Even if most voters see European Parliament elections as an opportunity to register a protest vote, the results of the May 22-25 ballot should be troubling to Europe’s mainstream parties. The outcome of that vote is a wakeup call to Europe’s establishment. They must re-examine fundamental assumptions about the role of the European Union and how they talk about the European project at home.
The EU cannot be used as a scapegoat for domestic woes, a way to dodge hard domestic decisions, without undermining its legitimacy. Europe is still struggling with the effects of the economic downturn triggered by the 2007-2008 global financial crisis. Recoveries have been fitful and uneven, and the prospect of contagion — in which one weak economy on the continent pulls others down with it — is very real.
While Europe’s most solid economies are angry at being asked to subsidize the so-called profligacy of less responsible states, those suffering states complain that they are being forced to endure austerity to prop up the banks of their well-to-do neighbors.
The free movement of labor, a founding principle of the 28-nation EU, is seen as contributing to economic instability and the erosion of national sovereignty and cohesion. The anger and dismay was on full display in the elections when anti-EU parties, historically on the fringe of national politics, topped many of the election results.
In France, the far-right National Front took a quarter of the vote, its best electoral showing ever. The UK Independence Party, another far-right group, claimed 27 percent of the British vote. In Denmark, the anti-immigrant People’s Party came first while in Hungary, the extreme-right Jobbik, which has been accused of racism and anti-Semitism, finished second.
In all, the Euroskeptics (as they are known) will hold about 15 percent of the seats in the new Parliament, twice what they currently hold. They will have picked up seats in more than half the EU member states.
The strong finish of anti-establishment parties is not the entire story. In the Netherlands, the anti-Islam, Dutch Freedom Party — perhaps the best known and most well-established Euroskeptic party — had a disappointing performance and came in second. Some see that result as a sign of what happens when the novelty of the protest vote wears off.
More important is the fact that some 70 percent of the seats in the next European Parliament will be occupied by mainstream parties that back the EU.
The center-right European People’s Party, led by former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, was set to win 214 seats, a drop of 51 from the last Parliament.
The Socialists, who claim the center-left of the spectrum, won 191 seats, an increase of seven, while the Liberals, a centrist party, took 64, a drop of 20 seats. The Greens trailed them with 52 seats.
While Juncker claims that his bloc’s showing makes him the front-runner to head the EU’s executive body, the European Commission, he faces powerful opposition. There will be horse-trading in the weeks to come.
If the past is any precedent, there is little need to fear an organized Euroskeptic bloc in the Parliament. Previously anti-European MEPs spent little time at EU institutions, and when they did show up, it was usually to make speeches that were aimed at audiences back home rather than parliamentarians in attendance. Moreover, apart from opposition to the EU, there is little specifically that the parties agree on.
If the results at the whole EU level are not as severe as some fear, the national reverberations are disturbing. The eclipsing of French President Francois Hollande’s Socialist Party — which came in third place with just 14 percent of the vote — is a blow to a founding member of the EU.
Spain’s top two political parties, which have alternated in power since 1982, saw their collective share of the vote plummet from 80 percent in 2009 to 49 percent.
Irish voters backed independent candidates and other opponents of austerity policies, prompting Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore, the head of the Labour Party, the junior ruling coalition member, to resign as party head.
The bright spots are Germany, where candidates backed by the ruling coalition coasted to victory, and Italy, where new Prime Minister Matteo Renzi claimed a surprising 41 percent of the votes to top his opposition. Both Renzi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said they saw the results as a call for more economic reform. They may split, though, on the need for continued austerity.
The biggest problem is that European voters do not identify with Europe. They see the EU as a distant institution that imposes costs upon them but provides few benefits. That is not surprising, since the European project has been driven by politicians and bureaucrats who have rarely taken the time to sell it to voters. Indeed, they preferred to work in anonymity in Brussels, far from prying voters who might get in the way.
The distance allowed local politicians to use the EU as a scapegoat for national political problems. The result has been an erosion of legitimacy and support. That arrogance must end if Europe is to survive.