'EU voters have not warmed to immigration'
24.10.13 @ 09:24
BRUSSELS - The European elections are still seven months away, but fears of what they will show about the state of the EU already loom large.
French Prime Minister Francois Hollande said they could lead to "regression and paralysis," while his Italian counterpart, Enrico Letta, said the result might be a "nightmarish legislature" in Brussels.
They made their comments as analysts predict that anti-EU and far-right parties are set to make record gains in the May 2014 vote.
France's National Front is expected to do particularly well - a recent poll on EU voting intentions put it ahead of the country's mainstream parties. The UK Independence Party (Ukip) could become the largest British party in the European Parliament. The anti-immigrant PVV party is polling top in the Netherlands.
Austria's far-right Freedom Party is also set to increase its seats, as are its far-right peers in Hungary and Bulgaria. In the north, the eurosceptic True Finns are expected to see their EU presence swell.
The European Parliament could see some unusual newcomers too.
Greece's neo-facist Golden Dawn - if not banned nationally - could get into the EU assembly for the first time, Germany's new anti-euro party (AfD) may send some representatives to Brussels, as could the nationalist Sweden Democrats.
Meanwhile, in the run-up to the elections, several of the populist parties’ leaders, led by Marine Le Pen of France (FN) and Geert Wilders of the Netherlands (PVV), are attempting to club together to form a pan-European movement.
Such attempts have been made before and failed.
But the continuous downward trend of voter turnout for EU elections - seen as benefiting fringe parties - and the success of some of these parties in making themselves attractive to voters normally supporting mainstream parties is making EU politicians especially nervous this time round.
At first glance it is tempting to attribute the rise in the popularity of radical and far-right parties to the economic crisis and the budget slashing austerity and record unemployment which has accompanied it.
But experts say this is a mistake.
“You cannot make the general claim that the economic crisis leads to the rise of the far-right,” says Cas Mudde, a Dutch expert on extremist parties, currently at the University of Georgia in the US.
He notes that eight of the EU’s 28 member states have no significant far-right parties, including four of the five bailout countries (Spain, Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus).
Among the 20 countries with relatively important far-right parties, 11 saw an increase in electoral support between 2005 and 2013. But nine did not.
Matthew Goodwin, an expert on the far-right at the University of Nottingham in the UK, agrees. “One of the biggest misconceptions about the radical eurosceptic right is that this is somehow a product of the economic crisis,” he says.
“This trend has really been in motion since the mid-1980s.”
Goodwin expects a record showing for such parties in the EU elections next year, but he puts it down to a combination of reasons.
These include falling trust in EU institutions and the fact that people do not take the European election seriously. But the biggest contributing factor, says Goodwin, is immigration: "The reality of European politics is that most, if not all, European electorates have not warmed to immigration - particularly in countries like the UK, France and Austria.”
Immigration has become a flashpoint issue in recent years.
France and Italy fell out over Tunisian migrants in 2011 - and then successfully lobbied for a change to the EU’s internal border rules. Denmark, in the same year, bowing to the pressure of the anti-immigrant Danish People's Party, briefly reintroduced border checks with Germany and Sweden.
France continues to pursue a controversial policy of expelling Roma from the country.
Germany, Austria, Britain and the Netherlands are pushing to be allowed to change rules on allowing migrants from other EU member states access to social benefits.
A recent poll by the Financial Times showed 83 percent of UK respondents favoured curbing EU migrants’ rights to benefits. The same was true of 73 percent of Germans and 72 percent of French respondents.
The response of the European Commission has been to focus on upholding core EU rules such as the free movement of people and to stress the benefits of immigration for the economy as a counterbalance to Europe's ageing societies.
But for Goodwin, this does not engage the heart of the matter.
“Time and time again, we have found in various studies that when you ask people what they don’t like about immigration it often boils down to a sense that they perceive their national identity, their values, their way of life is somehow threatened by immigration and rising diversity,” he told EUobserver.
While it might be “irrational or perceived," he added, the sense of cultural threat is “absolutely essential to understanding why voters haven’t warmed to immigration and why some of them have then gone to radical right parties, which are heavily eurosceptic.”
Increased EU powers
The other major strand in this debate is the huge gain in powers for Brussels, largely as a result of the crisis.
This autumn, for the first time, the euro states handed over plans for their national budgets to the EU commission before they showed them to their national parliaments.
This kind of budgetary supervision goes to the core of the national state, yet there was little debate about it in each of the member states, either when the legislation was in the making or after the fact.
National elections are a case in point.
There have been a series of them recently, including in agenda-setting Germany. Yet the EU - where it should be going and how it should be tackling the profound economic crisis - scarcely featured in the campaigns. The exception was Greece, where international aid money hung in the balance.
“I don’t think the threat to the European Union or European integration comes from the far-right. It comes from the complete lack of vision from the ones who have power in the EU. And that generates frustration and animosity,” Mudde says.
It is hard to see what EU leaders can do to change events between now and May. But scaremongering and dismissing these parties is at best ineffective, at worst, counterproductive.
Some analysts have pinned their hopes on a novelty for these elections: that each of the European Parties fields a candidate for the post of EU commission President. This could at the very least put a face to EU politics coupled with a proper electoral programme.
But Thomas Klau, from the European Council on Foreign Relations, believes EU leaders are quietly in the process of scuppering this innovation.
“It is quite clear that Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande - and many other national leaders with them - have resolved to break this dynamic and keep full control of the nomination process,” says Klau, referring to the German and French leaders.
This will mean that who gets the post will have “insufficient political legitimacy to embody and validate the transfer of power to the EU institutions that has been agreed by national leaders.”
He described it as the "height of political irresponsibility," which will fuel the feeling in such parties that "here is a bunch of faceless bureaucrats who dare to tell us how to manage our affairs."
No far-right wave in Europe
But despite the genuine concerns, it is important not to exaggerate the rise of the anti-EU and far-right parties. There is not a generalised rise of the extreme right or of radical anti-EU parties across Europe.
Such parties, where they exist are set to do comparatively well next year, but they will still be a minority when compared with the mainstream parties.
The effect will be to make mainstream parties work more closely together. The main shocks are likely to be national - for example, if France's National Front sends more deputies to Brussels than centrist parties, or if Ukip upsets the political apple cart in the UK.
Their heightened presence should make the EU more introspective, however.
Mainstream politicians need to find a way that answers voters' concerns on issues such as culture and identity - but without adopting their illiberal or xenophobic policies.
If they do not find an answer, the EU will might find itself in the same political situation in 2019, the next round of EU elections, but possibly with the threat of such parties hoovering up an even bigger percentage of the votes.
"If we see far-right parties doing particularly well in May, this isn’t so much telling us something about those parties. It is not telling us Nazism is about to overtake Europe but it is telling us something important about what those voters are thinking," says Goodwin.