The European Union (EU) is bracing for a major backlash from voters at the end of this month. Between May 22 and 25, elections will be held for the European Parliament. Nationalist parties are on the rise across Europe, and many are expected to do well.
The EU is more unpopular now than it has ever been since its founding. According to a Gallup Europe poll last fall, only 30 percent of Europeans had a positive view of the EU. Contrast that with 20 years ago, when 70 percent had a positive view.
Older Europeans are more likely to remember World War II and the subsequent threat of Communism. They believe the EU played a crucial role in ensuring peace in the second half of the 20th century.
Many younger Europeans, however, have become Eurosceptic. Their perception of the EU is closely tied to the economic crisis, which has hit young people especially hard. In countries like the Netherlands, Germany, and the United Kingdom, many younger voters are angry that the EU is using their money to bail out countries like Greece and Spain. They also think the EU’s regulations hinder economic recovery and infringe on national sovereignty.
As a result, anti-EU parties are expected to do very well in the upcoming election. Some polls are predicting anti-EU parties will take over 30 percent of the vote. The election this month is for all of the 751 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), who serve 5-year terms. MEPs are allocated based on a country’s population. Around 400 million people in the EU’s 28 member states are eligible to vote.
The European Parliament is the only directly EU institution. However, its direct powers are small compared to some of the other institutions. As a result, many Europeans feel that voting for MEPs is a waste of time. The first EU parliamentary elections were held in 1979 and voter turnout was 62 percent. However, turnout has decreased every year since. In the most recent elections in 2009, turnout was 43 percent —despite a PR campaign by the EU to inform voters about some new powers that the parliament had gained. Polls are suggesting that voter turnout will not increase this election and may even decrease further.
While voters remain apathetic, media interest in the upcoming elections is extremely high. This is mainly due to the active participation of anti-EU parties.
Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, and Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front in France, have announced that they will cooperate in the elections. Their parties are best known for their anti-immigration platforms, and many voters consider them racist. But in recent years, they have found new supporters by taking a strong anti-EU stance.
Wilders and Le Pen hope to form an anti-EU caucus within the parliament. Under EU rules, if they can form a caucus of 25 MEPs from 7 countries, they will be entitled to significantly more funding, committee seats, and speaking time in the main chamber. Their MEPs currently sit as independents.
Wilders and Le Pen have been using the election to get their message out. In November, they held a joint press conference that attracted enormous media coverage. “Today we begin the liberation from the European elite, the monster in Brussels,” said Wilders. “We want to decide how we control our borders, our money, our economy, our currency.”
“The people of Europe are standing up against the EU. They want to defend their identity,” said Le Pen.
In Great Britain, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), led by Nigel Farage, is also riding high. Polls suggest UKIP may take over 30% of the vote, potentially becoming the largest British party at the parliament. UKIP has a long pedigree as an anti-EU party. They were founded in 1993 to protest the United Kingdom’s joining the EU. Today UKIP is drawing many voters who used to support the Conservative Party but are dissatisfied with Prime Minister David Cameron. They feel he is too progressive on social issues and too soft on the EU.
UKIP has so far refused to join the Wilders-Le Pen coalition because of National Front’s history of racism. Geert Wilders hopes Farage will change his mind once the election results are in. “I am optimistic that Mr. Farage will have more room to work together than he does today after the elections,” he told The Daily Telegraph. “He is not excluding my party and there is still an opportunity, but he is tougher on the Front National for now. I understand he is a politician, but I hope after elections both Miss Le Pen, Mr. Farage, and myself will be able to work together.
The anti-EU parties are already looking beyond the elections this month. They hope their success will give them bumps in their national elections as well.
“The Front National used to be a party of opposition, it is now a party that is ready to rule,” Le Pen said in April. Nigel Farage has talked openly about the potential for working together with Prime Minister Cameron in the UK’s national parliament.
Their words are highly premature at this stage. But if the EU election results go dramatically in their favor, parties like National Front and UKIP may well be playing larger roles in their country’s national politics as well as in the EU.