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Dealing With Europe's Electoral Debacle

Commentary, 27 May 2014
The rise of far-right and anti-European Union parties at the European Parliament elections was the biggest vote of no confidence in the continent’s ruling elite since the launch of the EU project. But it need not be a disaster, provided governments act with composure and tact.

The rise of far-right and anti-European Union parties at the European Parliament elections was the biggest vote of no confidence in the continent’s ruling elite since the launch of the EU project. But it need not be a disaster, provided governments act with composure and tact.


European Union FlagFrance has 'shouted loud and clear', a triumphant Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front, told cheering supporters, that it wanted to be run 'by the French, for the French and with the French' and not by 'foreign commissioners'.  Her party has won 24 European parliamentary seats, up from just three in 2009 and way ahead of French President Francois Hollande’s ruling Socialists, who were pushed into a humiliating third place in the ballots.

An almost identical result was registered in Britain, where the UK Independence Party which never elected a single MP to the national parliament captured twenty-three European parliamentary seats, relegating Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives to third place. 'Our dream has now become a reality' said UKIP leader Nigel Farage when it became clear that, for the first time in more than a century, a British election had been won by a party other than the Conservatives or Labour.

The revolt against ruling elites was evident elsewhere in Europe. In Denmark, the People’s Party which campaigned to reinstate border control on other European citizens and curb welfare benefits for foreigners, topped the national poll.  The far-right Freedom Party in Austria doubled its support, despite the fact that one of its candidates was recently forced to resign after calling the EU 'a conglomerate of negroes'.  In Hungary, Jobbik, an racist movement with its own paramilitary force, came second in the ballots, with 15 per cent of the votes.

Meanwhile, Greece’s votes were split between extreme left and right-wingers, while in Italy, Mr Beppe Grillo, an aged comedian who shouts obscenities at his opponents, came second in voters’ preferences, well ahead of the party of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. All in all, anti-immigrant or anti-EU parties have gained the first place in the ballots in three EU member-states, and the second or third place in voters’ preferences in a further five EU countries.

European elections used to be dismissed as unrepresentative of broader political trends. Turnout is traditionally low, benefitting fringe movements whose supporters are more motivated. People are also more inclined to use European elections as protest votes against their governments. All these factors were present this time as well. Indeed, it would be more appropriate to talk about the people who didn’t vote this year, than those who voted: in no less than thirteen EU member-states, over two-thirds of the electorate did not bother to turn out to vote, and in only eight countries did the national ballots engage the participation of more than half of the electorate. Still, the current European elections are different, and they could have deeper and more long-lasting consequences.

For it is clear that the ballots represent a massive backlash against a Europe historically associated with growing prosperity but now increasingly seen as the source of grinding economic austerity.  To make matters worse, today’s anti-EU parties are aiming to destroy Europe’s two fundamental pillars: the way the Euro single currency operates and the principle of the freedom of movement for European citizens, who are currently entitled to work and settle everywhere within the union. It is impossible to see what political compromises can be made with such people.
And the political confrontation may well get worse in the months to come. Flush with victory, France’s Marine Le Pen is now trying to stitch together a block of nationalist parties inside the European Parliament; if she succeeds, this will considerably hamper the workings of the legislature for the rest of this decade.  But even if she fails, newly-elected populists are guaranteed to use their European platform for publicity stunts such as hurling abuse at ministers or EU officials, the sort of actions Britain’s Nigel Farage is already famous for. The fear is that, the more extremists gain publicity, the higher their chance of being regarded as a real political force; people who only a few weeks ago were dismissed as fringe individuals could become a permanent feature of Europe’s debate.

What can governments do? In reality, there are two major policy approaches which can be adopted with the objective of pricking the current nationalist bubble:

Don’t exaggerate the problem

The results throughout Europe are clearly dire: apathy mixed with anti-establishment anger. But the problem should not be exaggerates, for the variety of populists and nationalists can be and have been defeated. In the Netherlands, the Party of Freedom lost votes, while in Romania, on the other side of the continent, nationalists were wiped out altogether. It is also usually forgotten than Spain and Portugal, two nations gravely afflicted by Europe’s financial crisis, are largely immune to Eurosceptic parties, indicating that the policies of austerity are not necessarily the drivers of the current anti-EU backlash. 

Don’t pretend that the EU parliament has much legitimacy

There is a growing consensus among both governments and experts that, far from addressing the tragedy of the democratic deficit at the heart of the EU, the European Parliament has merely transformed it into a farce, and this trend will only increase as the new intake of rabble-rousers makes a mockery of the parliamentary debates and abuses the European Parliament’s already lax expense accounts. Governments should therefore have the conviction to confront and defeat the current power grab by this parliament.

Under treaty changes recently introduced, the parliament’s views need to be 'taken into account' by European leaders when they appoint the next president of the Commission, the EU’s executive.  MPs claim that this now obliges EU governments to pick Jean-Claude Junker, the former prime minister of Luxembourg and head of the centre-right alliance of political parties which is the biggest in parliament as the next Commission president. But the idea that someone like Mr Junker, famous for advocating the creation of a 'United States of Europe' and for his cavalier attitude to public opinion, should now emerge as the Commission president is nonsense.

EU governments should therefore chose another candidate, even if this risks a showdown with the European Parliament, which has the powers to refuse the confirmation of any appointment. The paralysis which could ensue in Europe will not be nice, but it will be better than accepting a constitutional coup imposed by the current parliament.
Ultimately, the trick which EU governments have to perform is that which they constantly perform in their home states: listen to the electorate, accommodate its anger, but not cave in to any populist fad. Is it too much to ask for the same strategy at the European level?


Jonathan Eyal
Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships

Dr Eyal is the Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships, and International Director, at the Royal United Services Institute... read more

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