Pitchfork-wielding populists in the EP

Pitchfork-wielding populists in the EP

“There is no doubt that many populist, Euroskeptic and even nationalistic parties are entering the European Parliament,” said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier after all the votes in last Sunday’s, May 25, election for the European Union’s Parliament had been counted.

Boris Johnson, mayor of London, made the same observation rather more colorfully in the Daily Telegraph on May 26: “From Dublin to Lublin, from Portugal to Pomerania, the pitchfork-wielding populists are converging on ... Brussels – drunk on local hooch and chanting nationalist slogans, preparing to give the federalist machinery a good old kicking with their authentically folkloric clogs.” There is much truth in what he says.

It is true that the EU’s parliamentary elections last Sunday produced a large assortment of nationalists, neo-fascists and hard leftists who are united in their dislike for the EU. Together, they will account for almost a third of the members of the European Parliament (MEPs), a situation that was unimaginable only five years ago. However, it is not true that this bloc of rejectionist MEPs will paralyze the EU.

One reason is that the mainstream center-right and center-left blocs of MEPs still have a majority in Parliament. They will probably create a grand coalition that makes all the key decisions behind closed doors, and then rams them through with little real debate. The most important reason, however, is the European Parliament has little authority over the bureaucrats who carry out EU policies, and none at all over the national governments that actually decide on the policies. The Parliament was created to add a dollop of democracy to the process, but it simply cannot paralyze the EU.

Yet this election has been a great shock, because it has revealed a vast reservoir of hostility to the EU among the populations of half its member states. In France, the anti-EU National Front (FN) received more votes than either of the mainstream parties, the Gaullists and the Socialists. In Britain, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) beat both the Conservative and Labor parties.

Precisely because the European Parliament has so little real power, however, this was a cost-free protest vote. At least half the people who backed the FN and UKIP in the EU election will probably go back to voting for the established parties when the next national elections are held in France and Britain, because the outcome of those elections will matter to them.

Nevertheless, it was a very loud protest, and it has badly shaken the European elites. If the EU’s current unpopularity is mainly due to a poor economy, then a few years of economic growth and rising incomes should make it go away. Most of the national economies in the EU will grow at least a bit this year, and as the economic situation improves, the anger should subside. But what if the whole notion of an ever more united Europe is being rejected by the very people who were supposed to benefit from it? As in many other parts of the world, the widening gulf between the few rich and the many whose living standards are stagnant or falling has created an incipient revolt against globalization – and the EU’s centralizing tendencies are widely seen as part of that problem. Renewed economic growth will not cure the EU’s malaise if the wealth does not trickle down to the majority.

In that case, there may ultimately have to be a retreat to a much looser form of the European Union.