Mainstream Parties are the key to politicization of Europe in European Elections


After the successful completion of economic integration with the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, public controversies resulting from disagreement on fundamental questions on the scope and future direction of European integration intensified. The rise of Eurosceptic parties in member states of the European Union (EU), the rejection of the Constitutional Treaty in national referenda in France and the Netherlands in 2005, public protest against the austerity measures imposed by the EU in the Eurozone crisis in South European countries, and not the least the negative outcome of the Brexit referendum in the UK in 2016 are lively examples for the increasing politicization of Europe.


European integration is the object of intensified political conflict in the member states of the EU. The burgeoning literature has shown that European integration has been subject to politicization in national public and parliamentary debates, national election campaigns and national referenda. However, the European level of governance has been ignored in these studies of the politicization. Based on original data covering the entire post-Maastricht period, we analyze the politicization of European issues in EP elections. Our article introduces two new data sets on European election campaigns (EEC, EEC_EU), which are part of a wider research project on Political Structuring of European Elections in five EU member states (Austria, France, Germany, Sweden, UK). This project is based at the Geschwister Scholl Institute of Political Science at LMU Munich as well as at the Berlin Social Science Center and has been funded by the German Research Foundation between 2016 and 2020.


The European dimension of the politicization of Europe

Our comparative analysis of European election campaigns (EEC, EEC_EU) with existing data on national election campaigns in four countries (Austria, France, Germany, UK), enables us to get a better idea on the differences and similarities between EP and national elections. Figure 1 illustrates that European issues have in fact been politicized in EP elections to a remarkable degree. Electoral behavior in EP elections may follow a distinct political logic heavily affected by domestic factors; however, this second-order national logic has not crowded out European issues in EP election campaigns in the post-Maastricht period. But our data also reveals remarkable differences between countries. Whereas, Austria and Germany are characterized by moderate levels of politicization without any substantial differences over time, in France and the UK, political conflict over European integration has been intense in EP elections.


Figure 1: The politicization of Europe in national and EP elections


How do Eurosceptic and mainstream parties differ?

Eurosceptic parties have been identified as the main drivers of politicization. Radical right and left populist and Eurosceptic parties act as political entrepreneurs who occupy extreme positions on issues such as Europe to gain competitive advantage over mainstream parties. The case of EP elections offers a particularly fertile political and institutional opportunity structure for such parties. On the one hand, the logic of second-order elections in general privileges extreme parties. On the other hand, elections to the EP provide a favorable institutional context for challenger parties because of their proportional electoral law in all countries. This has been of particular importance for radical Eurosceptic parties in France and the UK, such as the Front National (FN) and UK Independence Party (UKIP). For all these reasons, we expect these parties to have a positive effect on the politicization of Europe. Therefore, we combined our data with Euromanifesto data to study this idea empirically. Figure 2 plots the relationship between the emphasis placed on EU issues by extreme challenger parties and the politicization of European issues in EP election campaigns. It shows no statistically significant relationship (r=0.02; p=0.88). Consequently, and against the theoretical assumption, the emphasis of radical challenger parties on European issues has no significant effect on politicization.


Figure 2: Politicization and EU issue emphasis by extreme challenger parties


Compared to Eurosceptic parties, mainstream parties are known for their de-emphasizing strategies when responding to Eurosceptic challenger parties. Traditionally, pro-European catch-all parties with strong internal dissent tend to be silent on Europe. With the passage of time, however, mainstream parties might change their strategies and become more confrontational instead of trying to sidestep European issues. Accordingly, Figure 3 plots the relationship between the emphasis placed on EU issues by mainstream parties and the politicization of European issues in EP election campaigns. We find a clear statistically significant effect (r=.39; p=.006): In elections with mainstream parties placing much emphasis on EU polity issues in their official party documents, the politicization of Europe in election campaigns is higher.


Figure 3: Politicization and EU issue emphasis by mainstream parties


Our findings show consistently higher levels of politicization of European issues in EP elections in comparison to national first-order elections. Moreover, mainstream political parties are crucial for the better understanding of the politicization of Europe in EP elections. Although new radical challengers have certainly intensified political conflict, these parties have generally been too weak to substantially increase the salience of European issues in public election debates. Therefore, mainstream parties occupy a strategic position in politicizing European issues. When they are unable or unwilling to sidestep European issues in an election campaign, they contribute to a substantial increase in the visibility and intensity of political conflict over the European project.

This blog draws on the JCMS article ‘Politicizing Europe in Elections to the European Parliament (1994–2019): The Crucial Role of Mainstream Parties




Daniela Braun is an assistant professor at LMU Munich. Her research interests include European Union politics, party politics, public opinion, political behavior most recently gender and politics. Her upcoming project funded by the German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) investigates the increasing cleavage between the friends and foes of the European Union (ProConEU) – a comparative analysis of Euromanifesto, public opinion, and Twitter data.

Twitter handles: @danielabraunlmu @GSI_muenchen


Edgar Grande is Founding Director of the Center for Civil Society Research at the Berlin Social Science Center. From 2004 until 2017 he held the Chair in Comparative Politics at the University of Munich. His research interests are focused on problems of civil society, political conflict, governance, European integration and the future of the nation-state.