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In June 2009, Europeans went to the polls to vote for members of the European Union Parliament. In what is considered the largest transnational vote in history, the trend was clear: Mainstream parties took a substantial hit. Voters either did not show up at polling stations or they cast ballots for candidates outside their party. Election turnout was a record low. In 10 countries, right-wing parties made significant gains.
The trend’s result is obvious: Europeans are not afraid to shift alliances. What happened and why are important to understand.
Though the center-right continued its control of the European Parliament, many countries saw the rise of fringe right-wing parties.
• United Kingdom: The Labour Party, which currently leads the nation through Prime Minister Gordon Brown, suffered a significant blow. Recent controversies and scandals about inappropriate spending by government officials were partly to blame for the shift in Britain. The public has been outraged by what appears to be the status quo among politicians—and reflected its discontent in national elections.
Additionally, the British National Party (BNP) won two seats in the EU Parliament. While its leader claims his party speaks openly of immigration, it is widely reported that the BNP is racist. The BBC reported on the election results and the reactions of the leaders of the mainstream parties, “Labour’s Harriet Harman described the result as ‘terrible’ while Tory leader David Cameron said he was ‘sickened’…Ms Harman said: ‘I think it’s a terrible thing that we’ve now got representing Britain in the European Parliament…a racist party, a party that doesn’t believe black people should even be allowed to join [it].’”
But the BNP’s two-seat win was not the only change from the norm in Britain. The EUobserver reported, “The European elections in Britain saw the UK Independence Party (UKIP), advocating withdrawal from the EU, scoring its best result ever and coming second to only the opposition Conservatives, while the ruling Labour party slipped to the third place.”
“UKIP had been expecting to do well in the election but the extent of its win was surprising, as it came second with 16.5 percent and obtained 13 seats, one more than in the last parliament.”
• Netherlands: Dutch citizens went to the polls and gave four seats to the Party of Freedom, led by Geert Wilders. This right-wing party, which is considered anti-Islam and anti-immigration, with its leader having been banned from entering the UK, won a significant 17 percent of the vote.
• Hungary: The nation also saw a noteworthy shift to the right. While the country’s left-leaning minority government took a blow, the main opposition gained ground. In addition, the far-right party Jobbik won three seats. The EUobserver reported, “‘The far right growth is a really bad sign, and this is clearly linked to the economic crash,’ [said] Gerry Gable, the editor of Searchlight, a long-standing anti-fascist monthly magazine out of the UK…”
Calling it a particularly worrisome trend, Mr. Gable went on to say, “Hungary too returned three MEPs from the Movement for the Better Hungary, or Jobbik, on some 15 percent of the vote. The group is the founder of the Hungarian Guard, a paramilitary outfit whose uniforms recall the Nazi youth organisations from Europe’s darkest days” (ibid.).
Leaders and analysts alike were alarmed that an “extremist party,” which is affiliated with a group reminiscent of wartime fascism, saw significant election gains.
• Germany: The left-of-center Social Democrat Party (SPD) experienced a substantial setback. “The worst result for the SPD in 60 years set a trend across Europe, with disappointing results for centre-left parties in government and in opposition alike. Only in Greece and Malta could socialist oppositions really claim success. ‘This is disappointing,’ said Franz Müntefering, the head of the SPD. ‘The result for us is significantly worse than we expected’” (The Times, London).
Far-right politicians in Austria, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Italy and Romania also gained seats.
In the end, the center-left took a blow, the center-right maintained its leading status, and the far-right—the anti-immigration and “eurosceptic” parties—increased ground in the European Parliament.
The European Parliament consists of 736 MEPs (members of the Parliament). The European Union, consisting of 27 member-nations, has a population of 491,582,852 (July 2008 estimate, CIA World Factbook). In other words, the MEPs elected now represent almost a half billion people.
The Parliament, on its website, states, “The work of the European Parliament is important because in many policy areas, decisions on new European laws are made jointly by Parliament and the Council of Ministers, which represents Member States.
“Parliament plays an active role in drafting legislation which has an impact on the daily lives of its citizens: For example, on environmental protection, consumer rights, equal opportunities, transport, and the free movement of workers, capital, services and goods. Parliament also has joint power with the Council over the annual budget of the European Union.”
As the European Union continues to develop and grow in influence on the world stage, EU citizens and spectators abroad are left to wonder, “If such voting trends continue, what impact will this have on the laws that the Parliament enacts?”
As mentioned, this was the lowest election turnout in the Parliament’s 30-year history. Even with some countries having mandatory voting, the overall turnout was only 43 percent. It is startling to see how low the voting attendance was in certain nations. One is left to wonder whether the citizens in such countries feel any connection to what is occurring in Brussels.
The EUobserver detailed the numbers: “Other countries where a majority of people voted included Italy (66.5%), Denmark (59.5%), Cyprus (59.4%), Greece (52.6%), and Latvia (52.6%).
“By contrast, only 19.6 of Slovaks voted on Saturday. In the country’s first EU election in 2004, it registered the lowest ever score in the bloc’s history at 17 percent.
“Lithuania came second with 20.9 percent—a dramatic drop compared to its first election in 2004, when almost half of Lithuanians voted (48.4%).
“Some 24.5 percent voted in Poland and 28.2 percent in the Czech Republic and in Slovenia.
“The bloc’s newest members, Bulgaria and Romania, showed opposing trends, with Bulgarians demonstrating more voting enthusiasm (37.5% – up from 29% in the country’s first elections in 2007) than their northern neighbours (27.4% – down from 29.5% in 2007).”
Prior to the election, EU officials realized a need to increase the turnout. Campaigns were set up across Europe to do this, but to no avail.
As the numbers continue to fall every five years, one conclusion can be surmised. Europeans are slowly losing interest in the parliamentary system that is fundamental to the governance of their group of nations.
The same EUobserver article continues: “For Socialist leader Martin Schulz, the low turnout shows that ‘the vote doesn’t have much to do with European policy.’
“‘There’s a trend towards the re-nationalisation of Europe,’ Mr Schulz said, adding that the issue could eventually raise the question of the legitimacy of the elections.”
“For his part, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso called on national politicians to introduce…a more European angle to their politics.”
In short, Europe continues to struggle with its identity. And Europeans themselves appear to be less engaged in the politics of this transnational institution.
But let’s ask: If such disinterest continues, who else will be voted into power? What other fringe groups will advance in future elections?
Also, will the anti-EU factions in some nations continue to grow, causing some to leave the European Union altogether?
The ultimate question is this: Why did so many hundreds of thousands vote for parties and leaders on the fringe of society?
One reason is fear. The leader of Britain’s Labour Party, Harriet Harman, stated, “The British National Party have played on people’s fears...and we’ll have to work to tackle the fear that lead to people to vote BNP” (BBC).
Dealing with the effects of near-open immigration across Europe, many fear for their country’s future. Various mainstream parties seem incapable or unwilling to address problems regarding immigration and other social issues, so citizens—out of fear—vote for someone else who is willing to confront controversial subjects.
But fear is not the only reason—nor is it the largest. A more substantial factor must be considered.
Again, speaking of the BNP’s gain in the UK, the BBC reported, “Communities Secretary John Denham said that although ‘an element’ of those who voted for the BNP would have been racists, most would have cast their ballots for the party because they felt ignored and excluded” (emphasis ours).
Understand this point. The indicators reveal that many voted for right-wing fringe parties not because they followed all the beliefs of the political organizations, but that they were tired of the mainstream politics-as-usual.
An article in The Globe and Mail, “Disenchanted Europeans flee to the fringes,” perhaps sums it up best: “It’s hard to imagine Frank Verhoef as the new face of European political extremism. The polite and articulate 20-year-old university student lives happily among the cafés and brothels of multicultural downtown Amsterdam and has views that don’t generally clash with the middle-of-the-road liberalism of his parents and girlfriend.
“Yet last week, worried about his job prospects and the future of his country in a sagging European economy, Mr. Verhoef joined hundreds of thousands of Dutch voters in casting a ballot for Geert Wilders, a fringe politician who believes the Koran should be banned, immigration ended and Muslim believers treated as neo-Nazis. By most standards, his party is on the ultra-right-wing fringe; he was banned this year from entering Britain on hate-speech laws.
“This weekend, Europe’s mainstream parties are struggling to deal with the nightmare that is Mr. Verhoef’s vote. Like millions of other new far-right voters, he is not an extremist. But his disenchantment with mainstream European politics, observers say, is part of a continent-wide trend that could push conventional politics in a more insular, angry direction in order to prevent people like him from escaping to the fringes – and it could provide a big pool of taxpayer financing for single-issue campaigns around isolationist or xenophobic issues.”
“To some observers, this week’s results bore a chilling resemblance to elections during the economic downturn of the 1930s, when people in many countries were drawn to extremist parties, including fascists in Germany, Austria and Italy, pulling the continent into genocide and war.”
The article continues by explaining that Mr. Verhoef wanted to send a message to the mainstream parties: “This kind of voting—as an expression of anger or frustration with the established parties of the moderate left and right—has sent the mainstream parties of many countries into paroxysms of fear.”
One must ask: What if everyone thought this way? And, what if an increasing number of people voted for politicians similar to Mr. Verhoef?
The implications would be immense.
The June 2009 EU Parliamentary Elections have left a mark on history. Glimpses of the behavior of European voters were clearly noted.
Will Europeans continue to be disinterested in EU politics—if so, for how long? Will the power of indifference continue to cause fringe politicians to gain power in the continent? Will it cause some countries to lose interest in the EU and secede?
Also, there are now a record number of right-wing individuals in the EU Parliament. When times get worse in the years ahead and the proverbial finger is pointed at mainstream parties, will more “flee to the fringes” and make known their anger and frustration?
Out of protest, will Europeans punish mainstream governments?
Will fear cause Europe’s citizens to vote for someone who takes a strong stance on controversial subjects?
Will people overlook certain other beliefs of that individual?
Where will this pattern ultimately lead?
Time will tell!