the highest since 1994, EU voters reversed a four decades trend of decreasing participation, revealing the increased interest, and engagement in EU politics.
- In many countries, the number of parties taking part in the elections also reached historical figures: 34 in France, 15 in the Netherlands, 41 in Germany, 16 in Italy. Thus, people and parties are more interested in EU politics.
- Finally, polarisation is also evident in the new Parliament (results are indicated as available on Monday 27 at 10 am, thus not definitive). The two main parties lost their decades long majority: the EPP shrinked from 214 to 179 deputies, the Socialist and Democrats from 189 to 150. The ALDE liberals (with the help of Macron’s Renaissance list) and the Greens (on the rise all over Europe) both made considerable progress, becoming political forces that will matter in the making of a majority: ALDE rose from 66 to 108 deputies, and the Greens – beating all predictions – from 52 to 68. The far right consolidated its position, but did not succeed in creating a Eurosceptic wave, and remains divided (with 71 deputies for Salvini’s Alliance, 57 for the Europeans Conservatives and Reformists, and 44 for the Italian 5Stars and Brexit Party, thus 172 in total). Definitive results will however depends on what happens with Brexit, and if Orban’s party leaves or is asked to the EPP.
Does politicisation play a role in EU politics? Is it as straightforward as it seems?
Long gone are the days of the ‘permissive consensus’, whereby elites could pursue European integration, and Brussels could function thanks to its policy networks. European politics are now constrained by national politics at home, as confirmed by the rise of Eurosceptic (far) right wing parties across Europe that constrain consensus in the European Council.
Depending on whether one looks at opinion polls or policy-making, the answer might diverge. Indeed, studies of policy-making and the role of the European Parliament offer a more nuanced picture than that of a hung Parliament, and populists reigning in over Brussels. Populism and Euroscepticism do affect EU politics, but mostly through national pressure, and not to the extent that we think, when we examine how EU policy-making works.
Scholars have suggested that two worlds exist in EU policy-making: the first is made up of a limited, but highly salient and politicised issues. However, most EU policy domains belong to the second word of policy-making, which is more technical, invisible, less polarised, and in which logics of interest groups dominate. Theboundaries between these two worlds are somewhat blurred, with interest groups aligning on party politics, and issues shifting from one domain to the other.
What is the impact of this division on the content of policies? In a study of EU response to crises, we have shown that salience, polarisation, and the number of actors matter, but not to the extent that politicisation studies suggest. European integration can still happen, but for different causes and with different consequences.
Adoption of European-wide policies is likely to be facilitated by the politicisation of an issue. However, when looking at traditional measures of salience, such as media (newspapers), European issues only feature high in elite newspapers (such as the Volksrant), and low in popular newspapers (with the interesting exception of the Netherlands where De Telegraaf features a high number of articles with polarised views on EU policies).
For the majority of not so visible policy issues, policy networks – industries actors, NGOs, scientists, experts or EU bureaucrats – sustain negotiations, and have the ability to process EU policies. However, the implementation of such policies tends to be more problematic when politicians face their consequences at the national level. Issues that are not as politicised retain more scope for national ‘customisation’ of EU policies.
Is the new Parliament likely to change the status quo of EU policy-making?
So far, populist parties do not have a track record of being particularly influential in Brussels, as their aim is to work against the EU: studies show that they tend to be little present, produce few reports, vote little, and they are facing several cases of funds misappropriations. Being influential in Brussels requires good knowledge of the complex workings of institutions and networks to push issues through the negotiations with the Commission and the Council. Populist parties invest in salient issues, which however do not constitute the majority of policies during the session of the Parliament.
Nevertheless, the combination of an increased populist presence and a divided parliament may still change the political game in Brussels. Mainstream parties, and in particular the centrists ALDE, are using the populist threat to bargain with the Commission and the Council for more power. The empowered Greens and Liberals are in a position to negotiate the contents of policies to join a coalition. This may introduce more bargaining between a variety of actors, but neither the Greens, nor ALDE, the EPP and the S&D are likely to change the division between salient and technical EU policy-making. It appears politicisation may not matter for the majority of policy issues as much as we would like to believe.