Across the EU, elections to the European Parliament are rarely the highlight of the political calendar. Despite the distinct set of issues in play at Brussels, the ballots most often act as little more than a proxy for domestic debates and voter turnout is frequently embarrassingly low – 43% across the EU in 2009, reaching as low as 19.6% in Slovakia.
With voters due to head to the euro-polls once again next year, however, the elections are looking more interesting than usual. In Britain, the growing right-wing Eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP), looks poised to make significant gains on the back of its surprisingly strong showing at local authority elections earlier this year. Indeed, UKIP is fast becoming a serious and credible political force, with the party often doing well in polling of voting intentions and making electoral gains in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (in Scotland, UKIP is yet to retain a deposit).
UKIP benefits from an increasingly strong activist base and extensive media coverage, which is wholly disproportionate for a party without a single MP. The party is also increasingly attracting large donations, with multi-millionaire businessman Paul Sykes, one of the UK’s wealthiest men, pledging last month to fund their 2014 Euro-election campaign. Bookmakers William Hill have UKIP odds on to win.
Success next year would be a major event in British politics, and pose another significant challenge to the UK’s two-party system, still adjusting to the presence of the third-party Liberal Democrats in the ruling coalition. A win would also stoke further fears from the centre-left about the growth of anti-EU and anti-immigrant sentiment in Britain, with UKIP quick to exploit working class concerns over levels of migration and the impact on jobs and social cohesion. With leader Nigel Farage’s message resonating widely in many corners of England, both the Conservatives and the Labour Party have taken it upon themselves to adopt “tougher” stances on immigration.
Despite UKIP’s right-wing policy positions, however, it is notable that the party is quick to distance itself from some of the more extreme political outfits making gains across Europe. For all its faults, UKIP cannot really be grouped with the “radical nationalist” Jobbik or the neo-fascist Golden Dawn, the extremist parties which have, in recent years, made political and social shockwaves in Hungary and Greece, respectively.
In addition to shunning such extremism, Farage has pointedly refused to “get into bed” with other far-right movements such as France’s Front National and the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom.
Those parties, led by Marine le Pen and Geert Wilders, respectively, joined forces last month in an electoral alliance designed to galvanise Euroscepticism ahead of next year’s polls. Whilst Farage sympathises with their attempts to derail the European legislative process, he claims that elements of anti-Semitism within the Front National and Geert Wilders’ often Islamophobic rhetoric render impossible the prospect of an alliance. After all, any self-description of UKIP would be incomplete without the reassurance that it is a “libertarian, non-racist party”.
Sure enough, the party has stood non-white candidates and boasts even some first-generation migrants amongst its backers. For many, however, Farage’s attempts to paint a cuddly, positive image of UKIP ring rather hollow in amongst the party’s extensive scaremongering over immigration – even suggesting that “29 million Bulgarians and Romanians” might flood the UK from January 2014 once migration restrictions are lifted. The combined population of Bulgaria and Romania stands at just 27 million.
With Farage reluctant to join forces with other Eurosceptic and anti-immigration parties across the continent, it is difficult to assess how a UKIP win in Britain might impact upon other member states. What is clear, however, is that a strong showing will have a profound influence on the UK’s domestic politics. If the party is triumphant in 2014, we might expect to see the Tories and Labour drift further to the right on UKIP’s pet issues in an attempt to ape its policies and steal the momentum from under its feet ahead of the 2015 General Election.
Most crucially, however, UKIP gains would also have a substantial impact on the Tories’ proposals for an in-out referendum on EU membership. Prime Minister David Cameron has promised a vote in 2017 should the Conservatives win a majority in 2015, but is under heavy pressure from Eurosceptic backbenchers in his own party to bring the plans forward and set the date in stone. An endorsement of the party most committed to leaving the EU could only intensify such pressure. In those circumstances, the impact of the British Euro-election result next year upon the EU as a whole could be profound.