EUobserver launches election series ahead of EU vote
By Honor Mahony
In recent years, a slew of parties has moved from the fringe to occupy central political debate across the EU - they are eurosceptic and hard-right and they are making mainstream politicians nervous.
With the May EU elections fast approaching, focus has shifted to the record number of seats such movements are set to win in the next European Parliament.
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This will likely be as much due to outright popular support for the political parties themselves as the twin factors that have plagued the EU elections to date: a dwindling turnout and the perception that the EU vote matters less than a national vote.
Numerous statements by European leaders about "anti-EU forces" give the impression that the parties form a coherent political movement.
The reality is quite different, however.
There are degrees of far-right ranging from anti-democratic neo-nazi parties, such as Hungary’s Jobbik and Greece’s Golden Dawn, through to the anti-immigrant National Front in France.
Meanwhile, “eurosceptic” is an amorphous term covering everything from single-issue parties to parties that want their country to leave the EU.
The less extreme end does not want to be associated with the hard right. And the anti-foreigner, nationalistic tones of all the parties makes effective cross-border co-operation with one another difficult.
But still, their increasingly strong presence on the European political scene raises important questions.
Where do these movements come from?
It is too simple to put down their origins entirely to Europe's economic crisis, which has resulted in record-high unemployment and reduced public spending.
Countries such as Spain, Portugal and Ireland - all deeply affected by the crisis - do not have hard-right parties, while France has had one for decades.
The other major issue is how and whether to engage with illiberal politicians.
There has been a tendency for mainstream parties to adopt some of the rhetoric to try and win back votes.
The UK's recent bitter debate, fanned by the government, on EU migrants is an example. Anti-Roma statements by France's Socialist interior minister is another. By contrast, getting populist parties to engage on substance regularly fails.
The national trends are compounded by a political vacuum at the heart of the EU. Leaders stress the need for more EU integration to prevent a further euro crisis, but are at a loss how to fix the EU's democracy and transparency deficits.
Meanwhile, polls show that trust in EU institutions has plummeted.
Broadly speaking, voters want less EU than more of it.
In this fluid political landscape, EUobserver is lauching a new journalistic project, beginning 11 February, to assess the impact of anti-EU parties across the spectrum ahead of the EU elections on 22-25 May.
Supported in part by a grant from the Open Society Foundations, local journalists from 16 member states will write a series of articles putting such parties into context, exploring their roots, examining the extent of their socal acceptance, and how mainstream politicians are manouevering in response.
The aim is to contribute to pan-European debate ahead of the EU vote, which is gearing up to be the most symbolically important in the parliament's history.