Will Europe Vote Against Itself?

by Jonah Shepp

Party Leaders Vote In European and Local Elections

Elisabeth Zerofsky examines the Eurosceptic coalition that Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, and other right-wing leaders have formed in the European Parliament. They they are expected to make significant gains in the EU-wide elections beginning today:

Le Pen fille has tried to distance herself and the Party from the racist associations of her father. She has also been clear about her vision for Europe, telling a group of reporters earlier this year that she is “only looking for one thing from the European Union, and that is that it explode.” In an interview published in Time last week, she declared, “The E.U. has become a totalitarian structure.” She has sought out other Euroskeptic parties across the Continent and in the U.K. to form the strangest of entities: a pan-European, anti-Europe bloc in the Parliament.

“A self-hating parliament,” is how Mark Leonard, the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, has characterized it. (Others have spoken of the coalition as a “European Tea Party.”) Leonard told me that the perfect conditions for a popular backlash across the Continent had been laid in the wake of the euro crisis. On the one hand, the debtor countries resent the deeper E.U. interference into internal affairs that austerity has wrought. On the other, countries like Germany, Finland, and the Netherlands, which are providing bailout money, blame the E.U. for not shielding them from fiscal laxity in states that lied about their finances. Now, Leonard says, the Union, which already has the reputation for being a pipe dream of élites, risks “acting out the critique that is often made against it.”

Marc Champion worries about what these parties will do to the union:

There are at least two things to say here. One is that these parties will disagree on many policies, making them a less potent force than their numbers in the next parliament may threaten. The more important message, though, is that the typical recourse of Europe’s mainstream parties — to steal from the policies of the far right in an attempt to prevent more voters from leaking away to them — might give them substantial influence anyhow.

A future molded by these populist parties would create an EU that is increasingly atomized, protectionist, xenophobic, militarily weak, ambivalent about Europe’s most important economic project (the euro) and strategic alliance (with the U.S.), and easily manipulated by powers such as Russia and China. What Europe’s actual leaders need to keep in focus is that even the people who vote for populist parties don’t necessarily want such a future: They’re protesting against the failure of the mainstream parties — and of the EU — to manage the effects of globalization and the financial crisis. They feel unrepresented, and the populists are perceived to be listening and offering simple solutions.ju

Much like the Tea Party, Tracy McNicoll points out, these right-wing populists don’t even need to win elections to have a major impact:

Some argue that whether Europe’s surging populists manage to play nice with one another is beside the point. The real danger is their impact nationally, as their strong showing individually forces governing parties’ hands. After all, David Cameron—left in UKIP’s dust with his Conservatives poised to finish third in Britain this week—has already conceded to a national referendum on Europe by the end of 2017.

In France, where the National Front’s projected victory is deeply embarrassing to mainstream parties, the center-right opposition UMP has fissured over its Europe stance. And France’s ruling Socialists, on the hook to cut a gaping deficit, last week suddenly doled out 1 billion euros in emergency tax breaks for low-income earners, just the crowd Le Pen has successfully courted.

Moreover, with the EU’s credibility on the wane, Euroskeptics need only be nuisances to dig the hole deeper. They don’t need a majority or even tight groups for that; blustery chaos will do.

Simon Shuster notes that Russia will be watching the elections closely:

“I’m certain that the rise of the Eurosceptics will force a change in the architecture of the European Union,” says Sergei Baburin, a nationalist politician in Russia involved in talks with Europe’s right-wing parties. “The European people are feeling a desire to defend their homes, their families, their towns and their nations from this supranational idea of Europe that has been forced upon them by the Americans.”

That desire has found champions among Europe’s fringe politicians. In March, several of them even went to Crimea to add legitimacy to the referendum that allowed Russia to annex that region of Ukraine, and their parties will become part of a strong bloc of Russian apologists within the European Parliament after these elections. One of them, the Ataka party in Bulgaria, even launched its campaign for the European Parliament in Moscow.

But Keating thinks “it’s possible to overstate the connection” between the European far-right and Putinism:

I think it’s safe to say that far-right voters, and indeed most far-right politicians, in Europe are motivated less by events in Ukraine, Eastern Europe, or Syria than by domestic concerns over the economy and immigration. There doesn’t seem to be any conspiracy here. With the combination of a devastating economic crisis and an uptick in immigration, the far right has plenty of ammunition without any Russian involvement. And as former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder demonstrates, fawning support for Putinism is hardly limited to the far right.

Daniel Berman, meanwhile, sees the parliament as an ineffectual institution, and isn’t that worried about who leads it:

As noted, the EU Parliament is powerless, what power it does have is diffused by weak party groups with little unity, and unity is even more tenuous among the Far-Right parties, many of which feature parties that are racist against each other. A previous Neo-Fascist grouping fell apart when Romanian members left after Alessandra Mussolini called Romanians “habitual lawbreakers”. So their is little chance of them enacting policy.

The problem is their is little chance of anyone enacting policy either. The EU’s problem fundamentally is that elections cannot be held across dozens of language barriers and be expected to produce a strong government. Voters have too little knowledge of their own candidates, much less anyone else’s. Presidential-style debates as have been tried this year are not a bad idea, but of little consequence when three of the four candidates will likely be in coalition. What Europe needs is a Presidential-style government with a strong executive. Elections for a single office are comprehensible to ordinary voters, and are the only system by which they can exercise control over Europe. As it is, the Parliament just reproduces the European national governments in miniature with has-been politicians while the real power remains in the hands of the professional bureaucracy in Brussels.

(Photo: United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage poses for photographs as he leaves a polling station on May 22, 2014 near Biggin Hill, England. Millions of voters are going to the polls today in local and European elections. By Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)