European leaders are in a state of shock as the pan-European project they so painstakingly built is under threat from extremist, anti-immigrant and xenophobic parties. Four days of European Parliament polls across 28 countries saw the election of scores of rebellious outsiders, including a group of xenophobes, racists and even neo-Nazis in an angry eruption of populist insurgency. In Britain, Denmark, France and Greece, insurgent forces from the far right and, in Greece’s case, also from the radical left stunned the established political parties, which were too shocked to react cohesively and unable to chart a counterstrategy, and there is a growing fear that these parties might move towards the right in a last ditch effort to avert a further erosion of their voter base.
The election results have called into question the very institutions and assumptions at the heart of Europe’s post-World War II order, though the reasons for the anti-EU sentiment are known to all. Economic crises, which are persisting despite intensive corrective measures taken by various European governments, and dwindling employment opportunities have made many Europeans to look for scapegoats, and found them in immigrants and mainstream parties who failed to control immigration and arrest economic slowdown. This resulted in a rapid rise of the right. The European Union, that once coveted institution whose formation was meant to bring new days of glory and prosperity, failed to live up to its expectations. Instead of trying to solve their financial problems, the EU was seen as rigid and compounding their woes by prescribing tough medicines in the form of austerity. The vote for the far-right is an expression of Europeans’ deep disappointment, though established parties and saner elements believe that what is being expressed are xenophobia and a desire for isolation.
The election results will not deal any structural damage to the European Union. The newcomers did not win enough seats to dominate the assembly, which approves legislation and elects the commissioners who act as the union’s executive branch. Centrist parties will retain control of the body even if all the newcomers vote as a bloc. But the insurgents’ success has dealt a huge blow to the very idea of EU laid out in the 1957 Treaty of Rome. That treaty says Europe is moving inevitably toward “ever closer union”, and that seems a tall order now, with the right trying to dismantle the union achieved so far.
Reforms are needed to avoid a collapse of the European Union. Instead of dismissing the victory of the right as a temporary phenomenon, European leaders need to address the problems which their opponents have been raising. Countries like Germany, whose intransigence on imposing austerity has been widely criticized, must be more resilient and accommodating.