EP elections: Dramatic surge of extremism?

How “dramatic” from the European perspective you find the results? UKIP won in the UK, FN in France but was it really a surge of extremists, eurosceptics and radicals as we have heard many times before the elections that this will happen? Will it influence how the EU is running?

Cas MuddeAssistant Professor, Department of International Affairs, University of Georgia

The results are dramatic for a couple of reasons. First, it is the first time far right parties came first in nation-wide elections in an EU state. And in no less than two states: Denmark and France — three if you count UKIP as far right (which I don’t do). Second, fours the first time there are more or less open neo-Nazis in the EP: Golden Dawn and NPD. It is much less dramatic if you see that (1) the far right gained only 15 seats in total, even though FN alone won 21!; (2) in a majority of EU states the far right remains irrelevant; (3) the far right won seats in as many countries as it lost seats (6); (4) the far right is fragmented and the European Alliance for Freedom (EAF) of Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders so far only had MEPs from five states, which is two too few to constitute an official group. This is all without including UKIP into the far right, which I think is incorrect.

Looking broader, so-called ‘anti-EU populists’ did make serious gains, but still have ‘only’ 21% of all seats in the EP. Also, EPP and S&D continue to have a majority, and pro-EU parties together still have a qualified majority.

Hylke DijkstraAssistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Maastricht University

I think that the victory of UKIP in the United Kingdom and FN in France will have important repercussions in those two countries. National elections in the United Kingdom are due in 2015 and this result will surely affect that campaign. UKIP may win seats in the House of Commons and its surge will most certainly affect Conservative electoral promises. In short, the Conservative party will become even more anti-European. The Presidential election in France is further away, in 2017, but chances are that Marine Le Pen will get through to the second round. Both the PS and UMP will have to do their best to win those votes back.
In Brussels, however, I think this result will make little difference. Mainstream parties will have a less comfortable majority in the European Parliament, but they still have a large majority. The Christian-democratic EPP and the social-democratic S&D can still dictate policy, but they may need to work closer together than in the past. It is furthermore interesting that while UKIP and FN have won, several anti-EU parties have actually lost seats.

Simon UsherwoodAssociate Dean, Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics, University of Surrey

Dissenting voices have done well in these elections, but their impact remains to be seen. Most importantly, they come from a very wide range of interests and ideologies and so have very limited grounds for cooperating with each other to form a real counterweight to the main groupings in the centre. However, they will have much more of a stage to voice their criticisms of the EU (and much else) so we should not underestimate their potential impact.

Diāna Potjomkina, Research Fellow, Latvian Institute of International Affairs

What worries me more is the increasing visibility and activity of the eurosceptics, including the trends in the UK and France. People of course absolutely have the right to be eurosceptic, but if these forces behave in a non-constructive way as they likely will, this may hinder certain political processes. The EU now more than ever needs dialogue and well-argumented criticism, not criticism for criticism’s sake and not radicalism / intolerance.

Aristotle Kallis, Professor of Modern and Contemporary History, Lancaster University

Dramatic? It depends. Topping the electoral result list in France, the UK, and Denmark is pretty dramatic. Reaching 10 or 15% for a party that is blatantly neo-nazi is dramatic too . On the other hand, we are still talking about minorities – sizeable, perhaps vocal, but minorities. In many countries, the far right did badly too – either below expectations or not well at all. So the picture is mixed. One sees what ones wants to see…

This is no ‘surge’ of extremism; it is far more an anti-political, anti-establishment vote that is expressed largely through political outfits that are meant to shock. There has been a dominant narrative in the past decade or so – politics does not matter, parties are detached from the electorate, the EU is a bureaucratic monster that is too elitist and too far away from the ‘real people’. This narrative, reproduced by mainstream media, has become embedded into society. The idea of voting for a far-right party as a form of protest has become fully legitimised in large parts of huge continent; it is no longer taboo. Some extreme views – on immigration, for example – have also become more mainstream, due to the support lent to them by mainstream political and media outlets. Finally, the idea that EU parliament elections do not matter (another strong narrative) has also made it easier for people to opt for ‘shock’ voting, precisely because they take the elections themselves lightly. Let us also not forget that the turnout was shockingly low in some countries (e.g,Czech Republic).

But, come national elections, with only a few exceptions most of the far-right parties do and will perform far less spectacularly. In the eyes of the electorate, national elections do matter; therefore, they tend to vote more ‘responsibly’. Even the FN always performed less well in national elections. I think this will also happen in the case of UKIP: just look at its performance in local elections this week (16%, down 5-6 percentage points from 2012).

In addition, let us be careful in what we are adding together to create stories about ‘apocalypse’. There are Eurosceptic parties and there are Europhobic parties. There are parties of protest from the left and from the right. There are predominantly anti-EU parties; parties that are fore mostly anti-immigration, anti-multiculturalism, and anti-cosmopolitanism; and parties that are really very radical, even more deeply racist (and proud of it), intolerant, even neo-fascist. All these categories cannot be lumped together. They will not sit together at the EU Parliament and they do not get on well with each other. So, the overall picture from the vote is: the EU is going through a mid-life crisis, scarred by the very recent economic crisis, and lacking in a truly inspirational vision right now; but the ‘surge’ of the far right has been generally predictable and in many cases underwhelming (Italy, Sweden, Netherlands, many Central European countries etc). The EU will need to learn to live with its critics – and manage voters’s expectations far, far, better. It will continue to function like it did in the past, with compromise and slowly. It does need a new, post-crisis vision that will take it out of its current state of being manager of failures and bulwark to financial disaster.

Lastly, mainstream political parties have to draw their lines of defence against extremism. Even if it costs them some votes in the short term, it will help them define themselves better in the longer term and make them more capable of telling a positive story. For far too long EU Parliament elections have been used by governments as a fig-leaf for domestic failures or disfunctionalities. The EU deserves a more positive, a more reflective, a more intelligently critical narrative than the one that we are being served at the moment.

Zoe Lefkofridi, Max Weber Fellow, European University Institute

Can we interpret the success of Eurocritics as a vote against Europe or against national handlings of the crisis? Unlike the past, it is extremely difficult to discern whether support for fringe and/or extreme parties actually expresses opposition to the EU or opposition to domestic governmental policies –as the EU and domestic policy are increasingly interwoven. Governing Greece during the crisis and as well as Greece presiding the EU in 2014 have been best examples for this.

During the crisis the inter-relationship of the supranational and domestic policy was more evident than ever and Eurosceptics did well – but again, in varied degrees across Europe. Crucially, Eurocritics are, and have always been, coming from the two opposite poles of the political spectrum. Although both camps may use populist rhetoric, there are huge ideological differences between the two, which result in very different views about “what is wrong” in the EU.Within the extreme Left camp, only a few (e.g. the Greek Communist party) advocate in favor of exit from the Union. Radical left messages were more about a different Europe, rather than about demolishing the project. And though the Lista Tsipras failed to pass the threshold in Italy, it was nonetheless an effort to Europeanize national politics and to mobilize citizens across borders. On the other extreme pole, right-wing nationalists who aim at destroying the EU from within scored well in France, UK, Denmark, Austria, Finland, Hungary and in Greece. It remains to be seen whether non-attached nationalist parties will be able to create an ideologically coherent political group in the elected EP.  Importantly, most of them take careful distance from Greek Golden Dawn (GD) which was supported by a respectable 9.4 % of Greek voters; despite GD members’ imprisonment after the murder of anti-fascist musician Fyssas, GD supporters remained loyal and helped it enter the EP .

The EP election results in show that:

—existing trends regarding the decline of trust in and support for mainstream parties which have governed in EU member states for many decades (in North, West and South Europe) have been reinforced by the crisis. This holds especially for social democratic parties, which have been gradually losing ground. In Southern Europe, which has been severely hit by the crisis, this is most evident, e.g. in Greece, the PASOK party (once upon a time a party that gathered 40 % of the vote) does not exist anymore (it ran under the ELIA alliance but in essence the formerly glorious organization that governed GR for decades has collapsed)

–for a big part of European citizens, the status quo in the EU is unsustainable. Change is necessary – but in which direction? Though the message for change has been understood, members of the European Council disagree on what to change and how. During the last decade, ever bigger -and increasingly interrelated- obstacles arise in front of them: the financial crisis, declining trust in national and EU institutions, the rise of Eurosceptics….It seems that European political elites in government are currently going through an “Odyssey”. Yet, a key problem in this adventurous (and dangerous) collective journey is that they have left the “common quest” [1] – their “Ithaca”- largely under-defined.

Of course it will influence how the EU is running. As I mentioned above, is already a big issue of concern for the European Council, esp. PMs in FR and UK have been very worried about the electoral results. Although we expect a grand-coalition to be formed in the EP, much depends upon the capacity of the nationalists to unite and create a common front in the form of the political group. If they do not, they cannot have much of an influence. So they are under pressure to “integrate” in order to pursue their goal of disintegration – this is the irony! The formation of a political group and the need for coherence and concerted action, however, will also affect these parties and their capacity to attract voters based on populist and simplistic messages. If nationalists start playing the EU game of consensus and cooperation this will also have an effect on them.

For the EP and EU politics: The presence of Euro-sceptics is not only negative. Seen from through a more optimistic lens, their presence will bring more light on EU affairs and attract media attention. This may well make the EP a more interesting place. Not only is the presence of the far-right to attract attention, but it is also putting pressure on the mainstream, pro-EU parties to justify their preferences for more integration in x, y, z areas, and explain why this is good. This can lead to more transparency, and in more information available to the citizens. Moreover, mainstream parties might be more careful regarding whom they recruit for the EP so that they can represent them well in this chamber. Populists tend to present the world in black-and-white terms so the key is to have the related knowledge so as to be able to spot the inconsistencies in their rhetoric.

Roman GerodimosSenior Lecturer in Global Current Affairs, The Media School, Bournemouth University

I think the results are quite dramatic. While we did expect a relative surge in the electoral performance of extremists and Eurosceptics, the results in countries like France, the UK, Denmark and even Greece (where the Golden Dawn got third place!) are quite worrying. I.e. what is surprising is not the fact that radical Euroscepticism is on the rise; it’s the speed and scale of that rise that is important.

We should bear in mind that turnout in some, but not all, countries was very low (e.g. UK – whereas in Greece it was quite high, reaching the levels of a parliamentary election). That means that moderate voters may have abstained, which could lead to an over-representation of extremists and eurosceptics. Be that as it may, decisions are taken by those who show up and we have to accept this result as a true representation of the reality across Europe. Even the fact that so many people refuse to engage with the process demonstrates the levels of apathy and disenchantment with the European project.

Having said all that, mainstream pro-EU parties are still dominant in the European Parliament so to be perfectly honest I don’t see how this result will substantively alter the way the Union’s institutions operate, beyond the inevitable theatrics and heated rhetoric of extremists. What I think may shift the terms of the debate is the levels of racism and in particular the levels of crime related to phenomena such as anti-Semitism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, homophobia, terrorism – the various extremes seem to be gaining ground amongst the peoples of Europe and this is a very worrying development. While the way Brussels may not alter its ways to accommodate eurosceptics – and maybe it shouldn’t; there are proper processes in which decisions are made – it is the dynamics and in particular the cumulative effect of perceived radicalisation (i.e. how e.g. actions by Islamist groups can trigger rampages by far-right ‘lone wolves’ etc) that would be the immediate threat.

Matthew Feldman, Reader in Contemporary History, Teesside University

They certainly signal a change toward the increasing ‘mainstreaming’ (an excellent term coined by Prof. Aristotle Kallis) of many far-right themes, particularly distrust of the European project, immigration, and of course, the continued economic uncertainty across Europe. I’m not sure if I, like others have, would describe far-right gains in the European Parliament as a ‘political earthquake’ (even the FN results were, to some extent, to be expected), although it certainly was a movement of tectonic plates. The ‘new far-right’ – characterised by populism, professional electioneering and updated themes that have long attracted far-right support (scapegoating, nationalism/nativism, right-wing populism) – does not look to disappear soon, especially now that many of its messages have reached the mainstream. How this will hold up in the long run has much to do as to whether there was much ‘tactical voting’ (which the leader of the BNP, Nick Griffin, for instance, claimed was the reason BNP did so badly and UKIP so well in Britain). Will these voters continue to support the far-right in the coming years? It is too early to tell. But it cannot be denied that this was a significant moment for the far-right in several countries (France and Germany, for different reasons, above all). The election results in several countries speak for themselves:
25% France
23% Denmark 20% Austria 15% Hungary 12% Greece

I’m still not convinced that UKIP is a far-right party, so much as a quasi-libertarian one that has some grass-roots support by the far- and even radical-right. It is still early days for this party, but they certainly have a different heritage than the FN, or for that matter, a group, further on the extreme, Hungary’s Jobbik or Greece’s Golden Dawn. What is interesting is that the FN refuses to work with the latter two movements, and UKIP refuses to work with the FN – all on the grounds that the movement in question is too ‘far-right’. Taking these opinions seriously also means that we need to be clear on the distinctions between these and similar groups: the far-right is not all the same, and contains fissures within it – it is not a single bloc.

As above, it is likely to pull discussion and debate in Europe to the right. But it remains to be seen if a European group (needing 25 MEPs from 7 countries) can be formed. The last time this was tried – in the interest of EU funding, but also to magnify the strength of these groups – it was a disaster, with Alessandra Mussolini insulting Romanians, and leading the Greater Romania Party to leave the ‘Identity…’ group shortly after it’s founding. These fissures remain significant, and can be over substantive issues of policy (such as bailouts, or immigration quotas, etc.) or more contextual matters like relationships between leaders, or even something as vague as ‘national sentiment’. So as a fundamental challenge to the EU, I think it is not yet likely; but if a quorate group, with EU funding, is successful, this could further amplify the far-right message of division, targeting vulnerable people, and populist rhetoric rather than sustainable solutions.

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