Voters from across the European Union will elect 751 deputies to the European Parliament in May. Proportional representation and voter apathy have long made European elections a prime target for fringe parties, but current polling numbers suggest that this year’s election may mark a watershed moment. France’s Front National (FN) could win a plurality of the votes, while the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the Dutch Freedom Party (PVV) have similarly high hopes. In all, the eurosceptic vote from the left and right could take up to a quarter of the parliament’s seats and will surely be up from the 12% it represents today.
Many votes will go to more established elements of the eurosceptic left, but the Economist reckons in this week’s leader that the far-right Europe bashers will represent some 9% of that vote. It is the emergence of this ragtag group of insurgents that has Europe’s mainstream political leaders cowering. Across Europe, these parties are arising from the shadows of taboo and scorn to dawn an air of respectability and legitimacy and even take important positions in local, regional and national governments.
In France, the charismatic Marine Le Pen has been busy softening the party’s xenophobic image. She came in third in the country’s first round of presidential elections in 2012 and her party won two seats in Parliament the same year. Geert de Wilder’s PVV retains a strong presence in the country’s legislature and, until April 2012, supported the minority government. In Norway, the Progress Party has joined the country’s new governing coalition and Slovakia has a new far-right provincial governor.
By virtue of the diversity of Europe’s 28 Member States, this political movement is highly heterogeneous. Hungary’s militant Jobbik party and Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn have little in common with Nigel Farage’s UKIP, which itself has thus far rebuffed Le Pen and Wilder’s pan-European alliance of far-right parties announced back in November. Local histories and particular grievances may separate these parties, but they share an overarching distrust of both elites in Brussels, who they see as corrupt and self-serving, and poor immigrants, who they say are lining their pockets with government benefits.
Fed by the economic and social upheavals of the economic crisis, their well-documented rise has come to be considered a defining feature of Europe’s political landscape, just as the American Tea Party has done following the election of President Obama in 2008. Conveniently overlooking structural problems in their own countries, they decry the free movement of labour and capital facilitated by Europe’s construction that they say is putting their citizens out of work.
Independent of the economic and social tumult, the European Union’s opaque and seemingly unaccountable technocracy makes it an appealing target as post-war European dogma weakens and calls for European solidarity from mainstream parties are few and far in between. As history’s horrors fade into the past with a dying generation, little has emerged to carry European ideals forward and the Union’s founding myths are becoming more like rote grammar school lessons than guiding principles.
Rising support for these parties could translate into as many as 90 of the 751 seats up for grabs in Europe’s premier forum for direct democracy. This is well beyond the 25 members needed to form a political group in the European Parliament, a status which entitles its members to EU funding for meetings, office space and support staff. This may only constitute a relatively small portion of Europe’s parliamentary representation, but its sizable enough to wreak havoc as only a handful of Tea Party identified congressmen have done in the US.
The real danger is not that these parties will succeed, but the irreparable damage they will do to Europe if given the chance to fail. While Europe’s mainstream parties deserve little praise for their management of affairs over the past decade, the intellectually hollow dribble fronted by right-wing eurosceptics leaves even more to be desired. Few could even be implemented, meaning their momentum would fizzle out quickly if they ever took office, although the episode would not be without its casualties.
In the face this demagogic onslaught, Europe’s mainstream parties have tried to beat these parties back into their corners with accusations of xenephobia, racism and fascism. This tactic may have worked back when memories of Hitler’s Germany were fresh, but it now comes off as more of a scare tactic for voters and seems to only be legitimizing them. Moreover, while attacking the insurgent parties, they pander to their politics by adopting watered down anti-immigrant and EU legislation, giving implicit blessing to their policies while seemingly lacking the courage to go all the way themselves.
Mainstream Europe must take a lesson from the US, where Democrats, and increasingly Republicans, are learning that you can’t fight fire with fire. If you don’t want far-right parties setting the political agenda, you must take them seriously and confront them with counter-arguments. Instead of repeatedly whacking your fringe opponents with increasingly anachronistic platitudes, Europe’s right-wingers should be treated as normal actors in Europe’s democratic system. Cold hard facts speak louder than old truisms.
Any perceptive politician will quickly point out that this is easier said than done. The political agenda of the eurosceptics has the benefit of being appealingly simple and difficult to disprove. As European decision making becomes increasingly obfuscated by technocratic jargon and closed-door horse trading, simply pulling out of the Euro or throwing up tariff barriers to protect industries quickly become plausible and appetizing. Meanwhile, the failures of the mainstream consensus, make criticising populist illusion a difficult feat. The battle against extremism in Europe is thus a battle against apathy and disillusion, a battle to restore hope and faith in Europe.