The European Parliament Elections and Rise of the Far Right: Three Reasons for Reassurance, Three for Concern

June 6, 2014

European Parliament building via Shutterstock

Carnegie Council's U.S.Global Engagement program is engaged in a major project monitoring the rise of the Far Right in Europe, including Russia.  This article reflects on the recent elections to the European Parliament in Brussels and Strasbourg.

The European Parliament (EP) election results are in, and the ominous has become the grim reality. Fueled by two major issues—high unemployment across the continent and anti-immigrant anger—Far-Right (and in some isolated cases, Far-Left) parties achieved momentous gains. The headliners were in the United Kingdom, where the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) won 27.49 percent of the vote thus becoming the first victor outside the mainstream parties in over 100 years and in France, where the charismatic Mlle. Marine Le Pen led her Front Nationale to about 25 percent, far ahead of the Socialist Party of President Francois Hollande. But Far-Right parties also fared well in Austria, Denmark, and Sweden; even in Germany—widely regarded as relatively immune from extremist inroads by dint of history and relative economic strength—the ultra-Right Alternative for Germany captured seven EP seats, and even the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party took one seat.

The bottom line is this: what used to be regarded as an unpalatable phenomenon contained to the "New Europe" of the eastern part of the continent has now taken root in the "established" democracies of Western Europe.

To be sure, the Right also fared well in the east, with the nastiest of the nasty—Golden Dawn in Greece, and Jobbik in Hungary—elected to Brussels. In Greece the Leftist Syriza also won one-quarter of the vote.

So the wailing and teeth-gnashing begins—as well as the recrimination, not all self-directed. UK Prime Minister David Cameron's rationalization of the vote is that Brussels is "too big, too bossy, too interfering. We need more for nation states." French President François Hollande lamented that the European Union as a whole had become "remote and incomprehensible." "It's an earthquake," was the assessment of Hollande's Prime Minister, Manuel Valls.

In the emotional drama of the moment, however, it is important to keep some sense of perspective as to what has been won, and lost, in the May 25 vote. I would list three reasons for avoiding panic over the success of the political extreme, but also three reasons for concern beyond this continent-wide lurch to the Right. On the more positive side of the ledger:

  1. The EP elections may be seen in rather the same way as mid-term elections in the United States—they are ripe for the picking by opposition forces at the cost of the incumbent party (or, in the case of most European countries, parties). In this regard, it may be valid to suggest, as many chastened leaders have done, that this is a wake-up call rather than a demand that the European model be dismantled. Even here one must note, however, that the historical pattern has been for the principal opposition party to make significant gains in EP elections. This is not the case in this round, where, in the United Kingdom for example, the Labour Party fared badly and the Liberal Democrats were all but wiped out.

  2. The Far-Right is far from a cohesive, united movement. It is rather a motley crew, with diverse and often conflicting agendas. These may be anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-gay, anti-Roma; the closest they come to one voice is on the "Euro Skepticism," the anti-Brussels animus that galvanized the electorate on May 25. In addition, there is bitter rivalry within the Far-Right, with Mlle. Le Pen and UKIP leader Nigel Farage vying for support of smaller groups in internecine competition for influence in the new parliament.

  3. In terms of numbers, the Far-Right achievement is less than overwhelming. As the outgoing president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, insisted, the pro-EU blocs in the EP still possess "a very solid and workable majority." For example, the largest group, the center-right European People's Party looks to have secured 221 of the 751 seats in the EP, or 29.3 percent, the Party of European Socialist Alliance 190 seats, or 25.3 percent. Add in the 8 percent for the Liberal bloc and 7 percent for the Greens, and the pro-EU forces number about 70 percent. The power of the Far Right in the EP will lie mainly in a form of nuisance value, the capacity to disrupt or interrupt.

There is, however, no cause for complacency, or indeed for dismissing the May 25 results as a flash in the pan for extremist forces in Europe. Again, we may advance three reasons for seeing the rise of the Right as a long-haul proposition:

  1. There has been a conscious and strategic move to create a new respectability for Far-Right movements, toning down the stridently confrontational messages of the past, cultivating a more polished image. This is particularly true of Mlle. Le Pen's Front Nationale, which she has renamed "True Right" instead of "Far Right," and whose candidates are typically of the three-piece-suit variety. Furthermore, the Rightist movements have shrewdly annexed social programs traditionally seen as Leftist agenda items. Golden Dawn in Greece for example provides medical supplies and services to the poor who have been cut off from traditional sources. Thus we see a deft blend of Left-Right policies that lend strength to a grassroots appeal.

  2. While avoiding hyperbole by speaking of a "neo-Nazi" movement sweeping Europe, a huge majority of the Far-Right parties are not by any means this extreme, although there are some genuinely Fascist elements, notably Jobbik and Golden Dawn, who will take their seats in the new EP.

  3. Most important, beyond what may happen in Brussels, is the ripple effect back home. Simply put, the resonance of the Rightist narrative on the EU pushes mainstream parties further to the right, on social (especially immigration) and economic policy. To cite just two examples: in the United Kingdom, Mr. Cameron, while on the one hand describing the UKIP as "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists," on the other annexes portions of its agenda, promising a referendum on Europe and "repatriation of powers" from Brussels. In a similar vein, the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, listed 57 issues for the Netherlands that he judged to be "hands off" as far as Brussels was concerned—a preemptive strategy that may well have been instrumental in fending off the Far Right to a much larger extent last Sunday than elsewhere.

The obvious question for a U.S. audience is: Why does this matter to us? I would offer three reasons: first, Europe remains ideologically, normatively, historically our closest ally—or, perhaps more accurately, our densest cluster of allies on the planet. I'd go one step further to point out that, in strenuously promoting NATO and EU expansion to former communist bloc states, we had a centrally formative role in the very crafting of today's post-Cold War Europe.

Second, while not overstating the threat of political extremist forces, we have seen twice in the last century what rotten outcomes can emerge from ultranationalist or xenophobic impulses in Europe, and in each case we were inevitably drawn in.

Third, we are not immune. On the domestic front, according to the estimable Southern Poverty Law Center, we have an estimated 1,000 extremist "hate groups" in the United States; and these groups have links to like-minded movements in Europe. For example, Golden Dawn has a handful of chapters here. On the international stage, much is being made of the support from extreme Right individual leaders and their movements for Russia in the current standoff over Ukraine. While Ukraine is not the immediate focus here, the presence of Far-Right elements in the pro-Europe interim government in Kiev, along with the succor provided to the most ultranationalist forces in Russia from the anti-Europe Europeans, combine to raise the temperature in what is already described as a new Cold War between Russia and the West.

"The European elections have delivered their truth, and it is painful" was the doleful assessment of President Hollande. How enduringly painful, how widely the pain will be felt, and how it may be alleviated, are questions that the United States, as well as its abashed European allies, are compelled to consider and to address.

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