Andy Rain / EPA

Rise of anti-EU parties sounds alarm for Brussels’ future

Parliamentary election signals public disgust with EU status quo

May 29, 2014 3:00PM ET

The results of the May 25 European Union parliamentary elections were bad for the EU, but they could have been worse.

The European establishment was stunned by the dramatic size of the flagrantly anti-EU vote, which will reshuffle the deck in Brussels and empower far rightists and other populists with more clout than ever before. A full quarter of seats in the EU parliament, the crucible of EU democracy, will be held by parties — among them neo-Nazis, Putin fans and racist radicals — who expressly want to destroy it.

Though the results landed a considerable blow, they won’t fell the EU — that is, not if Europe’s pro-EU ranks (still the vast majority of the parliament’s elected MPs) heed the stiff warning they’ve been issued. The same politicos who’ve steered the EU for years can no longer remain in the driver’s seat and on the same course.

Anti-EU wave

This vote was a bullet narrowly dodged. Had the combination of euro opponents from both the right and the left scored as highly in Germany or a few other countries as they did in France and Britain, or had turnout been as low in Western Europe as it was in Central Europe, the next European Parliament would have been severely incapacitated. This would have triggered a serious crisis of legitimacy, no doubt endangering Europe’s economic recovery and setting the stage for populist electoral gains on the national level, thus shifting all of Europe emphatically to the right.

That it didn’t come to this, though, shouldn’t whitewash the threat for the EU that the results represent. A record number of seats (228 out of 751) will be in the hands of either far-right or far-left parties that condemn the EU. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Front swept the French vote with 25 percent, and Britain’s UK Independence Party outpaced all the traditional parties with 28 percent. The anti-immigrant Danish People's Party emerged as the front-runner in Denmark by a similar margin. In Italy, once the home of the most pro-EU populace on the continent, the anti-euro 5-Star Movement of comic Beppe Grillo garnered 23 percent of the vote. In Greece, Austria, Hungary, and Finland, far-right parties also ran extremely well.

Overall, roughly one in five Europeans cast their ballot for an anti-EU party. Although most of the victorious parties were far right, the far left, which rejects the EU as a neoliberal behemoth, also chalked up victories. Greece’s anti-EU Syriza party took 27 percent of the vote.

While the overall turnout remained at 43 percent — the same as in 2009 — the dreadful numbers in Central Europe (13 percent in Slovakia, 25 percent in Croatia, 23 percent in Poland) offer a damning indictment of what Mitteleuropa’s newcomers think of EU democracy. To be fair, though, it was not the Central Europeans who voted for the naysayers, but the heart of “old Europe.”

Two types of critique

There are two types of critique embedded in the turnouts for the far right and assorted populists. On the one hand, there’s the illiberal scorn of the EU haters, who reject it in principle. On the other, there is the legitimate, if often nebulous, dissatisfaction of the masses who feel they have nowhere else to turn. The EU establishment has done a very poor job of untangling these two critiques, which has only compounded the problem.

The EU haters on both the far right and the far left aren’t “EU critics” at all, but rather full-fledged opponents of European supranationalism. Those parties, which include France’s National Front and UKIP, want to disrupt the EU: to mock it, trip it up and make it dysfunctional, turning their own portrayal of it as an inept bureaucratic colossus into a self-fulfilling prophecy. As the Dutch rightist Geert Wilders puts it: “We want to liberate our countries from the ‘monster' that is Brussels.”

He personifies everything protest voters from left to right distrust about remote European elites. He is, so to speak, the Louis XVI of the EU.

Timothy Garton Ash on EU pol Jean-Claude Juncker

These parties represent an unusually diverse grab bag, often with conflicting positions or emphases on many key issues, which will ultimately limit their power and impact. Yet they also have a common set of underlying assumptions that reflect a fundamentally undemocratic mindset — which poses a danger not just to the EU but to democratic Europe as a whole. They are all unabashedly authoritarian, usually dominated by a single leader and favoring strong-arm politics that tightly control economy and society. This is reflected in, among other things, exceptionally tough stances on crime and maintaining law and order. They are also exclusivist, identifying with some version of a racially defined nation, which explains slogans such as Le Pen’s “France for the French” and UKIP’s “British Jobs for British Workers.” All of them endorse strict closed-door immigration policies, usually in veiled xenophobic terms terms. Moreover, most — though not all — are socially conservative, speaking out against gay rights and nontraditional families.

It’s no coincidence that most of them admire Russian President Vladimir Putin, who captures their imagination with his Russia-first nationalism, moral conservatism and unflinching power plays in Eastern Europe. This is the kind of continent that the far right envisages — a throwback to the days when proud nations competed over territory and treasure.

Bureaucratic and inefficient

Despite the far right’s electoral success, its popularity should not be overrated. A significant share of its EU-election voters aren’t radical rightists. Although there is no early analysis of these voters’ profile across Europe in 2014, it appears that many of them are ordinary people understandably critical of EU policies; they see the anti-Europe parties as the only vehicle to express their deep disillusionment with the Euro-crisis. These people say in one opinion poll after another that the EU is remote, deaf to their concerns, overly bureaucratic and inefficient. Indeed, there is no other outlet for such disenchantment or for visions of a different EU.

All the mainstream parties, from conservatives to Greens, are ultimately part of the EU system, and thus unable to critique it fundamentally or present alternatives. Despite the surface diversity of mainstream, pro-EU parties, they are virtually indistinguishable on most of the big-ticket EU issues, such as eurozone banking reform or agricultural policies. All of them face the complex task of defending the EU and promoting all of its truly impressive accomplishments while, at the same time, credibly criticizing its deficits and showing a commitment to reform. Doing both at the same time — defending and criticizing — is the fundamental challenge that the EU faces.

Take, for example, the candidates running for the European Commission presidency, Martin Schulz, a German Social Democrat, and Jean-Claude Juncker, a Christian Democrat from Luxembourg. They are your prototypical bland, careerist EU politicians who, in terms of key policy matters, are hard to tell apart. As the Oxford historian Timothy Garton Ash put it about the reserved, technocratic Juncker, whose conservative parties won the most votes:

The canny Luxembourgeois was the longest-serving head of an EU national government, and the chair of the Eurogroup through the worst of the eurozone crisis. Although he has considerable skills as a politician and deal-maker, he personifies everything protest voters from left to right distrust about remote European elites. He is, so to speak, the Louis XVI of the EU.

To counter the rise of the anti-EU populists the establishment must not only present a few fresh and younger faces, but also, more importantly, distinguish between the EU haters, who have to be fought (with democratic means), and the disillusioned masses, whose serious gripes must urgently be addressed. The blunder committed by the mainstream parties and their leaders, including Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, is moving onto the turf of the EU haters, trying to steal their momentum by inching closer to them. By, for example, blaming immigrants for taking jobs or sponging off their social welfare systems, they play right into the hands of the anti-EU populists. In Britain, this is what David Cameron did with catastrophic results: The voters simply went for the real thing, UKIP, rather than Cameron’s Tories. Merkel’s sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union, played the same card, and paid for it by losing votes to Germany’s new upstart anti-EU force, the Alternative for Germany, which captured 7 percent of the vote for the first time.

Up to Germany

The impact of the EU haters in the European Parliament, however, may be less than their numbers suggest. They are deeply at odds among themselves on many issues. It is unlikely that Marine Le Pen will find enough partners willing to go along with her to form a far-right-wing formal caucus of at least 25 MPs from seven parties, which would qualify for EU funds and leadership spots on parliamentary committees. Le Pen and Wilders have already begun this process, which could include the likes of the Austrian Freedom Party, the Belgian Flemish Interest, the Italian Lega Nord and perhaps also the Slovak National Party. UKIP says it will not join in an alliance with Le Pen’s party, which it claims has anti-Semitic currents.

The EU mainstream now has another four years to make amends and stave off something worse than this vote. Germany will have to be the motor of change, since beleaguered France is obviously no longer in the position to do so. There’s a paradox here, too, as German domination of the EU is a chief complaint among non-Germans about the EU today. A more socially minded, investment-driven agenda to put the Euro-crisis behind the EU and create jobs would also go a long way in winning back trust. European citizens must participate more directly in the lawmaking that affects so much of their lives.

Paul Hockenos is a journalist living in Berlin. He has covered the transformations of the EU for over 25 years.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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