by Greta Gietz
Europe is experiencing a recent wave of popular right-wing parties. In national elections and recent elections for the European Parliament, voters across the Continent expressed their dissatisfaction with continued economic distress and found scapegoats in current mainstream parties and the institutions of the European Union. This has translated into growing support for fringe parties with more radical views than traditional centrist European parties, especially on the issues of immigration and European integration.
The manifestations of the economic crisis in much of the continent – high unemployment (especially among the youth) and austerity policies (primarily in the form of public spending cuts on welfare and education) – have reduced support for traditionally big centrist parties and fueled the growth of fringe parties with less-than-mainstream positions on hot issues. The Front National (France), the UK Independence Party (Great Britain), the Lega Nord (Italy), in Germany the Alternative für Deutschland (Germany), and the Sweden Democrats (Sweden) have shocked elections over the past year and received enough votes to gain a significant presence in national and European parliaments. The joint surge of these populist parties and their common success forces Europe’s attention to problems prevalent across the Continent: “government benefits [are] stretched by an aging population, financial crisis, and austerity.”
The new fringe parties both benefit from and are a manifestation of a rare radicalization on European issues. Most emotive of these, the Continent is being tested by huge waves of migrants from less prosperous European countries and by unprecedented numbers of refugees from Africa and the Middle East (see Riaz’ article). While this has understandably caused considerable tensions and burdens on the social welfare systems in the destination countries, it has also triggered thoughtful debates in mainstream political groups around the need to avoid an irrational surge of racism.
The fringe parties and their anti-immigration platforms, however, benefit from a latent feeling of threat among many people and are at times quite explicit about their racist tendencies. France’s Front National, for example, has an “openly racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic program.” More and more people are turning to them or Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party because they are insecure, disappointed, and lost hope or trust in their mainstream, leading parties.
Others among the new protest parties, while playing with such tendencies, are a lot more careful. These argue against immigration on a purely macro-economic basis, such as the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany whose leader is a University Professor of Economics. In their insecurity, the voters want “to reassert control and focus on authoritarian values such as law and order, discipline, social control and traditional family structures.”
Elsewhere, the recent Swedish elections show a growing support for the far-right and anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats party. This movement that attracts Swedes with anti-Semitic and racist sentiments won 13% of the vote and is now the country’s third largest party. Many see this as a response to the growing number of refugees in Sweden and the fear that heightened immigration will increase criminality and abuse Sweden’s exemplary welfare system. Besides vocalizing protest against the astronomical immigration rate, the party’s platform speaks to “rural, unemployed men” that were “left behind in the post-industrial economy.” The rise of the Swedish Democrats and their radical views has understandably shocked the rest of this very liberal and inclusive Scandinavian society. And many observers there and elsewhere warn that if rising nativism has found substantial support in Sweden, the rest of Europe must be even more threatened.
While feeding on the immigration threat—real or perceived—the popularity of these movements is deeply intertwined with the rising skepticism towards the European Union and its previously unchallenged powers. After years of economic distress and a weak Euro, the currency of 18 of the 28 EU member states, Europeans have become critical of the EU’s efficiency and started questioning the benefits of ever-deeper integration. Instead, they increasingly want to return the decision-making to the states, especially on close-to-home issues like immigration.
Across the Continent, the new fringe parties give a voice to this growing Euro-skepticism. They fear the EU as a centralist power that is weakening their national sovereignty. During May’s European Parliament elections, EU-critical parties from France, Greece, Great Britain, and Denmark did well and won a considerable number of seats. Fearing such an outcome, the EU started a campaign prior to elections with the slogan “this time it’s different”, trying to counter the growing disenchantment among the European citizens with its institutions. As elections result showed, this and other belated efforts to signify change and involve the disengaged voters failed to break down the “wall of public indifference to what many Europeans scorn as a remote and overly costly Tower of Babel.”
Henri Malosse, president of the European Economic and Social Committee, responded to the success of Euro-skeptic parties with a warning: “this may be the last European election if Europe does not change.” Despite a low turnout of 43% (indicating a general lack of interest in all things European), many experts do not rule out national referenda on EU membership and the Euro unless the EU makes some stark alterations to its structure. Right now, it is widely criticized for being too isolated and far removed from the issues relevant to its citizens. It is incredibly expensive and seems to have lost touch with its founding principles. The European Parliament is based on the unquestioned goal of European integration and on the assumption of a shared political culture, and “if this does not exist the Parliament has a very hard time connecting with people.”
The European Union has arguably been a unique success story, bringing decades of peace and economic prosperity to the peoples of a Continent that throughout its turbulent history had not had even one generation without wars or military conflict. At the same time, however, these new fringe movements show a decisive trend across the Continent away from the ideal of continued European integration and the EU’s centrist policies that have guaranteed peace, stability, and economic development since the end of World War Two.
The support for these new populist parties shows rising discontent among the 250 million citizens of the EU member states on issues like immigration and the Euro crisis. The institutions of the EU, it seems to them, do not have any answers to their pressing problems. This widespread sentiment threatens the stability of the European Union and its continued integration process – at a time when decentralization tendencies are also on the rise in a number of its countries. After all, 45% of Scots voted for the secession from the Union with England that had lasted 307 years.
Regardless of whether these elections signify a lasting trend – “xenophobia’s” return to Europe – or not, they will undoubtedly change the course of European politics. The established parties, for one, will have to respond to their constituents’ fears and take stronger stands on issues like immigration and economic reforms. Similarly, the EU will need to consider decentralizing its power to maintain legitimacy.
Image Source: The Economist