By: Harry C. Blaney, III


The European Parliament elections that lasted from May 22 to 25, were, to a degree, a bellwether for the direction of the so called “European Project” that aims for an ever closer union of European nations. They also served as a wake-up call for Europeans.

But, this was just one step – and it was by no means the final one – that will shape the future of Europe. The question is whether these elections (and the myriad problems and challenges that will follow) will force Europe to become more united or more divided. Right now, the latter seems likely: predictions that the anti-EU bloc of parties would grow at the expense of traditional European-oriented parties turned out to be accurate.

The preliminary results show that the extremist parties on the right gained ground. According to some results, they will have about 25% of the seats in the new European Parliament. This is a significant, but not overwhelming, increase: the key center traditional bloc that includes center-right conservatives and parties on the traditional left still command a majority of the seats in the 751-seat body.

Moreover, the turn-out was low at 43% and the results were not uniform across all countries. Most of the far-right parties gained significantly only in certain nations. The most important were the gains by the UK Independence Party (UKIP) (27.5% of the total vote), the National Front in France (25%), and the Danish People’s Party (DF) (nearly 27%). These parties all came in first in their respective elections, and UKIP earned more votes than the two traditional parties, which have led elections results for the past 100 years. In Hungary the Jobbik party was second with over 13% of the vote. One anomaly was the gain of the SYRIZA far-left party in Greece: it had also positioned itself against the EU and IMF-imposed harsh austerity program. In any calculation, these are scary figures given the views of these parties.

For me, the most disturbing element is the likely growth to power of the far right with all its racist, anti-migration, and anti-EU sentiment. Its sometimes resort to either violence against those that do not look like them, or its adoption of Nazi slogans and ideology is further cause for worry. UKIP, Greece’s “New Dawn,” and Le Pen’s “National Front” in France all fall under this category in some form or another. It is worrying to realize that some of these parties praise Vladimir Putin’s work in Russia, despite the fact that the Russian state operates under brutal authoritarian rule.     

Overall, these election results do not bode well for the future of Europe. They were not disastrous, but suggest there is reason to worry about European democracy and tolerance. They document the rise of fear, xenophobia, bigotry, fascism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Muslim feelings. The results are especially a reaction to the impact of the severe economic downturn caused, many believe, by the greed of the banks and financial centers. Many feel that European national leaders (especially EU institutions) have acted indifferently to the plights of many over the past eight years.

For many in Europe, the EU was supposed to ensure both the protection and the economic well-being of all European citizens, not just the wealthy few. They now feel that the “social contract” has been broken, and that they are paying a disproportionate price given that they had nothing to do with the actions of banks or national leaders. Decades ago, when the European experiment had just begun, many of those in poorer areas felt they had more to gain with EU membership than without it. But, German narrow-mindedness and greed have led the EU’s recent decisions, and these election results are simply evidence of popular dissatisfaction with the EU’s current direction.

Much of the blame for this can be laid at Germany’s doorstep. However, Denmark under its new right-wing government, Finland, and the UK under the Tories also favored imposing austerity measures on the most vulnerable. Together with right-wing ideologues, they pushed for harsh and cruel policies that have ground down the poor and unemployed, and have required swift and massive cutbacks to social support at a time of high distress.

I visited Britain earlier this year, and found the atmosphere to be more cynical and dismaying than I ever saw while studying in Europe in the 1960s, serving on a number of assignments on the continent as a diplomat, or living there as a scholar. It is disheartening to see so many political figures pointing fingers (at the EU, at their own leaders, and at America), but not proposing realistic solutions.

The challenges are growing and, as with American politics, there is a widening divide between states, ideologies, and income groups. And thus we see negative perspectives towards the European Union itself. The pressures of internal  migration, energy insecurity, and massive unemployment have exacerbated deep unrest. As a result, far right wing, racist, and even fascists parties have grown popular.

In addition to these inward elements of change and disruption, EU states must deal with key external forces of globalization, the rise of an aggressive Russia under Putin, the crises in Ukraine and Syria, and continued upheavals in Libya, Sudan, Congo, Mali, and Nigeria. This combination of issues has resulted in a surge of isolationist sentiment, and Europeans have started to want to withdraw from the larger world.

One of the questions raised in this election (and likely the future national elections) is the issue of who Europeans can blame for the economic and social problems, and who they can look to for help and a solution. Voters have turned their dissatisfaction on their national leaders: movements towards greater separation have emerged in many states. Scotland will soon vote to break away from Britain; the Catalans and Basques in Spain each seek to split off; Belgium’s Flemish and Walloon groups still foster hostility towards the state that has led to the rise of a far right party with fascist tendencies.

In the weeks leading up to these elections (and the days following), some commentators wrote about the growing separation between America and Europe. Others wrote on America’s decline, and still others voiced their concern that Europe’s decision to turn inward threatens American leadership. The American right has been vocal in saying that President Obama’s time in office has weakened America, lending false credence to European worries about our loyalty and support.  

First, much of this criticism is exaggerated and misplaced. As Secretary Kerry said in his recent speech at Yale: most nations want to engage with America, not distance themselves from it. But, the problem with this criticism stems more from our own political dysfunction: Republicans want President Obama to fail on both domestic and foreign issues. In a sense, they want America to fail. When Congress implements cuts to our foreign affairs budget (including our stellar Fulbright program), to development assistance and food for starving people, and to military training and readiness funding, America is seen by many Europeans as distant and disconnected.

Second, these recent decisions by Congress and European voters makes cooperation between the two regions on critical global challenges (climate change, trade, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, catastrophe response, genocide) unlikely. What do these developments mean for NATO as a place for mutual security, political dialogue, and crisis prevention?

A solution to both European and American dysfunction and disillusionmentrequires that leadership on both sides act more creatively and cooperatively, and address the concerns and fears of their respective populations. They can, as President Obama has proposed, agree to a Trans-Atlantic Trade Pact. They can cooperate on a joint energy infrastructure that will make Europe less dependent on Russian gas and oil, and America a leader in clean energy. This will help both unemployment and climate change. Both regions can stop the “austerity” policies of the past, and find ways to create joint projects that stimulate the economy, repair neglected public systems, upgrade education, and put people to work.

If Europeans wish to end the far right’s threat, they need to strengthen EU institutions and adjust them to citizens’ urgent needs. The European Central Bank and other financial institutions need to start seriously bringing ailing member states back from insolvency and towards sustainable growth. The money is there, but the political will is lacking. If European leaders do not act, they will continue to see the rise of these corrosive forces that aim to destroy democracy and a humane and tolerant Europe.

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