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A man protests against the British National Party before the European election results are announced at the Town Hall in Manchester, northern England June 7, 2009. (Darren Staples, Reuters)
A man protests against the British National Party before the European election results are announced at the Town Hall in Manchester, northern England June 7, 2009. (Darren Staples, Reuters)

Angry Europe embraces the fringe Add to ...

When the European parliament reconvenes in Strasbourg, France, next month, its vast 736-seat legislature will be dominated by a large group of seats on the right, a sharply diminished group on the left, and a looming new formation that might be called the "angry bloc."

In a startling flight to the fringes, the European Union's 490-million citizens sent an amazing range of angry, racist, anti-European, anti-immigrant, separatist, protest and far-right parties and candidates to represent them in Brussels, a ragtag protest vote that now represents more than 16 per cent of the European Parliament.

In some countries, notably Britain and the Netherlands, these fringe anti-government parties managed to outpoll even the governing parties, in a continent-wide election that is widely seen as a referendum on the popularity of the governments of the EU's 27 member nations.

So it is perhaps even more telling, at a time of considerable public anger at the credit crisis and the economic downturn, that the centre of power in the parliament shifted decidedly rightward, with parties of the moderate right outpolling social-democratic and liberal parties by wide margins.

At a time when European countries from France to Greece have been riven with protests and strikes against the devastation caused by the credit crisis, and unemployment is soaring across the continent, the vote marked a humiliating trouncing for such mighty forces of the left as Germany's Social Democrats, France's Socialists, Spain's governing PSOE and especially Britain's governing Labour Party, all of whom saw their lowest poll results in the parliament's 30-year history of elections.

Britain's Labour Party fell to third-place status, with only 15 per cent of the vote, behind the far-right, anti-Europe UK Independence Party, a result that deepened Prime Minister Gordon Brown's leadership crisis and led another cabinet minister to resign Monday.

Parties and coalitions of the right, such as those of Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, France's Nicolas Sarkozy and Germany's Angela Merkel did very well, turning their European parliament bloc, the European People's Party, into a powerhouse with 36 per cent of the vote. And Britain's Conservative leader David Cameron, who won his country's biggest share of the seats by a wide margin, is planning on shifting his party into a further-right, anti-Europe coalition, moving the legislature's centre of gravity hard to the right.

This seemed to foretell a Europe, after important elections in Germany this fall and in Britain within the next year, governed almost entirely by right-wing parties, with both the moderate and the far left marginalized.

Indeed, most of the protest votes against the economy went to parties of the extreme right. Anti-capitalist parties of the far left, such as Germany's Left Party and France's New Anti-Capitalist Party, did very poorly despite having campaigned hard as alternatives to the failed economic system, and Communists barely registered.

Voters did not seem to be blaming the economic crisis on the capitalist system, but on the political classes, and perhaps more darkly on immigrants, outsiders and even Europe itself.

"The fear of social upheaval turned into anger, hostility and the desperate demand for moral and ethnic order," Ezio Mauro, editor of the Rome newspaper La Repubblica, said Monday. "And the way this type of xenophobic and racist delirium often goes hand in hand with a deep hostility towards the European project, which in many cases is the only effective protection against ultra-nationalist and anti-democratic tendencies, should give us food for thought."

So the legislature now contains, for the first time ever, members of the British National Party, which forbids blacks from being members and calls for the "voluntary" repatriation of anyone descended from immigrants. They won two seats, both in northern England, despite a joint effort by all of Britain's mainstream parties to keep them out.

They'll be sitting alongside the Freedom Party of Dutch firebrand Geert Wilders, a party increasingly devoted to anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant agitation, which came second in the Netherlands with 4 seats. Austria's extremist Freedom Party, Hungary's fascist Jobbik Party, and Denmark's DVP, an extreme right-wing party, had record results, and Italy's fascist Northern League won a strong eight seats.

And anti-Europe parties, which believe that the Parliament in which they sit should not exist and the EU should be abolished, also did extremely well. Britain's United Kingdom Independence Party, which wants the EU abolished and immigration ended, outpolled the governing Labour Party with 13 seats, and Finland's anti-Europe True Finns captured 13 per cent of the vote.

Most of the far-right and anti-immigrant parties also hold anti-EU platforms, and together with the two major anti-Europe coalitions, Union for a Europe of the Nations and Independence and Democracy, at least 121 of the 736 seats are now held by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) who do not believe the parliament should exist.

Record turnouts were also recorded by some separatist parties including Northern Ireland's Sinn Fein (formerly the political branch of the Irish Republican Army), the Scottish National Party.

Despite the outcry over the more extreme election results, and their symbolic importance for national governments trying to gauge their popularity, the vote is unlikely to make a huge difference in European affairs.

While the results may signal an important political shift in European politics, the parliament itself, despite being the second largest elected body in the world (after India's), remains a body of limited influence. It cannot introduce legislation - that is the job of the European Commission, an appointed body with representatives from member nations' governments. It can amend and approve the budget, but otherwise its control of spending is strictly limited.

So, while its MEPs technically vote on legislation that controls as many as half the laws affecting the lives of European citizens, the parliament does little that captures the day-to-day interest of Europeans. That would go far to explain the voter turnout this week of 43 per cent, considered extremely low for a European election.

There is yet another effort under way to pass a new European constitution that would give the parliament real power and create an elected president; it will culminate in a referendum this fall in Ireland, where voters vetoed a previous constitutional attempt last year.

But the new parliament, with its strong bloc of Euro-skeptics, seems to indicate a rough passage for any such effort. It is, in many respects, a legislature deeply devoted to its own continuing irrelevance.

 

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