In democratic political systems, elections are the most important institutionalised opportunities to articulate political preferences and opinions, to mobilise citizens and to organise political conflict. Political conflict is expected to be most intensive in the electoral arena, where political parties fight for votes, offices and policies. In Schattschneider's words, this is where the ‘crowd’ comes in because ‘[n]othing attracts a crowd as quickly as a fight’ (Schattschneider 1975 : 1). In our context, this statement needs to be qualified in two respects. First, it is true that elections have by far the strongest mobilising power compared to national referenda or protest events. However, they have an elitist bias because they are dominated by political parties and marginalise interest groups and organised civil society. Second, while political conflict in integration debates is clearly directed at European issues, elections are open for any political issue. For this reason, conflicts over European integration have to compete with other domestic issues (such as welfare, unemployment, security, etc.) for public attention and for consideration in parties’ electoral strategies. Taken together, elections may provide a favourable political opportunity structure for politicisation, but it is uncertain whether parties actually make use of this opportunity. It is the task of this chapter to examine this empirically.
We concentrate on the national electoral arena, because national elections in the period under consideration were ‘first order elections’. Compared to ‘second order elections’ to the European Parliament (Reif and Schmitt 1980) or to sub-national election contests, they had the highest turnover and parties directed their strongest efforts at them. Moreover, as we argued in the introductory chapter, in the EU's multi-layered polity, national elections are expected to be the most important institutionalised channel to mobilise political conflict beyond the narrow range of the governmental elite. In order to assess the relative importance of conflicts in national election contests, we introduce an empirical benchmark which allows European integration issues to be compared with the most relevant domestic issues. Against this background, the key questions to be answered in this chapter are the following. Has the European integration process become politicised in the last four decades in the electoral arena?