London, in the spring, is a horticultural feast. The Chelsea Flower Show is in full bloom and the millions unable to attend can watch the event, and do, in prime time on the BBC. Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens are impossibly verdant and the clouds sparse enough these days to allow visitors to stroll through them umbrella-free.
If you look closely, you might even notice a renewed bounce in the step of the locals enjoying the city’s abundant parks. The mood in Britain is brighter than it has been in years. The percentage of voters saying the economy is somewhat good or very good has tripled in the past year, and half think it will get even better in the next 12 months. Growth is solid and, despite the outrageous house prices weighing on Bank of England Governor Mark Carney’s reputation, the state of mind is upbeat.
Yet, none of this appears likely to stop the British from sending a record number of politicans Prime Minister David Cameron once called “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” to represent the country in the European Parliament. If the polls are right, the anti-European U.K. Independence Party could win the popular vote when Britain elects its 73 MEPs on Thursday, dealing Mr. Cameron a humilating blow that will only complicate his own re-election chances next year.
Across the channel in France, the economic mood remains bleak and François Hollande is still the most unpopular president in the history of the Fifth Republic. So, it’s less surprising that Mr. Hollande’s governing Socialists are preparing for a shellacking when the French elect their 74 MEPs on Sunday. Only it won’t come at the hands of the main centre-right opposition party, but from the anti-European and extreme-right National Front, led by Marine Le Pen.
Indeed, a record number of anti-European politicians on the right and left are set to win seats in the Strasbourg, France-based parliament. But while the headlines may pronounce this to be an existential threat to the European Union, the actual effect is likely to be the opposite – a more closely bound continent, with Germany in the driver’s seat.
Anti-European politicians are vowing to bring chaos to the 751-member parliament. But this will be a sideshow amid the steady transformation of the EU into a project dominated by Germany’s priorities.
And Germany these days means Angela Merkel, the indomitable chancellor whose Christian Democrats are set to lead the country’s 96-member EP delegation, the parliament’s largest. Along with the Social Democratic Party (Ms. Merkel’s coalition partner), Germany will send a contingent of MEPs to Strasbourg commited to continental integration on German terms. Elsewhere, governing parties will lose MEP seats.
In theory, this could undermine support for the union in the countries hardest hit by the debt crisis, many of whose citizens blame Germany for imposing the austerity policies adopted by their governments. But this threat is exaggerated. The silent majority of citizens in the EU’s 28 member countries know that breaking up would be far more painful and self-defeating than sticking it out.
The European elections, then, are an opportunity for the angriest voters to vent their frustration. Most everyone else will stay home. Frustration being lowest in Germany, the anti-European Alternative for Germany won’t cause more than a ripple in domestic politics. But almost elsewhere else, protest parties are dictating the terms of domestic political debate, and, ironically, weakening the influence of their domestic governments within Europe.
UKIP’s Nigel Farage wants to close Britain’s borders to “benefits tourism” and fans xenophobic flames by saying that that “any normal and fair-minded person would have a perfect right to be concerned if a group of Romanian people suddenly moved in next door.” UKIP is in a race against the clock – it loses a bit of ground with each idiot eruption among its candidates – but it can still make life difficult for Mr. Cameron.
The Conservative PM’s re-election platform centres on negotiating a new European deal for Britain and submitting it to voters in a 2017 referedum. But German politicians already warn that the idea is non-starter. “The whole thing is a phantom debate and raises the question about what Cameron really wants,” one Merkel ally told the British press last week. “If you want more influence, then you need closer co-operation.”
Even before Europeans vote, it’s already clear who’s running the show.