While much of the world’s eyes were on Ukraine, and wondering about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions, populist parties often tinged with xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic beliefs, made gains in May’s elections to the European Parliament, the legislative body for the 28-member European Union.
Parties strongly opposed to the European Union performed well in several countries, including France, Denmark, Greece, and Britain.
Much of this was fuelled by opposition to Muslim immigration into the continent, and the feeling that EU apparatchiks in Brussels, rather than national parliaments, were increasingly in control of policies. Mass unemployment and economic austerity added to the discontent.
The 751- member European Parliament, which meets in Brussels as well as Strasbourg, seems remote from most voters, who still define themselves first and foremost as members of their respective nations rather than as abstract “Europeans.” Yet its principal concern, according to Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform, a London-based research group, “has been to get more power for itself and more money for the European Union.”
This does not go over well in hard economic times, and protest parties are making the most of the situation.
Most startling was the French result, where the far-right National Front (NF) won about 26 per cent of the vote, edging out the two major parties, President François Holland’s governing Socialists and the Union for a Popular Movement. The NF won 25 of the 74 seats allocated to France in the European Parliament.
The NF quadrupled its vote from the six per cent they won at the last European parliamentary elections in 2009. Its support has been driven by growing discontent with historically high jobless claims and an economy that has barely grown in two years.
Marine Le Pen, the NF’s leader, told supporters that “The people have spoken loud and clear.” They no longer want to be led “by those outside our borders, by EU commissioners and technocrats who are unelected. They want to be protected from globalization and take back the reins of their destiny.”
In Britain, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) won 28 per cent of the vote, ahead of both the Conservatives of Prime Minister David Cameron and the main opposition Labour Party. This almost doubled the 16.5 per cent the UKIP secured in 2009 and brought it 24 of the country’s 73 seats.
Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader, asserted that this would help those in Britain and elsewhere who want to slash the European Union’s powers and return decision-making to individual states.
“As members of this union we cannot run our own country and crucially, we cannot control our own borders,” said Farage. “I don't just want Britain to leave the European Union,” he added. “I want Europe to leave the European Union.”
The far-right Danish People’s Party became Denmark’s biggest party with 27 per cent of the vote and doubled its number of seats in the European parliament from two to four of Denmark’s 13-member delegation. It had campaigned to reclaim border controls and curb benefits to other EU citizens living in Denmark.
The anti-euro Alternative for Germany party won its first seats in any election in that country with seven per cent of the German vote, good for seven of Germany’s 94 seats. “It’s springtime in Germany,” leader Bernd Lucke told chanting supporters in Berlin. “Some flowers are blooming and others are wilting.”
In Greece, best by economic troubles and an unemployment rate of 27 per cent, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn picked up votes, while the far left made even greater gains. Golden Dawn will enter the European Parliament for the first time after winning nine per cent of the vote and three of 21 seats, a third place finish.
“I congratulate you for managing to resist the government’s terrorism and for not believing their lies,” Nikos Michaloliakos, the party leader, declared. “We are the only political power that actually stands up against our state being run by foreign powers.
In Hungary, the far-right Jobbik, also had some cause to celebrate. While it won 14.7 per cent of the vote, the same as in 2009, with its three of Hungary’s 21 seats it beat out the Socialists to become the country’s largest opposition party at the EU level.
“I have important news for you: today Jobbik is the second largest party in Hungary,” Gabor Vona, the Jobbik leader told cheering supporters. “We all want a common Europe, but a different one to what we have at the moment.”
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.