The Paradox of Political Opposition in Multilevel Europe: Examining Plenary Debates in Thirteen Parliaments

Political opposition in the European Union is plagued by a paradox. On the one hand, the EU is fiercely opposed. In many member states we find strong anti-EU sentiments among the citizenry. On the other hand, the EU has by the scholarly community been described as a political system characterized by governance without opposition where decision-making has been depoliticized. The academic consensus thus seems to imply there is an opposition deficit in EU politics, and yet our political reality seems to tell another story. How can this be? This project will scrutinize the contradictory images of political opposition in multilevel Europe by examining plenary debates in thirteen parliamentary arenas 2004-2019. What does the data tell us? Is there an opposition deficit in EU politics or not? The project will make a much needed empirical contribution by conducting the first-ever large scale comparison of oppositional behaviour, but it will also utilize the extensive data gathered to advance our theoretical understanding of opposition by formulating and testing a number of hypotheses about what may explain variation in oppositional behaviour.

To fully appreciate the importance of opposition for democracy it may be useful to ponder over the consequences of a deep seated opposition deficit for a political system. For one thing, the opposition keeps a watchful eye on the government, thereby reducing the risk of power abuse and action that would undermine the foundations of democracy. However, the key importance of opposition is that it underpins the legitimacy of the democratic polity. For if citizens are deprived of opportunities to organize opposition within a political system, there is an obvious risk they will end up opposing the polity as such. In fact, this seems to be what is currently happening around Europe where Eurosceptical parties have entered many national parliaments. The project’s significance is thus underscored by the political events unravelling in contemporary Europe. The signs of a real crisis for democracy are too telling to be ignored. In many European countries populist and anti-democratic forces are on the rise. In a number of Central and Eastern European member states, especially Hungary and Poland, democratic backsliding is evident and political leaders like Viktor Orbán and Jaroslav Kaczynski argue the case for “illiberal democracy”. This development underlines the importance of improving our understanding of political opposition in multilevel Europe.


Principal Investigator: Christer Karlsson (Department of Government)

Funding: SEK 5,600,000 from the Swedish Research Council