Europe’s great shift to the right

Will the apathy and rage seen this week now spill over into national elections?

Europe’s great shift to the rightIt was at once a stunning expression of anger and a distressing measure of apathy. The results of this week’s elections for the European Parliament highlighted two worrisome trends among the citizens of the 27-nation political bloc: the rise of far-right, anti-immigrant parties, and a general decline in voter interest. Only 43.2 per cent of the European Union’s 375 million eligible electors cast a ballot—the lowest turnout in 30 years. Having 213 million people ignore a body that regulates so much is a “bad result,” admitted Margot Wallstrom, the European Commission vice-president. “It does affect the legitimacy of the EU.” But the rest of the world is justifiably more concerned about just who Europe’s motivated voters appear to be:

  • In Hungary, the ultra-nationalist Jobbik (“For a Better Hungary”) party took 15 per cent of the vote, winning three of the country’s 22 seats. (The makeup of the 736-member legislature is based on proportional representation.) The party is best known for its angry public rallies against “Gypsy crime,” featuring formations of its black-uniformed Magyar Gárda (Hungarian Guard).
  • In the Netherlands, the far-right Party for Freedom (PVV) came second in the election, capturing 17 per cent of the vote and four seats. Its leader Geert Wilders is best known for his controversial short film Fitna, which links terrorism to Islamic doctrine. At home, he faces prosecution for “incitement to hatred and discrimination.” And last February, he was banned from entering the U.K., termed a “threat to one of the fundamental interests of society” by the Home Office.
  • The Greater Romania Party (PRM), an extremist movement that rails against Transylvania’s “disloyal” ethnic Hungarian minority, won 8.7 per cent of the vote and two seats. Voted out of the Romanian parliament last fall, its leader, Vadim Tudor, is a controversial former journalist and Holocaust denier who has never hidden his ties to the former Communist secret police. It’s unclear if the PRM’s other winner, soccer club owner Gigi Becali, will be able to take his seat. At present he is under investigation for kidnapping and prohibited from leaving the country.
  • Austria’s far-right Freedom Party almost doubled its share of the vote to 13 per cent, winning two seats. Italy’s staunchly anti-immigration Northern League, part of the governing coalition, claimed 11 per cent of the vote and eight seats. And in the U.K., the fascist British National Party won two seats—its first-ever victories in national elections—with a historic high 6.2 per cent of the vote.

“I think we’re in for a very hard few years,” says Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society Institute in Brussels, a democracy-building NGO financed by billionaire George Soros. “It’s the politics of fear. These parties have managed to exploit the current economic crisis, the fact that people are worried about their jobs and their future, and convinced people that this will somehow all be worsened by the ‘strangers’ in our midst.”

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While it was the mainstream centre-right that actually won the election—Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP took 28.5 per cent of the French vote, Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party captured 35 per cent, and Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union took 38 per cent—few traditional parties saw their vote increase. And the left and centre-left vote all but collapsed in many countries. In France, the opposition Socialists took just 17 per cent of the ballots, Germany’s Social Democrats turned in their lowest result ever at 21 per cent, and Britain’s ruling Labour Party captured only 15.3 per cent, its worst showing since the Second World War.

The colliding trends—the rise of the far right and the left’s vanishing act—underline a fundamental shift in European politics, says Grabbe. “In a way, it’s the legacy of 1989 [the collapse of the Soviet Bloc] catching up with the left,” she says. “They don’t have a narrative of how to get out of a crisis like this. They don’t have a clear ideology to offer.” And faced with a choice between the discredited theories of the socialist past, and the rapacious reality of the free-market present, the majority of voters seem to have thrown up their hands in disgust.

Going forward, the biggest question is whether the anger and apathy will spill over to national elections. (Germany, Portugal and the U.K. will all go to the polls within a year.) Despite the fact that the European Parliament now has the power to amend or abolish two-thirds of the EU’s laws, voters in many countries continue to view it as a less important institution than their own legislatures. “It’s not treated very seriously,” says John Curtice, a professor of politics at Glasgow’s University of Strathclyde. “People use it as an opportunity to protest against the government or support smaller parties.”

For example, the BNP’s ascension in the U.K. may say more about the unpopularity of Prime Minister Gordon Brown than anything else. His ruling Labour Party, trailing badly in the polls and battered by an expense scandal, came third in the popular vote, behind not only the opposition Conservatives, but also UK Independence, a libertarian party that advocates withdrawal from the EU. “The Labour vote scattered to the four winds,” says Curtice. The BNP’s two victories came in working-class areas that have traditionally been Labour strongholds, but have been hit hard by the economic downturn.

Even then, the more decisive factor appears to have been supporters of the left staying home, rather than switching allegiances. The anti-immigrant party’s vote increased by just 1.3 per cent compared to 2004. And those worried about a fast slide to fascism in Britain were surely heartened by the spectacle of BNP leader Nick Griffin being forced to run away from a victory press conference after protesters pelted him with eggs. Not exactly Triumph of the Will.

Arguably, the more pressing concern for the European Union is the substantial gains made by parties like UK Independence, which doesn’t believe in its model of economic and political integration. Now there is a significant portion of the European Parliament that (much like the Bloc Québécois in Ottawa) is fundamentally at odds with the institution and its goals, actively seeking to reduce its size and powers—hardly the tonic needed to drive up plummeting voter turnout. In large part, the EU has only itself to blame for the increasing sense that it is irrelevant. The economic crisis has hardly been its finest hour. As unemployment soars across the Continent and the banking crisis spreads, member nations have been squabbling about who deserves to be bailed out, with the rich west mostly spurning the poorer former Soviet Bloc. And rather than acting in concert, for the good of Europe as a whole, powerhouses like France, Britain and Germany have been shoring up their own industries (like the deal Angela Merkel cut with Canada’s Magna to save 35,000 German jobs at Opel) and passing laws to protect domestic markets.

It’s the paradox that has long plagued the organization. “By any means the EU is a staggering success. It has contributed to five decades of peace and prosperity. Countries are lined up to join,” says Randall Hansen, director of the Centre for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Toronto. “But there is a mismatch with public perception. People view it as ineffectual and somehow out of touch.” And that public desire to politically rebuke the EU’s elites has been on increasing display since 2005, when voters in France and the Netherlands rejected a proposed European constitution. Efforts to water down the treaty and make it more palatable have also failed, with Irish voters turning up their noses in 2008.

Whether that creeping dissatisfaction, along with the economic angst and immigrant scapegoating, are creating the conditions for fascism to again rise on the continent is now a matter of open debate. Hansen doubts it. “There’s always been a huge degree of anti-immigration sentiment in Europe,” he says. “But this is not the 1930s. There are huge political and social constraints on the far right. In order to achieve power, they have to change the message and broaden their base.”

But in some parts of Europe, the extremists are undeniably gaining popularity. Last fall, in the Austrian election, the far-right Freedom and Alliance for the Future parties captured a combined 28 per cent—one point behind the ruling Social Democrats. In Denmark, the anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party remains the third largest political force with 25 seats. British historian David Kynaston says he does see parallels with Germany’s pre-war years, most notably in the economic crisis that threw millions out of work. “The Wall Street Crash took place in 1929, but it wasn’t until January 1933 that Hitler became chancellor of Germany,” he writes on the Guardian’s website. This recession has already seen an uptick in populist anger against bankers, and a declining faith in government. Low voter turnout may just be the canary in the coal mine. “People who, a generation ago, did not used to be cynical about politics now are. Worse still, people are not just indifferent to politics, they are ignorant about it.”