European Parliament elections reflect loss of confidence in European Union

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During the week ending on May 25, voters in the 28 countries of the European Union voted for members of the 766-member European Parliament. The election results, with very low turnout, reflected a loss in confidence in the European Union and widespread dissatisfaction with economic conditions in a Europe that has not been able to pull out of the doldrums into which their economies fell during the worldwide financial and economic crisis.

There was special anger at austerity policies imposed by the "troika" of the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank.

In Britain and France, the "establishment parties" in power, the right wing Conservatives in Britain and the ruling (social democratic) Socialist Party in France, lost heavily, with most of the gains in those two countries going to the far right. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) got 27.5 percent of the British vote and entered the European Parliament for the first time, winning 12 seats. This vote came at the expense of the Conservative and Liberal Democratic Parties, who lost seven and 11 European Parliament seats respectively, while the Labour Party picked up seven seats. The British Greens gained a seat for a total of three, and the Scottish National and Plaid Cymru (Welsh Nationalist) party held steady at two and one seats respectively. The UKIP is against Britain's participation in the European Union and is anti-immigrant. In France, the Frente Nacional (National Front) surged with more than 24.85 percent of the vote, dealing a severe blow to both the ruling Socialist Party (which lost 1 seat)  and the conservative UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) of ex President Nicolas Sarkozy, which lost nine.

The neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party in Greece got 9.4 percent of the vote and won three seats in the European Parliament. The fascist-minded Jobbik Party in Hungary lost a small amount of its 2009 vote with 14.67 percent, retaining three seats.

But there were advances for the left.

In Greece, the leftist SYRIZA Party surged, getting 26.58 of the vote, a plurality, and winning five of Greece's 21 European Parliament seats. The Greek Communist Party, KKE, lost some votes at 6.11 percent, as opposed to 8.4 percent in 2009, but kept its two seats. The losers were the parties of the current ruling coalition, the conservative National Democrats who lost three seats and the Social Democratic PASOK and allies who lost 6.

In Italy, it was expected that the populist Five Star movement would surge, but the centrist Democratic Party headed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi more than held its own, with 40.8 percent of the vote and a total of 31 seats, 10 new. The far right Northern Leagues, part of former Prime Minister Berlusconi's ruling coalition, lost all its representation in the European Parliament. Other right-wing parties were severely mauled, losing 18 of their 31 seats. On the left, the new Other Europe Coalition, which includes the Communist Refoundation Party, won 4.03 percent of the vote and three new seats.

In Portugal, the Democratic Unitarian coalition of which the Portuguese Communist Party is the main component won total of 12.68 percent of the vote and one new seat to total three. The current right wing ruling coalition dropped by three seats. Communist Party General Secretary Jeronimo de Sousa hailed these results as a "severe condemnation" of the austerity policies, and called for a parliamentary motion of censure of both the government and the "troika."

In Spain, two left-wing groups advanced: The United Left (Izquierda Unida) of which the Communist Party of Spain is the biggest component, nearly tripled its 2009 vote (from 3.7 percent to 10 percent) and the new PODEMOS ("We Can") party, which has grown out of huge popular protests against corruption and the austerity policies of conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, picked up eight percent and five brand new seats of the 54 assigned to Spain. Basque and Catalan parties also picked up votes. On the other hand, the ruling right wing People's Party lost eight seats and dropped from 42.1 percent of the Spanish vote in 2009 to 26.1, the formerly ruling Socialist Workers Party (social democratic) lost nine of its 23 seats and its vote total went from 38.8 percent of the vote in 2009 to 23.01 percent in 2014. In neither Spain nor Portugal was there a surge of any new extreme right party.

While both left and right wing surges showed dissatisfaction with austerity, the right wing protest votes are also xenophobic, anti-immigrant, and in some cases anti-Semitic. As such they represent a real danger of a resurgence of the fascism that was thought to be defeated at the end of the Second World War. Yet only 5.6 percent of voters chose such extreme parties. 

The "respectable" right and the social democrats between them still retained more than 60 percent of the votes among them. 

The left vote, though still relatively small (about six percent overall) shows anger at austerity, privatization and other pro-business, right wing policies by means of which the continent's ruling class attempts to shift the burden of the crisis onto the backs of workers, small farmers and the poor. It will not be deflected into chasing scapegoats. Explicitly or implicitly, it is reaching toward socialist solutions.

Photo: Nigel Farage, leader of UK Independence Party. Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

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  • Slight correction warranted. UKIP have been in the European Parliament since 1999, the first election to be run under proportional representation. It is true to say they have never done so well as they did this time around - in 2009 they won 12 seats and came second overall, which was at the time their best result. They won 24 of 73 British seats this time around, not 12.

    Their rise is not wholly due to anti-EU feeling in Britain (the polls suggest that actually Euroscepticism amongst the British public has actually gone down rather than up over the past five years since the last European election) but can also be attributed to antipathy towards the political mainstream. That's been a fairly long-running feeling in the UK, but this time around it is particularly important factor in UKIP's success. Prior to the 2010 general election the Liberal Democrats were very popular, winning 23% of the vote at that election (though, thanks to our horrendous electoral system with which America is also blighted, they actually lost 6 seats) partly due to the fact that they were well received with those who were simply tired of the Labour/Conservative paradigm. The problem for them now is the fact that they can't distance themselves from the Labour/Conservative paradigm because they are part of it due to the fact they have been in coalition with the Conservatives since 2010. An additional problem is that many of the things which the current government has done in terms of austerity measures now taint not only the Conservatives but also the Liberal Democrats. This generally isn't harming the Conservatives (who stand a chance, albeit a rather small one, of winning the next election) because many of their core voters would support the austerity measures they are implementing anyway. The Lib Dems' core voters wouldn't. They've dropped from 25-30% in the polls, which were their ratings prior to the 2010 election, to more like 9%.

    UKIP's populism has risen to fill this void to some degree. UKIP are the political outsiders and can criticise the mainstream all they want. They're helped by the fact that Farage is a big character politician and despite being a millionaire can cast on himself the ordinary "man of the people" cloak whenever he wants. Make no mistake, UKIP did not come first because of their policies because by and large they didn't have any. Those few they did have were quite frankly ridiculous (their solution to protecting the environment being to cut immigration, for instance). The trouble for them is that things will change come the general election next year. They'll not only be up against an electoral system that doesn't really do democracy and is bound to result in them gaining no seats at all, but they are also going to have to adopt actual policies which stands only to potentially divide the party and lose him support among the general electorate (e.g. if UKIP ditches its support for a flat rate income tax, they stand to lose members, but if they keep it the electorate won't bite it and the Conservatives, who stand to lose out the most from a good UKIP showing due to potential vote-splitting, will no doubt use it as a stick to relentlessly beat UKIP with). They'll also be face with a much larger electorate, the average turnout being 60-65%, rather than ~35% in European elections, which will by and large benefit the other parties far more than UKIP. Farage won't be able to just ditch the troublemakers in his party (i.e. the neo-nazis, the racists, the homophobes, the transphobes and all other varieties of awfully nasty people, of which UKIP has plenty) without any scrutiny. Polls are already showing that around 50% of those voting UKIP in the 2014 European Election won't do so come the general election.

    As is usual with me, that turned out longer than expected, but suffice it to say that UKIP's rise does *not* reflect on the popularity of the EU in the UK, and their future does not look a bright one. I can't speak for the rest of Europe, however.

    Posted by Charlotte, 06/07/2014 7:32pm (2 months ago)

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