Turning a Page: How EuroSkeptics May Change the EU
Two days ago, a political earthquake rocked the foundation of the European Establishment, according to French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls. His description is not far off the mark. For the first time in the twenty-five year history of the European Parliament, the EuroSkeptics on the Far Right have not only won nearly 25% of seats in the in supranational parliament, but have also managed to defeat many of the establishment parties in their own countries. This does not just apply to countries that have fallen on hard times, like Greece, Spain, and Portugal, but also to traditional supporters of European integration, like France and Spain. The wave populism and anti-EU feelings regarding what scholars and political leaders have called the “Democratic Deficit” have reached a boiling point, while creating an even greater crisis for the establishment. While much can change over the coming years, there is for the first time a Populist EuroRight Movement to challenge not only the Leftist parties, but the traditional conservatives as well.
The French National Front Leader Marine Le Pen, her British counterpart, Nigel Farage, and other EuroSkeptic leaders would like to characterize this victory as ordinary citizens standing up to an unresponsive institution, united by the common cause to fight the encroaching power of the EU. However, the EuroRight movement is a very splintered one. It does not yet have the legitimacy to call itself the voice of all European conservatives who would like to turn back time to before the EuroZone. Instead, the EuroRight can be divided into two groups of EuroCons: parties drawing their strength from Economic woes, and those from traditional establishment that are Social Conservatives. While they play on similar slogans, they represent two different kinds of European who feel increasingly disenfranchised by their own governments and EU. For an American, this may bring memories of the Tea Party Movement that emerged within the U.S. Republican Party during the 2010 Mid-term elections, responding to big, and unresponsive government and the wave of social change being sparked by Barack Obama and “Big-Tent” politics.
Why the South and East Symbolize Lessons of Integration
IF we view the EuroRight as a response to perceived loss of economic and social rights among EuroSkeptics, its not hard to realize they come from countries that the EU bears the greatest burden of supporting. The EuroDebt Crisis inspired Germany and others to look for stronger fiscal responsibility among members. That rhetoric from Bonn, Vienna, and Paris coincided with harsh economic measures to curb government spending and halt slipping economic gains among Europe’s most needy countries. The dominoes fell across Southern Europe. Spain and Portugal have been victims of economic stagnation for years, including a “brain-drain” in both countries. These parties defeated traditional socialist and conservatives on platforms highlighting the economic woes brought on by austerity, pointing the finger of blame at Bonn, Paris, and Brussels. The conflict and rhetoric became further tied to issues of Eurobonds, banking reform, and strong immigration controls.
Greece itself has been the poster boy for EuroSkeptics lashing out against economic austerity. While a base for the EuroLeft, Greek establishment parties hoped to discredit the forces of the Far Right by making a good showing in these elections. They failed. Instead, parties like Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi movement, managed to obtain a seat alongside their conservative partners in the Euro Parliament, sending shockwaves across the continent. But like Germany in the 1930s, harsh economic times have given weapons of rhetoric to both extremes, and Greece has certainly endured the harshest economic crisis since the 1970s (which ultimately brought down its military government).
The economic nationalism of the Far Right is not just contained in the South, but has spread to newer members in Eastern Europe, including Poland and Hungary. It is a product of self-inflicted wounds, from policies for rapid integration of EU states before Maastricht (1996) that did not place emphasis on economic standards for membership. Data collected by various European news and research groups show spending that not only shows disproportionate spending and growth. Countries that take the most money have seen a stronger backlash by EuroSkeptics on the Right than others, though their are exceptions. Because of the lack of common fiscal policy to accompany common monetary policies, the European Community is now fighting with economic nationalists who are determined at all costs to stop the conversation altogether.
Just Kick’em All Out
This goes without saying such conversations about economic nationalism are being driven by an identity crisis never before in history. “What does it mean to be European?” “What is the European Identity?” The EU has never been able to answer that question. It is not a superstate nor does it have the ability to make laws like Germany or France can within its own jurisdiction. It also cannot identify with a core constituency yet, since most see themselves as German, Frenchmen, Greeks, and Poles (among others). This is the argument of Social EuroCons, who have created messages to feed on people’s xenophobia and ignorance of why unity has been so stabilizing for Europe since the Second World War. While they may be motivated by economic factors, they are concerned with protecting national identity, and promoting a traditional European identity that rejects Muslims, Aethism, and foreign influences that challenge it.
Many the SocialCon groups are in establishment EU countries, notably France, Great Britain, and Germany. France has been center stage for EuroSkepticism, mobilized by the Front National and Le Pen. They have also played on France’s identity crisis, arguing consistently that the ideal of “French citizenship” is under attack by overseas immigrants. This rhetoric plays on a long history of cultural conflict in French society that Le Pen and others ont he Far Right have capitalized on in the past two elections. In return, it has damaged the moderate positions of the Socialists and UMP that French citizenship does not emphasize cultural differences, but advances social energy towards the traditional national identity.
A similar case played out in Spain, where neither major party obtained even 50% of the vote. The remainder of the electorate voted for other parties that were either calling for changes in the EU or withdrawing altogether from institution. While surprising rhetoric from a state that has benefited greatly from EU membership, below the surface shows a country that is challenged by political nationalists, calling for greater national autonomy for their individual groups, or those who think Spain would be better off on its own. But as history has shown in these types of elections, most of the rhetoric reflects people’s fears of insecurity, that the economic opportunities promised by EU membership have not lived up to their muster.
When the new parliament takes over, the EuroRight will face its first challenge of organizing itself into a Pan-European Party. It will face a daunting challenge or recognizing the need for strength in numbers while not sacrificing what has made it most effective, the appeal to popular, anti-EU voters. Like the American Tea Party, the EuroRight will need to prove it was not swept into the ranks of parliament just simply on a protest, but of a legitimate and long-lasting desire to change the institutions to its liking. In five years, both Europe and the International Community will judge and the Marine Le Pens and Nigel Farages will have to make that convincing argument, not as outsiders, but as establishment.
The movement is not united, but will have to overcome their own differences. The views of EuroSkeptics from Spain will be very different from the French, as will Greeks to British. The greatest challenge they face is the democratic deficit. They are the product of arguments made by old skeptics like Thatcher and De Gaulle who believed the EU as only a forum for European cooperation, not a ruling government disconnected from the true people of Europe. However, they will also be working with parties and EU Commissioners who denounced them as dangerous and without solutions to the problems created by the EuroDebt Crisis and even Ukraine. They have earned their chance to sit at the table, but now they have to get along with attendants who are ready to get back to the business of Europe. They will now face the test for all political movements: the ability to sustain themselves on messages of protest.
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