By Jeremy Weiss, a guest contributor. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Boston University.
February saw possible first steps toward the return of immigration quotas to Switzerland, after a narrow majority supported them in a referendum. The result sparked consternation at the European Commission, which issued a statement condemning the outcome. Conversely, the result has brightened the outlook of Euroskeptics. Geert Wilders, who leads the Dutch right-wing Party for Freedom (PVV) exulted, “[w]hat the Swiss can do, we can do too.” France’s National Front, the Freedom Party of Austria, and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) had similar words of praise. As these and other intensely Euroskeptic “populist” parties gain electoral momentum prior to European Parliament elections in May, their potential impact on EU policy and the appropriate response of pro-EU leaders remain subjects of intense debate.
Daniela Schwarzer, a director at the German Marshall Fund, suggested that “the [referendum] will have a strong impact on the Euroskeptic parties.” Indeed, the bold pronouncements of Wilders and Marine Le Pen, the head of France’s National Front, suggest that mainstream European political parties should be worried. The two met in November, with Wilders calling the meeting “the beginning of the liberation from the European elite, the monster in Brussels.” Both desire an electoral bloc uniting Euroskeptic MEPs, embracing the Sweden Democrats, the Danish Peoples’ Party, the Freedom Party of Austria, the UKIP, and rightist Flemish separatists from Belgium. Should they gather a minimum of 25 MEPs within their caucus, “the group would gain access to funding, committee seats and chairs, and much more prominent chamber speaking rights.” These considerations take on added weight in light of Le Pen’s desire to see the downfall of the EU, of which she remarked: “I am just waiting for one thing, which is that it break into pieces.” Likewise, Wilders has said he wishes to bring down the EU – though he has indicated more specifically that he wishes to see a Dutch exit, or “Nexit,” from the Union. UKIP leader Nigel Farage has said the upcoming elections to the European Parliament will “shatter” the belief that Europe’s continued unification is inevitable.
With polls indicating the National Front and PVV will strongly challenge mainstream parties in May’s election, and the plans of their two leaders to unite with other Euroskeptics in the European Parliament, pro-EU leaders have begun expressing concern for the future. EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom recently warned of increased racism and the record presence of extreme-right members in European parliaments. European Commission President Jose Barroso said that the election risks becoming “a festival of unfounded reproaches against Europe.” In late 2013, as polls put the National Front ahead of the French Socialist Party, President Hollande spoke of his fears: “Next May the European parliament could be for a large part composed of anti-Europeans. It would be a regression and a threat of paralysis.” A source close to Hollande called the President’s remarks a “wake-up call…The next European elections will bring a big victory for nationalist populists of right and left.”
Others farther to the left on the political spectrum have been even more alarmist, with MEPs from the European United Left party likening modern populists to Blackshirts. One remarked: “We are very worried because it’s not as if we’re expecting their knock on the door, they’re already here. The problem is that through national elections in member states, those nationalist, xenophobic and racist parties have gained representation in parliament in very important member states.”
A Reality Check
Yet some political analysts reject the narrative of a growing right-wing populist wave. University of Georgia Professor Cas Mudde calls fears of a populist surge “highly unrealistic and seldom substantiated by logic.” His projections, which incorporate results from national elections and polling data, indicate that of the 766 seats in Brussels, the “far right” will win 125. This would constitute an increase from their current 92 seats, but hardly a political earthquake. Critics might note that Mudde excluded the True Finns and UKIP from his definition of a “far right” bloc. However, Mudde’s decision to exclude UKIP despite the party’s strong anti-Brussels platform speaks to a larger issue regarding the inability of Europe’s populists to find common ground. Marine Le Pen, in her quest to redeem the National Front from its past as an extremist, xenophobic and antisemitic party under her father, Jean Marie Le Pen, has refused to associate with the hard-right Golden Dawn of Greece and Jobbik of Hungary, both of which will be represented in the next EU Parliament but continue to advance extremely nationalistic, often racist, views.
Le Pen’s efforts to minimize her father’s legacy have not convinced everyone, however. Mr. Farage claims the UKIP will not caucus with the National Front due to the French party’s antisemitic reputation. This lends credence to Mudde’s analysis. Furthermore, as a Guardian article notes: “There are also several major policy differences that Wilders and Le Pen appeared to be burying…which are likely to resurface…Wilders is strongly pro-Israel, pro-gay, pro-women’s rights. The Front National is seen as homophobic, anti-gay marriage, and no friend of Israel.” In developments that may soothe pro-EU observers, the UKIP itself is showing weakness in recent polling, falling from 26% support in January to only 20% in the latest polls, well below the 35% enjoyed by the pro-EU Labour Party. Analysts Yves Bertoncini and Valentin Kreilinger note that even if UKIP support rises from the 16.1% it secured in the 2009 European Parliament elections to 22% this year, the victory will only yield the party a gain of three MEPs. In addition, they echo Mudde’s suggestion that poor cohesion among populists, relative to the organizational strength of mainstream parties, will undermine their effectiveness in parliament. Beyond the aforementioned countries, Le Monde Europe analyst Arnaud Leparmentier reminds readers that populists have minimal support in populous Germany, Spain, and Portugal, due to their experience with fascism and voters’ aversion to extremist parties.
While we must await the results of May’s election to learn whether the populists or their doubters are correct regarding the ability of populists and their leaders to elect and unite a growing body of Euroskeptic MEPs, there is no doubt that the rise in rightist populist sentiment now commands the attention of EU leaders and observers. In this respect, even supporters of the EU should hope that Mr. Farage’s comment about the destruction of the aura of inevitability surrounding the process of European integration is correct. Voter turnout for European Parliament elections has steadily declined since the direct election of MEPs began in 1979. Polling reveals that support for the current EU leadership does not exceed 30% in six EU member states, and that ongoing austerity policies have deeply undercut EU popularity. Europeans have also expressed pessimism regarding prospects for the next generation.
This data and the rise of the populist parties should serve as a wake-up call for EU leaders to stop taking the success of the Union and support from Europeans for granted. Since the last EU Parliament elections in 2009, Europe has dealt with continued economic weakness and a currency crisis that sparked a debate over the future of the euro. Today, the Swiss referendum and the popularity of xenophobic parties such as Golden Dawn and Jobbik indicate that support for the EU’s principles are far from universally accepted. With this in mind, those who wish for the continued success of the EU in promoting peace, freedom of movement, and human rights in a part of the world that even in the last quarter century has seen the effects of nationalistic conflict, must ensure that the ongoing parliamentary campaign does not become a rearguard action designed simply to minimize the populist advance. EU supporters must take up the populist challenge and advance a positive message emphasizing the benefits that have accrued to Europe as the EU has deepened and expanded.
There remains fertile ground for EU backers to exploit. The same poll revealing disappointment in EU leadership also indicates that young people remain the most supportive of Brussels. Some European leaders have begun to discuss the need for the EU to defend itself more effectively. Julian Priestly, a former Secretary General of the European Parliament, argues that new attempts to utilize social media to boost youth voter turnout, more vibrant campaigning methods, and the increasing relevance of EU issues in national elections offer hope for improving engagement between the European Parliament and voters. Priestly also calls for increased confrontation with populist forces who would see the downfall of the EU, and criticizes those EU supporters of failing to generate policies that inspire voters to rally around the European flag.
German ambassador to Ireland Eckhard Lübkemeier has asked Europeans to use the year 2014 not only to recall the centenary of WWI, but also to reflect on the peace and prosperity that the EU has brought to Europe, as well as the unity it has promoted since the fall of Communism. Actively campaigning on the blessings the EU has bestowed on Europe, not passive worrying about an unpleasant populist intrusion into European Parliament, is what is needed to see the Union through 2014 and beyond. EU supporters must ensure that the energy and imagination to craft such a positive message will not be in short supply.