Meet the Tea Party — European edition
Europe finally has its own Tea Party. Or something like it.
Last weekend, citizens of 21 nations elected members of a new European parliament. The result? An outpouring of rage.
Angry voters across the continent and Britain cast ballots for protest parties, mostly on the far right, which doubled their number of seats and now account for close to one third of the parliament. French Prime Minister Manuel Vallis called the vote “more than a news alert . . . it is a shock, an earthquake.”
What were the voters angry about? Well, everything. The parties that made big gains were anti-Europe, anti-common currency, anti-integration, anti-bureaucrat and anti-politician. They were also anti-immigrant. Angry voters were protesting immigration from within the Common Market (mostly by Eastern Europeans, who have the right to work in any European country) and from outside Europe (mostly by Muslims).
Anything else? Yes.
“This is a bad day for the European Union when a party with such an openly racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic program gets 25 percent of the vote in France,” the president of the European parliament said after it became clear that the far-right National Front led the polling in France.
In Britain, it was the first election in more than 100 years when one of the two major parties did not lead the polls. First place went to the UK Independence Party (UKIP) whose charismatic leader, Nigel Farage, wants Britain out of the European Union and immigrants out of Britain. British Prime Minister David Cameron once described UKIP as “a bunch of fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists.”
Anything else? Yes. Anti-American sentiment was a factor. Parties of the far right are openly resentful of the U.S. “hegemony” over Europe. For 70 years, the United States has supported the technocrats and financial elites who run Europe. “The European Union is the poodle of the United States,” a French National Front politician complained.
The driving force behind all this protest is not ideology. It’s hardship. Europe’s response to the 2008 financial crisis was different from that of the United States. Americans elected President Barack Obama, whose free-spending ways and government bailouts generated the Tea Party protest. In Europe, bureaucrats and bankers enforced a policy of painful austerity.
The idea was to reduce government debt by slashing public spending — exactly the kinds of policies the U.S. Tea Party favors. The result, predictably, was mass unemployment and despair. And now an outpouring of angry protest.
In the United States, the Tea Party protest is anti-big government. In Europe, it’s anti-austerity. In both places, it’s anti-establishment.
How did European governments get away with imposing a regime of what one American commentator called “savage austerity? Because Europe has an elitist political culture.
Economic and social elites have long enjoyed a monopoly of authority. Educated European elites, for example, agree that the death penalty is cruel and barbaric. So it’s banned. Popular opinion may disagree, but the people defer to the elite.
Not in the United States. The United States has a populist political culture. Here, the people rule. If the governing elites defy public opinion, they pay a price.
“The great danger is populism,” Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, warned in 2010. In the United States, populism isn’t a danger. It’s a principle of governing.
Right-wing populism in Europe is not just critical of America. It’s also pro-Russia and openly admiring of its president, Vladimir Putin. Why? Because the despised European elites are hostile to Russia. So far-right leaders in Europe openly praise Putin’s aggressive nationalism and his defiance of the United States.
Farage called Putin the world leader he most admired “as an operator, but not as a human being.” Marine Le Pen, leader of the France’s National Front, expressed respect for Putin and calls for a “pan-European union” that could include Russia. The far right now sees Russia the same way the far left once did — as an alternative to U.S. hegemony.
And something else. Many right-wing European voters agree with Putin’s reactionary cultural views, like his opposition to gays and his criticism of the West as morally decadent. The far right expressed revulsion this month when a bearded Austrian drag queen won the Eurovision Song Contest — Europe’s version of American Idol. Putin attacked the winner for putting her deviant lifestyle “up for show.”
Somehow it all fits together as one package. Speaking before the Russian parliament in 2013, Aymeric Chauprade, a foreign-policy adviser to the leader of the French National Front, called for a new European order free from servitude to “a technocratic elite serving the American and European financial oligarchy” and from its “enslavement by consumerist urges and sexual impulses.”
A pro-European integration, pro-U.S. consensus has ruled in Europe since World War Two. This year, for the first time, it’s facing a large-scale protest.
Van Rompuy is probably wrong when he says populism is a great danger to Europe. Compared to national governments, the European parliament doesn’t do much or matter much. That’s why voters all over Europe felt free to send a radical message with their votes without fearing any frightening consequences.
But in another sense, the president of the European Council was right. The new populism is a great danger — to him and to the people who run Europe.
PHOTO (TOP): Marine Le Pen (L); Senator Ted Cruz (C); Nigel Farage (R). REUTERS/Files.
PHOTO (INSERT 1): Senator Mike Lee (L)(R-Utah) watches as former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin hands out American flags to protesters during the ‘Million Vet March on the Memorials’ at the National World War Two Memorial in Washington, October 13, 2013. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
PHOTO (INSERT 2): British Prime Minister David Cameron arrives at an informal summit of European Union leaders in Brussels, May 27, 2014. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
PHOTO (INSERT 3): Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) (R) greets attendees as he arrives to speak at the Tea Party Patriots ‘Exempt America from Obamacare’ rally on the west lawn of the Capitol in Washington, September 10, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Correction: Due to an editing error, the number of countries participating in last weekend’s election was misstated. Only 21 of the 28 European Union nations held votes.