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Rise of Eurosceptic views not EU’s ‘greatest challenge’

UCC conference hears 12% of eligible voters backed anti-establishment groups in May elections

UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage adjusts his headphones during a meeting of leaders of European Parliament political groups in Brussels. Prof John McCormick, of Indiana University in the US, has today said that just barely 12 per cent of eligible voters backed anti-establishment parties in May’s European elections. Photograph: Francois Lenoir/Reuters.

The European Union’s greatest challenges lie in structural problems which are likely to have a far greater impact on the process of integration than the rise of anti-establishment parties across the union, a leading academic has predicted.

Prof John McCormick, of Indiana University in the US, said much media attention on the EU in recent months had focussed on the relative success of anti-establishment candidates in the European Parliament elections and changes in key personnel in the EU hierarchy.

But he said that it should be remembered that anti-establishment forces won about 30 per cent of the votes in the May European Parliament elections but that was only 30 per cent of the 43 per cent who voted, which amounted to barely 12 per cent of eligible voters.

“Pro-EU parties won 70 per cent of the vote but again that amounted to only 30 per cent of eligible voters”, said Prof McCormick, who is Jean Monnet Professor of European Union Politics at the Indianapolis campus of Indiana University.

Addressing the 44th Annual Conference of University Association for Contemporary European Studies, which is being held at University College Cork, Prof McCormick said perhaps the more interesting question was why people did not vote in the May elections.

He said that while there had been key changes in EU personnel such as the appointment of Jean Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission, he believed that whatever the new regime tries to do, they are mired in broad structural problems impacting on integration.

Among the causes of these structural problems is a declining faith in government and while Euroscepticism has risen, it is not just a problem for the EU but reflects a general decline in faith in government generally within European states, he said.

“The Eurobarometer polls show that the ratio of those with positive versus negative images of the EU has fallen from 52 positive and 15 negative in 2007 to near parity at 30 to 29 in 2013, but it’s worth noting that large numbers of people remain neutral about the EU,” he said

“They make up the biggest segment of opinion in 21 of th 28 countries in 2013 but the problem is not just with the EU because polls show declining faith in government more generally and actually the EU comes out quite well in comparison.

“Since at least 2004, levels of trust in the EU have been greater than levels of trust in national governments ...Polls in 2013 indicated 49 per cent of Europeans felt that the EU was headed in the wrong direction compared to 56 per cent who felt their country was headed in the wrong direction.

“And if you think that is bad, since 2010, the number of Americans who think their country is headed in the wrong direction has rarely fallen below 60 per cent and last October, hit a new high of 80 per cent,” he told the conference hosted by the Department of Government at UCC.

Prof McCormick said he believed one of the other main sources of the structural problems facing the EU was “a knowledge deficit” which discourages involvement and encourages the retention of power in hands of elites.

“We hear a lot about the democratic deficit but almost nothing about a much more significant deficit - the knowledge deficit which helps explain many of the problems in the EU, “he told the 470 delegates attending the Cork conference.

The same might be said about people being poorly informed about their national public affairs but it rarely leads them to question the every existence of their national governments or the states in which they live unlike what happens in the case of the EU, he said.

More than 60 years after the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1951, the EU continues to have an identity crisis where most people still don’t know what the EU is which makes it all but impossible to have a sensible debate about how good or bad a job it is doing, he said.