The Euro Economy

European Parliament (Christian Wohlert)

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.


Author :


  1. Personally I find the extreme right wing parties in many EU states entirely unacceptable. However I also find the implicit view within this and virtually all pro EU items that the only way is movement towards further integration just as unacceptable.
    Times of economic hardship inevitably cause the rise of extreme parties both right and left, who as the author says offer appealing but simplistic solutions. Unfortunately aside from the inherent contempt for the electorate shown by the established political elite in the EU which is bad enough, the people have ample evidence of at least two other major flaws in the make-up of these leaders which are just as damning as the simplistic views of extremists.

    Firstly their general incompetence, think of the euro and the associated structures; they were warned at the time of the flaws but knew so much better than anyone else. Then you have the inability to establish trading agreements with the US, China, India etc., countries as small as Iceland have achieved this but not the EU. The rejection of new technology, GM crops are in place and working across the rest of the World, but not in the EU. Then there is the preservation of vested interests to the detriment of the majority (think of CAP) and so it goes on. And as the author notes all this happens behind closed doors without accountability; anyone else find it interesting and worrying that the Bank of England produce their minutes relating to interest rate discussion 14 days after the meeting, the US Federal Reserve after 5 years but the ECB holds onto the secrets for 30 years ? But at least they have minutes, the meetings of COREPER don’t and they are also closed to the public. There is nothing “seemingly unaccountable” about this technocracy, it is entirely unaccountable, but I suppose we will just have to trust them without any control.

    Secondly but perhaps even more damaging is the way in which laws which are inconvenient can simply set aside or bent to the wishes of the EU. The breach of treaty law by the ECB is well known to all, but treaty safeguards for individual states are also ignored. Think of the way the working time directive has been imposed on the UK despite the legal safeguards by using health and safety. Dominic Grieve QC, one of the most pro EU members of the UK Government was forced to decry such action by the EU in December 2013.

    Most of us sceptics would like friendly relations with our European neighbours, trade and mutual respect, what we are not prepared to accept is a politic structure imposed on us without any consultation or discussion. The false analogy between the US (which is a nation) and the EU (which is not) is illustrative of the mind-set of the author and so many federalists.

    It is entirely possible to be anti EU without being extremist, and it is the absolute failure of the author to seemingly understand much less accept such a position that underlies why the EU has such concern over the likely results from the May elections.

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