Tuesday, 27 May 2014

EUROPE: The Aftermath of EP Elections Results

Radical right-wing parties have emerged as the main winners of the 2014 European Parliament elections. UKIP beat both its Labour and Conservative rivals in the UK, while in France the Front National topped the polls with 25 per cent and 25 MEPs. Radical right-wing parties came third in Austria, second in Hungary, and third in Greece, where the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn emerged as the third party with just over 9 per cent.

Front National's Gains (France)

The Front National's victory in last Sunday’s election had been forewarned by most opinion polls, but the margin of victory over the UMP belied the commentaries that thought it would be a close race. The win builds upon the dress rehearsal of March’s municipal elections, where it was clear that the party had finally learnt how to target its resources and maximise electoral returns. Marine Le Pen and the party politburo have established the national presence that had escaped it for its previous 42 years.

With proportional election voting for MEPs in Brussels, rather than local government, an historically unpopular president, and an opposition still weakened from its post-incumbency in-fighting, the Front National’s momentum was always likely to see it exceed 20 per cent. But the critical threshold of defeating the UMP and François Hollande’s Socialist Party has finally been stepped over, demonstrating to the electorate that the party is now an equal player across the whole nation, and no longer merely a ‘nuisance’ to the mainstream with some local pockets of support.

The other parties have already portrayed this as the fault of an unpopular government, economic crisis and a ‘distant’ Europe. The FN, however, will argue that its support is a positive endorsement of its policies and leadership. With the size of support, as well as its consistency since Marine Le Pen’s presidential performance in 2012, this will be a difficult argument to counter. Unsurprisingly, there is already talk of a Right-Far Right run-off in the 2017 presidentials. With another three years until that race, the FN’s capacity to disrupt politics at home as well as in the European hemicycle is significant.

UKIP's Gains (United Kingdom)

The gains made by UKIP in the recent local and European elections in the UK have been subjected to considerable attention, with an apparent consensus that those most attracted to UKIP are white, working class men of advanced years, those ‘left behind’ by social changes which range from deindustrialisation to gay marriage.

No doubt this is true, but with it comes the problem of how to counter UKIP, how to reject emphatically its politics without demonising its supporters and without allowing Farage any of those moments of recognition and solidarity that underlie political allegiance.

Three suggestions: the first is to assume that all voters ( and not just those opposed to Farage) are thinking people and thus repudiate and demonstrate the absurdity of all Farage’s policies.
Second, do not exhibit any sympathy for the idea that Farage represents ‘ordinary’ people or even worse the ‘little man’. Third, and finally, take this former point further and make it plain that the most humanly sympathetic and creative communities (be they institutions or towns and cities) are those accepting of difference. Make it, in short, clear that Farage’s world is an authoritarian fantasy.

AfD's Ascendacy ( Germany)

Following a ruling by the Federal Constitutional Court late in February, the 2014 European election was Germany’s first contest without a nationwide five per cent threshold since 1949. As a consequence, seven very small parties, including Germany’s oldest extreme right party, the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), have won a seat in the EP. While this is hardly game changing for the NPD, having a sitting MEP could provide an interesting twist if an attempted ban of the party in Germany goes ahead and they try to appeal that ruling in Strasbourg.

Otherwise, the result was broadly in line with expectations. Confirming their current marginal role, the Free Democrats (FDP), for decades the king makers in German Politics, lost roughly two thirds of their support and would not have been represented at all under the previous electoral system.

The most interesting development in Germany is the ascendancy of the Eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). The party, which was founded only a year ago, garnered seven per cent of the vote. While this pales in comparison to the results of other Eurosceptics, it is nonetheless the biggest national success for an outsider party since the late 1980s. Having seven freshly elected MEPs will provide a moral, political and financial boost for the party in the state elections that will be held in three of the Eastern states in August/September.

Analysis

Why is this occurring? Let’s take, as a point of departure, Cas Mudde’s analysis. He has identified three major strands in mass attitudes which predispose people to vote for the radical right: nativism – that is, a belief that holds that only indigenous inhabitants should have full civic and social rights – authoritarianism, and populism which counter-poses the ordinary people against the ‘elite’, the political class, the liberal intelligentsia. This, combined, constitutes what the cultural theorist Stuart Hall called ‘authoritarian populism.’

In his theory of ‘pathological normalcy’ Mudde contends that authoritarian populism, far from being confined to the margins, is deeply embedded within the mainstream. Two factors, one can argue, have propelled it into the forefront of political consciousness. The first is the rising salience, and emotional voltage of anti-immigrant feeling, that is to say mounting antipathy, resentment and apprehension towards those – whether they be recent immigrants, asylum-seekers or established ethnic minorities – who constitute ‘the other’.

The second is, of course, the impact of the financial crash and the economic recession. The effect of this has not been (in the UK or in a majority of other European countries) a tilt to the left. Left-wing diagnoses, at least in the UK, have had little purchase: there is only a muted sense that the gyrations of the financial system are in any way responsible for what went wrong. Most people, one suspects, are left baffled by talk of sub-prime mortgages, derivatives and credit default swaps. They are looking for something more tangible to blame: if not Gordon Brown then welfare recipients and, of course, immigrants.

The implication of all this is disturbing for left-of-centre parties. Research for some while has indicated that authoritarian populism appeals in particular to the more poorly-educated, to manual workers and to routine clerical workers: the natural constituency of the left. What we are witnessing is, in a sense, a reconstitution of a form of class politics.

What's Next

EU leaders are meeting for dinner in Brussels today to discuss reforms of the 28-nation bloc in the wake of successes for euro-sceptic parties across the continent Right-of-centre anti-immigration parties topped the polls in the UK, France and Denmark, while the extreme-left Syriza movement took top spot in Greece, the euro-sceptic Five Star movement in Italy and the anti-euro Alternatives in Germany. The turnout and results in the European Parliament elections have underlined the need for reform to ensure that the EU is doing more to deliver what voters care about: jobs, growth and a better future.

Indeed the EU’s policy agenda for the next year or two includes several very tricky issues which will test the ability of the EU’s institutions to arrive at viable and satisfactory solutions. In particular, the reforms of economic governance in response to the euro crisis remain incomplete and will require difficult decisions about the underlying policy stance, burden-sharing among Member States, and the balance of power between the supranational and national levels. 

Many of the recent and prospective initiatives in this area, such as mutualisation of debt or the creation of additional fiscal capacities and powers to help with macroeconomic stabilisation, will deepen integration at a time when voters seems to want the opposite.

At first sight, therefore, the new European Parliament looks like a recipe for gridlock in decision-making. Not only is the traditional left-right division now overlaid by a more unpredictable division between Europhiles and Euro-sceptics, but a clear message has also been sent to the elites that business as usual is no longer acceptable.

Yet a more subtle interpretation could be that the procrastination and squabbling over second-order concerns cannot continue and that all the institutions need to look for more comprehensive and coherent solutions. Despite the headlines about Euro-scepticism, the voice of those worst affected by the crisis is now louder. Could it be that a more sanguine reading of these electoral results is warranted?

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist/Author

Photo-Credit: AFP-Photo