Europe is under siege from both the left and right
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.
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. 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.
On 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.
A 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