Marine Le Pen led her Front National party to victory in the French EU elections. Flickr/Remi Noyon. Some rights reservedAfter the EU election results, headlines were dominated by the success of far-right Eurosceptic parties. Europe’s ‘earthquake’ election elevated far-right parties to the first position in France, Britain and Denmark where the Front National, UKIP and the Danish People’s Party received 24.9, 26.77 and 26.6 percent of the vote respectively. In Hungary, the far-right Jobbik gained second place with 14.68 percent. And in Austria, Finland and Greece, far-right parties came third with the FPO receiving 19.7, the True Finns 12.9, and Golden Dawn 9.4 percent. Overall representation of these parties in the European Parliament (EP) increased from 49 seats in 2009 to 77 in 2014.
What was less talked about, however, was the lack of success of such parties in most of the countries that experienced the economic crisis and austerity at its worst. Portugal, Ireland and Spain did not elect a single far right-wing MEP. In Italy, support for the Lega Nord declined from 10.2 percent in 2009 to 6.2 percent in 2014, reducing the number of seats from 9 to 5. In Greece the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn did well though, achieving third place behind the left-wing SYRIZA and the centre-right pro-EU New Democracy.
A closer look at the electoral results reveals that far-right parties also experienced losses elsewhere in Europe. In Bulgaria, Ataka declined from 11.6 percent in 2009 to a mere 2.7 percent in 2014, losing both of its EP seats. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ PVV declined from 16.97 percent to 13.2 percent, although it maintained its 4 seats. In Slovakia, the SNS declined from 5.56 percent in 2009 to 3.61 percent; and finally in Romania the PRM saw its support fall from 8.66 percent to 2.7 percent.
Through an examination of the results from across Europe we may discern different patterns. For a start, the ‘far-right parties’ that were successful were in fact very different types of parties. And second, support varied greatly across countries. The so-called PIIGS countries (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain) have been identified as the most at-risk European economies and have experienced severe austerity measures and public sector cuts. Yet widespread social discontent in most of these countries was not translated into a vote for far right-wing eurosceptic parties.
If we accepted the discontent argument, how would we explain the fact that this discontent did not result in the rise of far-right eurosceptic parties across Europe? Most importantly, why did this not lead to far-right eurosceptic party success in those countries that have experienced austerity the most, where the numbers of voters disillusioned with Europe, its austerity measures and its free labour movement indicating greater job scarcity, are high?
The answer is little to do with Europe, but more with the dynamics of domestic party competition. The bulk of the rise in far-right eurosceptic party seats in the EP is accounted for by the UK and France: UKIP and the Front National combined now occupy 48 of the overall 77 seats. So let’s take a closer look at these two countries.
In both the UK and France there are high levels of popular disillusionment with the mainstream parties, and a general feeling that these parties no longer provide a viable alternative. This disillusionment is firmly linked to domestic politics. In the UK, disillusionment with the mainstream Conservative and Labour parties has also been accompanied by the decline of the Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems) - which has less to do with their policies on Europe, and more with the party participating in a coalition with the Tories. Aligning with a right-wing party was seen by many voters as a betrayal of the party’s left-wing principles, rendering the Lib Dems an unviable third option.
In France the left was equally unable to capture the protest vote. The inability of the mainstream to address domestic issues has opened up a political space for UKIP and the Front National who have been able to capitalise on the popular discontent associated with the other parties’ inability to deal with the economy and a general feeling of disillusionment with democratic politics at the national level. They have done so through a campaign which scapegoats Europe by taking domestic welfare issues and elevating them to the EU level through a discourse of anti-immigration and an emphasis on national sovereignty.
In Portugal and Spain party competition dynamics are different and mainly remained between these two mainstream parties. The parties that gained from the losses of the mainstream in both countries were generally those with a left-wing orientation. In Ireland far right-wing parties have never experienced much support. Due to the nationalist cleavage, a nationalist vote tends to be directed to Sinn Fein. In Greece, while disillusionment with democratic politics is widespread, the protest vote has been dispersed to both the far left and the far right. While domestically this has resulted in the implosion of the centre-left PASOK and the weakening of the centre-right New Democracy, it has also meant that the protest vote did not become concentrated in one fringe party, but many.
Domestic party dynamics indicate that the ‘political earthquake’ is less likely to derive from the far-right parties themselves, but from the response of mainstream parties who, in their attempt to regain support, may follow the far right in their scapegoating strategies.
Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy already declared on 21 May 2014 that EU migration policy has failed and called for the end to Europe's visa-free Schengen area. More recently, on 27 May French President Francois Hollande announced that the EU needs to be reformed and to have its power scaled back. UK PM David Cameron has followed this example, arguing that ‘Brussels has got too big, too bossy, too interfering.’ Should this be translated into policy, it may entail significant reforms at the EU level and tougher immigration policies at the domestic level. Mainstream parties may consider one of the lessons to be learned is to follow the Swiss example and introduce immigration quotas for European citizens.
While this would shake the very foundations of the EU project it would not actually solve the problem. If the problem is not to be found in Europe, then the solution is equally not to be found in Europe. First and foremost the type of popular discontent that should be addressed by the mainstream is discontent deriving from politics and policies on domestic issues.