Europe is under siege from both the left and right

By Matt Browne
May 22, 2014

eu combo

Elections will begin on Thursday across the 28 European Union member states to elect national representatives to the European Parliament, which regulates trade, borders and some elements of foreign policy. Though this is a continent-wide election, voters historically use it to send a message to their own nation’s governing party. With the meteoric rise of anti-European populism on the political left and right, however, things promise to buck that trend this time.

This was not how things were supposed to be. Five years ago, at a meeting of the European Union’s heads of state and government in Lisbon, Portugal, European leaders signed a treaty that foresaw these elections as defining the political direction of the European Union. This week’s elections are supposed to mark a turning point, as competing progressive, liberal, green and conservative visions of Europe’s future vied for popular support.

Instead, Europe is in a mess — and the future of the European Union seems in doubt.

eu elections -- parliamentEuropean Parliament political groups have decided to use the Lisbon Treaty for a power grab, interpreting a vague commitment about political direction as their right to nominate and impose candidates for president of the European Commission. Yet the real winners in this week’s election are likely to be the anti-European populists now calling for a dissolution of Europe.

Across Europe, mainstream political parties on both the center-right and the center-left have been hemorrhaging support. This began with the 2008 global financial crisis and continued through the euro sovereign-debt crisis that followed. European rules and the bailout conditions of European partners forced many nations to adopt austerity policies, which prolonged the economic crisis.

At the same time, the free movement of workers across the EU intensified migration and competition for low-skilled work as economic insecurity rose. The combination of Europe’s enduring economic malaise and its growing diversity has proven fertile ground for populists. Their message that Europe is the problem rather than the solution resonates among those who have lost out or who are fearful of change.

On the right, the focus of anti-European populists tends to be in opposition to immigration and the invasiveness of European legislation, which they claim undermines national sovereignty. This is the case in Britain, where Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party is riding high in the polls despite constant accusations of racism. The same is true for Martine Le Pen’s National Front in France. Both nationalist parties could win the largest share of the vote in their respective countries, as could Geert Wilders’ PVV in the Netherlands and Heinz-Christian Strache in Austria.

eu -- merkelOn the left, the anti-European movement coalesces around a harsher anti-market stance and resistance to the restrictive austerity bias of European economic policy. In Germany, Die Linke has become the main opposition to the grand coalition led by Chancellor Angela Merkel. Hard-left anti-Europeans are also likely to perform well in France, Spain and the Czech Republic.

Among this new group, the Greek Alex Tsipras has emerged as a leader. He did well in recent pan-European presidential debates, and this is likely to help lead his leftist party to victory in Greece.

So this week’s election could turn out quite differently than many expected. A clear victory for either a progressive or conservative vision of Europe seems unlikely. The almost certain success of the anti-European parties, who could win as many as a third of all parliamentary seats, will dramatically change the political calculus.

The natural reaction of Europe’s political elite will be to form a “pro-Europe, pro-reform” grand coalition and work to contain the influence of the populist parliamentarians. While this might be good for policy, it’s likely to prove bad politics.

eu elections -- docsA business-as-usual approach will exacerbate the disconnect between the European Parliament and its citizens. Instead, the new European Parliament should listen to the concerns of the voters who have elected the populists.

Unless the European elite in Brussels works to revive widespread economic prosperity and middle-class fortunes, providing a vision and narrative that helps all Europeans adapt to social and cultural change, the populist protest is only likely to grow.

This is not just background noise. The message they send is a crucial signal Europe’s elite need to hear.

 

PHOTO (TOP):Clockwise from top left: Heinz-Christian Strache, head of the Freedom Party in Austria; Martine Le Pen, head of the National Front in France; Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party, and Geert Wilders of the PVV in the Netherlands. REUTERS/Combo

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Members of the European Parliament take part in a voting session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, November 20, 2013. Picture taken with a fisheye lens. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

PHOTO (INSERT 2): A cyclist passes European election posters of Socialist candidate for European Commission President Martin Schulz (R) of the Social Democratic Party and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is head of the Christian Democratic Union, in Hamburg, May 20, 2014.  REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer

PHOTO (INSERT 3): An employee prepares electoral documents to be sent to voters for the coming European elections, in Strasbourg, May 15, 2014. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

7 comments

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Wrong to say “European Parliament political groups have decided to use the Lisbon Treaty for a power grab, interpreting a vague commitment about political direction as their right to nominate and impose candidates for president of the European Commission”
It is not the EP political groups that have nominated candidates for Commission President, it is European political parties (for example, Juncker was cosen as the EPP candidate by Merkel, Rajoy, Kenny, etc at the EPP meeting in Dublin, not by the EPP’s MEPs).
And it was the national govts who changed the treaty to say that, when nominating a Commission President, the European Council has to take account of the European elections.
This nomination has to be someone capable of securing a parliamentary majority – something not abnormal in democracies!

Posted by RichardCorbett | Report as abusive

The anti-European movement only reinforces the status quo. Because of the widespread mistrust of the EU, national governments want to keep tight control over the European Union. But because of this, the day to day leadership of the Union, the European Commission, is more accountable to governments, than to the citizens they are supposed to serve. They never have to defend their actions to citizens, because they are not elected by them. This is the root cause of the faceless, bureaucratic character of the EU, and the lack of trust that Europeans feel towards ‘their’ Union. Anti-European parties are the result of that, but they are also the ones who prevent reforms that would make the Commission more accountable.

Posted by Huson | Report as abusive

Europe is fundamentally schitzophrenic. Europeans are increasingly dependent upon government and union largesse to maintain the way of life to which they have become accustomed. Perpetually in denial as to adopting steps necessary to remain or become competitive in a maturing global market, their economic productivity is increasingly inadequate to cover steadily increasing expenses.

The party will go on until no one is left standing. Same as always, nothing to see here.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

If the EU was not so arrogant, un democratic, corrupt and wasteful it may well get more support from its citizens. When the Irish didn’t vote the way they wanted they forced them to vote again until they got the result they wanted. The are turning a blind eye to the Greek government using a non existent surplus to buy votes. Likewise the Spanish government are restricting press freedoms but it suits the EU as they toe the EU line. Every European poll shows that people do not want ever closer integration yet this is ignored as the people cannot possibly know what they want. The EU is despicable.

Posted by paulos | Report as abusive

Strange how Browne fails to mention Greece’s Golden Dawn.

But then, maybe not so strange, as the right-wing parties he names have all disavowed “racism,” i.e., explicit defense of their nations’ native populations. No doubt this lends them “legitimacy” in his eyes.

And Tsipras is hardly an extremist, or even a challenge to the establishment. He’s as internationalist as any multinational corporate CEO.

Posted by f00 | Report as abusive

i think to be considered relevant as a journalistic source Reuters has to truly delve into the phenomenon known as “UKIP.” Not reporting on Nigel Farage and what he has done is truly an astounding feat of ignorance and only goes to show how reporting is fast becoming a thing of the past puts on full display the willingness of Reuters to descend itself into complete mediocrity and irrelevancy.

Their reporting on US politics is simply inconsequential now as well. Simply put the entire news organization on that front has become a parody of a news organization as the entire editorial board and management simply spends another wasted day of trying to defy reality while even failing at being the news, let alone “making some.”

Wake up Reuters…Europe was shaken to its core this weekend. Trying to spin this as “Germany is Europe now” is really quite pathetic and simply makes a mockery of any attempt at being incisive.

Posted by lkofenglish | Report as abusive

The most striking aspect of the Euro Elections was the continuous barrage of “Racist!” chants at the anti-Europeans.

I know it is hard for pro-Europeans to understand but the desire to abolish the nations of Europe out of fear of war is just another sort of racism.

This “Racism of the Second Kind” is worse than gangs of yobs because it seeks to eliminate whole races. It is an attempt at a final solution to the race “problem” in Europe.

Posted by Nojer | Report as abusive