Opinion

The Great Debate

Europe is under siege from both the left and right

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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.

Why ‘anti-European populists’ won’t win big in the European elections

For months EU politicians have been warning us about the upcoming elections for the European Parliament (EP), to be held in May in all 28 member states. European Commission President Jose Barroso recently predicted “a festival of unfounded reproaches against Europe” as a consequence of the EU-wide “rise of extremism from the extreme right and from the extreme left.” The media has mostly followed these political messages, publishing countless articles, editorials and op-eds about the upcoming European apocalypse. Most of these stories refer exclusively to the rise of the right wing French National Front (FN), under new leader Marine Le Pen, arguing that her party’s rising popularity parallels that of other extreme nationalist parties across Europe. In addition, as is often the case in European politics, many articles and op-eds also include references to the Great Depression of the 1930s and a return of fascism.

Most media coverage remains vague on the exact electoral strength of the “anti-European populists”– a political construction by the pro-EU elite that includes far left, far right, populist, and hard Euroskeptic parties. Editorials mainly stress that “rampant right-wing populism” will make significant gains and the anti-Europeans will become important players in the new EP. Most of these commentators believe that the anti-European camp will gain between one-quarter and one-third of all 766 seats in the EP. Whatever the exact number of seats, many fear an American scenario, where the “European Tea Parties” could force a shutdown of the EP and, thereby, the EU.

These predictions, however, are highly unrealistic and seldom substantiated by logic. My own predictions, based largely on the results of the last national elections and adjusted on the basis of recent opinion polls, show rather small gains. Far right parties will probably only gain around 40 seats, which is less than the 44 they won in the 2009 European elections. I exclude some parties that other commentators wrongly include in the far right category, like The Finns and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which I include in the amorphous group of “anti-European populists.” All together these latter parties, which often oppose each other even stronger than they oppose the EU, are estimated to win some 125 seats (approximately 16 percent), against the 92 they hold now. That looks like a significant increase, of roughly one-third, but almost 20 seats are gained by just one party, the Italian Five Star Movement (M5S), which is among the least Euroskeptic of this motley crew.

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