The EU citizens, in recent elections to the European Parliament (EP), sent a strong and clear message to the European leaders to take a lesson from their low turnout and their choices to move to the extreme sides of the political spectrum. The EP election results reflected political and social trends of recent years in the EU. Although the general outlook of the EP with its 751 seats has not changed much as compared to the 2009 elections, the voting rate for parties of the far right has visibly increased across the Union.
The EU leaders too have experienced a virtual earthquake as the strength of rightwing political forces demonstrated itself in major countries like Britain and France. The National Front (FN), led by Marine Le Pen, took first place in the EP elections in France with 24.95% of the vote. In the UK, the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP) won the elections with 27%. Likewise, the extreme right-wing Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti) in Denmark emerged victorious with 26%. In Austria, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÃ–) took third place with 19%. Also, in Hungary, the far-right Jobbik Party with a 14% share of the vote managed to become the runner-up in elections there. While the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza), which opposed austerity measures, won the elections with 26% in Greece, the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn has the opportunity to send three parliamentarians to the EP with 9% of the vote.
This swing to the right was not entirely unanticipated as ruling parties were well aware that there has been substantial dissatisfaction among the various populations, as a result of the deep economic recession that has affected some countries. Indeed, for some time now, there has been grumbling in some countries about immigration from other EU member states; and there has also been dissatisfaction in France in particular about continuing movement of nationals into Europe from Middle Eastern countries as turmoil continues there, particularly in Syria, as well as from some African states.
Where there has been relative economic stability, as in Germany, negative results have not characterized the ruling coalition’s support, and in particular Mrs Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party. On the other hand, in France for some time now, public opinion polls have shown continuing dissatisfaction with President Francois Hollande’s French Socialist Party as, in the opinion of a large portion of the electorate, he has failed to come to terms with the depressed economy of the country.
And in effect, it represents a growing sentiment that if major decisions affecting the people are increasingly being centralised within a European institutional framework, then choices about who should be the major functionaries of that framework should be directly made by the national electorates.
The elections have coincided with the imminent appointment of a new President of the European Commission over which there has been some substantial squabbling, one of the main points of opposition groupings in the European Parliament being that this appointment should be made not by the heads of states and governments functioning as a kind of quasi-cabinet, but by the parliament itself. And here the argument is that, as the parliament has evolved in constitutional strength, the presidency of the commission should now reflect the wishes of the popularly elected parliament.
For now, the effects of a far-right tendency can be considered limited. For instance, the EU referendum and migration debates led by David Cameron after the economic crisis in Britain caused the rise of UKIP’s votes and voters in Germany showed similar reflexes in the previous general elections at the end of 2013.
In this sense, the results and turnout of the EP election remind us of the current problems which urgently require a response and prioritization by the EU. In order to deal effectively with the main issue made use of by populism, the ongoing economic crisis, areas such as unemployment and development need to be placed at the top these priorities. This is because EU citizens are pessimistic about the economic crisis and think that ‘the worst has not come yet’.
In this context, besides concrete steps which need to be taken, it is important to overcome the issue of democratic deficit in the institutional structure of the EU and to open up healthy channels of dialogue among EU citizens as well. In short, it seems that ‘the populist rhetoric of the far-right parties must be countered with a new, more assertive agenda for building a competitive, secure and credible Europe which is responsive to its citizens’ concerns but still able to play an important role in its neighborhood and on the global stage’ as stated by Shada Islam from Friends of Europe.
It is also to be noted that the recent electoral demonstration of unpopularity of some of the leading governments of the EU comes at a time when the EU has collectively been making a series of decisions about the character of the integration arrangement as far as membership is concerned. The cosy relationship among the original six of what was then the European Community has been giving way to an increasing membership, encompassing countries which reflect a larger conception of Europe than was perceived as possible during the Cold War. There is now a major discrepancy in size between the original six and the present membership that includes small entities like Malta and Cyprus, as well as former members of the Soviet system such as Poland and Hungary and the smaller entities like Latvia and Estonia which Russia had originally seen as parts of its sphere of influence.