Anti-establishment parties from both the left and the right won big in the 28-nation European Parliament elections that ended on May 25.
Riding a wave of voter discontent over the existing political order in Europe, the electoral victories—especially those by Euro-skeptic politicians in major EU countries such as Britain, France and Germany—mark a clear turning point in the debate over the future of the European Union.
The surge of anti-EU parties represents an important blow to the legitimacy of plans by the European establishment to transform the continent into a United States of Europe.
Europe-wide, nearly 150 representatives from anti-establishment parties won seats in the European Parliament. This is up from around 60 seats in the 2009 election. Established pro-EU parties will remain in control of roughly 70% of the 751-seat parliament, which manages the EU’s €143 billion ($200 billion) annual budget and passes EU-wide laws that affect more than 500 million citizens.
Moreover, Europe’s ruling elites are unlikely to allow these or any other election results to derail their quest to build a European superstate. Although European voters have sent an unmistakable message, efforts are already underway to discredit Euro-skeptics by branding them as extremists.
Anti-establishment parties are also divided among themselves on many issues, a weakness that, if not overcome, will blunt their effectiveness in the European Parliament.
In summary, the Euro-skeptics face a daunting set of long-term challenges to stop the seemingly relentless march toward European federalism. In the near term, however, the greatest impact of their electoral victories will be felt at the local and national levels.
Nowhere is this truer than in France, where the anti-EU and anti-immigration National Front (FN) party, led by Marine Le Pen, scored 25%, the largest share of the vote in the country. Her strong showing suggests that Le Pen now has a reasonable (although by no means certain) chance of winning the French presidency in national elections set for 2017.
A Le Pen presidency could spell doom for the European Union: The FN party platform calls for taking France, the Euro-zone’s second-biggest economy after Germany, out of the European single currency. Monetary union without France would render the Euro pointless.
Le Pen said at a press conference that the election results show that “the sovereign people have proclaimed that they want to take back the reins of their destiny into their hands.” She also said that French voters had “shouted loud and clear” that they wanted France to be run “by the French, for the French and with the French” and not by “foreign commissioners” in Brussels.
For now, the FN will use its mandate “to defend France” and to fight “crazy measures” being implemented by French President François Hollande, a leading champion of the EU who also happens to be one of the most unpopular presidents in modern French history.
But Hollande—whose ruling Socialist Party was pushed into third place (13.9%), behind the FN and the opposition center-right UMP (21%)—insists that European integration will continue apace. In a televised address, Hollande acknowledged that the “European Project” had become “remote and incomprehensible” and this had to change. But he also said: “Europe cannot advance without France but France’s future is in Europe,” adding that his duty was to “reform France and re-orient Europe.”
In Britain, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which campaigned aggressively for a complete exit from the EU, swept to the top of the national poll with 27.5% of the vote (almost twice the 16.5% it won in 2009). Drawing voters from both left and right, the UKIP victory marked the first time in more than a century that a party other than Labour or Conservative won a national election.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose Conservative party came in third behind UKIP and Labour, will now face calls from members of his party to move farther to the right on Europe and immigration.
During a news conference, Cameron blamed the election results on the EU and said that “Brussels has got too big, too bossy, too interfering.” He added, “The European Union cannot just shrug off these results and carry on as before. We need change.” But he offered no details on how this would happen.
Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg—whose Liberal Democrats party suffered a near-total defeat by losing ten of its 11 MEPs and coming in fifth in the popular vote behind the Green Party—was unrepentant and pledged to keep on pushing for greater British integration into the EU. “Its right we stuck to our values,” Clegg said.
In Germany, the main winner was the Euro-skeptic Alternative for Germany (AfD), which was founded only a year ago and won a respectable 7% of the vote. The AfD says it is anti-Euro, but not anti-EU. Party leader Bernd Lucke, an economics professor, argues that the single currency is fundamentally flawed and that southern European countries should be evicted from the Euro-zone. Also in Germany, the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD) won its first EU seat.
Elsewhere in Europe, the Danish People’s Party became the biggest in Denmark with about 25% of the vote. In Austria, the nationalist Freedom Party (FPÖ) finished third with 20%, compared with 12.7% in 2009. The party, which campaigned with slogans such as “Too much EU is dumb,” picked up four seats, two more than in the last election.
In Greece, the left-wing, anti-establishment Syriza [Coalition of the Radical Left] party came in first with 27% of the vote. Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras said Europe had taken “an important step for the end of the disastrous policies of austerity and the return of democracy. The people of Europe condemned the policies of austerity.” Also in Greece, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn garnered 10% of the vote and will be sending two MEPs to Brussels for the first time.
In Hungary, the ruling conservative Fidesz [Hungarian Civic Union] party won a massive victory, with nearly 52% of the vote and 12 seats in the European Parliament. The far-right Jobbik came in second, garnering 15% of the vote. In the Netherlands, the Freedom Party (PVV) led by Geert Wilders came in second, winning four seats.
In Spain, opposition leader Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said he was stepping down after his Socialist Party had its worst-ever election result. The Socialists lost nine of their 23 seats in the European Parliament while the ruling center-right People’s Party lost eight of its 24 seats.
The big winner in Spain’s elections was an upstart leftist group called Podemos (“We Can”). The anti-establishment, anti-austerity party, founded in February, grabbed 8% of the vote and secured five seats. Podemos wants to prevent companies from firing employees, introduce a 35-hour workweek, and redistribute wages. It also wants to abolish private hospitals to return to a fully state-controlled health care system.
The main task for Euro-skeptic parties now will be to form an official European Parliament political group, which would unlock EU funding and open up seats on committees, and thus ensure a stronger position in parliamentary procedure. An official group requires at least 25 seats across seven countries. But given the wide range of interests and ideological persuasions, this may be a challenge.
Some Euro-skeptic parties have pledged not to work with far-right parties, presumably in an effort not to alienate mainstream voters. The UKIP and the Danish People’s Party have distanced themselves from Le Pen, who has cemented an alliance with the Dutch Freedom Party. At the same time, Le Pen has said she will not enter into alliance with Greece’s Golden Dawn or Hungary’s Jobbik. In Germany, the leader of the AfD says he does not want to be in a coalition with Euro-skeptics of any kind, and will instead begin talks with other conservative parties. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel has ruled out any cooperation with AfD.
Even if the anti-EU parties are upgraded to become an official political group within the European Parliament, they will still be outnumbered by the pro-EU parties by a wide margin. Moreover, the establishment parties may enter into a grand coalition of their own as a way to keep the anti-establishment parties at bay. But the opportunity to speak in parliamentary debates and chair certain committees will give the anti-EU parties an important new platform on which they can sell their message.
In the end, it remains to be seen how the anti-establishment victories will impact the European Union. So far Europe’s ruling class appears content to ignore or ridicule them.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the former prime minister of Luxembourg and consummate European insider who is on a short list of candidates to become the next president of the European Commission (the administrative arm of the EU) had this to say about the election results, “The extreme right, contrary to what some of the media has said, did not win this election. We will have a clear pro-European majority in this house.”
For his part, the outgoing head of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, shifted blame for the EU’s unpopularity by accusing mainstream politicians of stirring up anti-European sentiments. “If you spend all week blaming Europe, you can’t ask people to vote for Europe on Sunday,” he said in an interview with the Financial Times.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel described the rise of the Euro-skeptic parties as “regrettable” while German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said Le Pen’s FN party was “fascist” and “extremist.”
FN Vice President Florian Philippot urged President Hollande to summon the German ambassador in Paris over Schaeuble’s remarks. “It’s not up to a minister of another country, a German minister, to tell the French how to vote,” he told France 5 television. Referring to Schaeuble as someone who supports the EU unconditionally, Philippot added: “Those kind of people no longer respect the ballot box.”
Speaking after a May 26 meeting of EU leaders in Brussels to assess the election results, UKIP leader Nigel Farage said that despite the election results, it felt like “business as usual.”
“We’ve just had a quite dramatic European election, with new skeptical parties, some new extreme nationalist parties, a massive spectrum, from the left to the center to the right,” he said. “You know, there is a big dissident voice now in this parliament. And yet, I’ve just sat in a meeting where you wouldn’t have thought anything had happened at all.”
In an essay published by The Guardian, the pro-European British historian Timothy Garton Ash says it should now be clear to everyone that “the old politics is no longer the answer” and that if the European Union hopes to survive, it should focus on one thing: implementing policies that promote job creation.
But Garton Ash is not hopeful: “I have a dreadful feeling in my bones that future historians may write of the May 2014 elections: ‘This was the wake-up call from which Europe failed to wake up.'”
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute and Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group.