Reforming the European project

The victory of Eurosceptic parties has underscored the need for the reform of a bloated institutional conglomerate with excessive overreach

June 09, 2014 01:15 am | Updated 01:15 am IST

The current tussle within the countries of the European Union over the choice of the next head of the powerful European Commission is but a fallout of the recent European Parliament elections that showed a popular surge in favour of Eurosceptic parties.

In fact, the results to the European elections came close on the heels of an even bigger electoral exercise in another and very different part of the world. The Indian and European Parliament elections could not have been more different in terms of purpose, scale and organisation. And yet, there are some commonalities like voter impetus. In both instances, the vote contained a clear anti-establishment message. Interestingly enough, voters in India and Europe, in separate but similar voices, rejected the policy packages that had adversely impacted their national economies and lives in the last five years.


Another common feature of both elections was that the parties that were most effective in directing their campaigns toward the victims of the economic crises drew the biggest electoral dividends. Unlike India, in Europe it was not just the Right that rode on on the prevailing anti-establishment mood; the Left too played that role.

The European Parliament comprises 751 directly elected members, thus making it one of the largest democratically elected assemblies in the world. Together with other institutions of the European Union, its vast and expanding legislative and executive control over national governments is the reason behind the growing opposition to it.

Thus, the election results reflect popular disenchantment with the EU and the national governments that support it. It was a vote of protest against the economic crisis that has gripped the Eurozone and resulted in rising unemployment and economic hardship for a growing number of citizens.

The voter turnout varied quite sharply across countries, with the average at 43.09 per cent — marginally higher than in 2009.

The parties on the right of the political spectrum performed better in the richer countries of northern Europe where the impact of the economic crisis has been less sharply felt. This broad group includes established pro-EU centre-right parties — Angela Merkel’s centre-right coalition led by the Christian Democratic Union, for example — plus Eurosceptic, ultra-nationalist parties that represent the hard right.

It is the perceived surge in support of hard-right parties that has been read as a key outcome of the elections. These parties played on working class insecurities in developed EU economies over immigration flows from poorer, debt-ridden Europe economies.

Thus, in France, the far-right Front Nationale under Marine Le Pen won 24.95 per cent of the vote and 24 out of 74 seats in the European Parliament, relegating the Socialist Party under François Hollande to the third place.

In the United Kingdom too, it was the anti-immigration and anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) under the controversial and outspoken Nigel Farage that emerged at the top with 26.77 per cent of the vote.

In Austria, the Eurosceptic and ultra-right Freedom Party won 27 per cent of the vote-share. In Denmark, the virulently anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic Danish Peoples Party under Morten Messerschmidt emerged at the top with 26.6 per cent of the vote-share and four out of 13 seats from Denmark. The far right made a significant showing in Finland, Belgium, Greece and even Germany, where the right wing and extremist National Democratic Party won seven per cent of the vote-share and seven seats — from nothing in 2009. In Greece, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn won its first seats in the European Parliament.

Many European analysts view the ascendancy of the “Eurosceptic vote” as being the marker of these elections. This is indisputable, but should not obscure the fact that all anti-EU parties should not be thrown in the basket of anti-immigration and ultra-nationalistic political forces. In many countries, Spain and Greece for example, parties on the centre and far left — Eurosceptic and anti-establishment certainly, but not anti-immigration or xenophobic — triumphed electorally.

Italy threw up an interesting — and unexpected — result, with the incumbent centre-left Democratic Party securing a decisive victory with more than 40 per cent of the vote-share.

The European Right

How dominant is the European Right? Despite its electoral showing, the political right in Europe is by no means a cohesive group. It constitutes a mix of parties strung at different points along a Eurosceptic, anti-immigration and nationalistic axis. Ranging from the relatively more moderate UKIP in the U.K. to the neo-Nazi Jobbik in Hungary, the parties are unlikely to even sit under the same political grouping in the European Parliament.

According to Sarah Hobolt, Professor and Sutherland Chair in European Institutions at the London School of Economics and Political Science, the significance of these elections goes beyond the rise of the Euroscepticism and the ascendancy of the Right.

She argues that the average gain of far-right parties across all 28 member states was only 1.8 percentage points between the 2009 and 2014 European Parliament elections. And although that translates into a significant swing in terms of MEPs these parties have sent to Parliament, the far-right parties in Netherlands, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and even Italy did much worse in these elections than in 2009.

“Although Europe matters in different ways — especially in the north where it is about not wanting to bail out southerners, whereas in the south it is about not wanting to put up with the austerity measures — it is not the only thing that the far right has campaigned on,” she said at a conference organised in London by the European Parliament and Nuffield College, Oxford.

Those who vote anti-establishment “tend to be the losers of globalization, people who feel that they have not benefitted from the recent opening of the economies, of European integration, of opportunities to trade and move across Europe. They are basically unskilled or low-skilled workers, lower middle class and unemployed,” she said.

The elections have sharpened the call, even by those governments that support the European project, for reform of a bloated institutional conglomerate with excessive overreach. The current lobbying among EU states over the appointment of the next European Commission President reflects that concern.

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