Eurosceptics won't have it all their own way in EU polls

Mathieu GORSE
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For several countries, EU membership has brought huge benefits

For several countries, EU membership has brought huge benefits (AFP Photo/EMMANUEL DUNAND)

Madrid (AFP) - Ireland, Spain, Portugal, the Baltic states... The expected surge in support for eurosceptics in elections to the European Parliament will likely spare several countries which have reaped huge benefits from EU membership.

"These countries were transformed by their membership of the EU," says Jean-Dominique Giuliani, president of the Robert Schuman Foundation think tank, which would explain the lack of major eurosceptic forces.

Dublin for instance "became the gateway for investments of the Gafa (tech giants Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple) in Europe," he adds.

Spain, Portugal and the Baltic states also benefitted from ample EU funds.

According to the latest Eurobarometer survey published by the European Parliament, 83 percent of respondents in Ireland have a positive opinion of EU membership.

That's well above the average of 61 percent for the 27 member states, excluding the United Kingdom which is in the process of leaving the bloc.

Still, this average is the highest since the early 1990s.

Voters in the Netherlands appear to have shown their attachment to the bloc with pro-EU parties heading for a surprise win in the multi-day elections that end on Sunday, according to an exit poll released Thursday.

- Prosperity, freedom -

Where Ireland is concerned, the country has received 42 billion euros ($47 billion) in EU development aid since it joined the bloc in 1973, according to Irish government figures.

In all, 700,000 jobs have been created and foreign trade increased 90 fold.

The main parties are pro-European. Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has called his ruling Fine Gael party "the party of Europe".

Ireland, which will bear the economic brunt of Britain's looming exit from the EU, has consistently been backed by its EU partners.

An exit poll in Ireland suggested Varadkar's Fine Gael was in the lead.

In Spain, which elects the fifth-biggest contingent of lawmakers to the 751-seat European Parliament, citizens are broadly pro-EU, says Jose Ignacio Torreblanca of the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank.

And that is because the EU rhymes with freedom.

Spain's return to democracy following the death of longtime dictator Francisco Franco in 1975 and its entry in 1986 into the then European Economic Community "are two sides of the same coin," he adds.

EU membership helped thrust Spain into the modern world. EU development funds for example helped the country build Europe's largest high-speed rail network.

Even the programme of far-right party Vox, which won seats in the Spanish parliament for the first time in a general election last month, starts off by saying "We believe in Europe because we are Europe".

Like Spain, in Portugal 69 percent of the population looks upon EU membership favourably, according to the Eurobarometer, despite drastic austerity imposed by Brussels after the financial crisis.

The country joined the bloc in the same year as its neighbour after decades of dictatorship.

It has "benefitted greatly from the European project" in terms of improved social services, education and transport, says the head of the ruling Socialist Party's poll list, Pedro Marques.

The poverty rate for senior citizens in Portugal has been halved since statistics started being kept in 1995, he notes.

As in Spain, polls show Portugal's ruling Socialists will win the most seats while support for the populist right will be negligible.

- History, identity -

But what of other member states like Hungary and Poland that also benefitted economically from the EU but elected eurosceptics to power?

According to Giuliani, it's all down to history.

"For Spain, Europe is democracy and prosperity. In Hungary or in Poland, Europe is prosperity, security but it's something that runs up against the desire to recover national sovereignty," 20 years after the end of communism, he says.

It's an entirely different story for the Baltic states.

The EU and NATO allowed Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, once ruled from Moscow, to reassert their sovereignty.

They became member states in 2004 and for them, the EU means access to the single market and security in the face of their giant, increasingly assertive Russian neighbour.

Even in Estonia, where a far-right party is part of the governing coalition, 74 percent view EU membership favourably, according to the Eurobarometer.

That's more than in Lithuania (71 percent) and Latvia (54 percent), where no eurosceptic force to speak of is running in the European election.