Elections Could Be the Beginning of the End for Europe

Elections for the European Parliament this week are likely to empower precisely those parties that want to destroy the European Union.

Ryan Pierse/Getty

PARIS, France — Four hundred million citizens in 28 countries are invited to cast their ballots for a new European Parliament this week, starting with the British and Dutch on Thursday. And for the first time, a motley band of anti-establishment radicals looks poised to thrive as Europe’s third political force, making the next five years a wild, bruising ride for the parliament in Strasbourg and also for their home countries.

In France and the Netherlands, founding European Union nations, a pair of anti-Europe firebrands—the emblematic blond menaces Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders—may even outdo mainstream parties to win the day.

Europe is still shaken from a series of economic and financial crises in recent years. Stubborn unemployment, sluggish growth, and the lingering pain of austerity programs deployed to extinguish an alarming euro crisis have fanned apathy, even outright hostility, to the European experiment while enflaming populist rhetoric.

Economic disarray has ignited resentment toward immigrants, Brussels, and the euro currency, which is shared by 18 countries. And it has driven deep wedges between Europe’s haves and have-nots, its creditors, led by Germany, and debtors, like beleaguered Greece. Trust in European institutions has waned across the continent. Adding recent insult to raw injury, when Russian troops waltzed into Crimea to annex a chunk of Ukraine, a next-door neighbor, the EU looked conspicuously toothless.

In final polling data aggregated from all 28 EU countries, the center-right European People’s Party leads the center-left Socialists & Democrats, making Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker a favorite to become the next European Commission president.

But all eyes will be on the so-called Euroskeptics, a disparate crowd of naysayers that some estimates project could win well over a quarter of the 751 seats up for grabs, exponentially expanding their influence.

“The Euroskeptic surge could be more damaging than the emergence of the Tea Party in the U.S.—it could lead to the strange spectacle of a ‘self-hating parliament’ that ultimately wants to secure its own abolition,” writes Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The European Parliament elections, a single-round proportional ballot with low voter turnout, provide excellent terrain for provocateurs. But the populist limelight-seekers may well have trouble getting along constructively. Some of Europe’s anti-establishment parties make stranger political bedfellows than others.

The catch-all term Euroskeptic can fold in everyone from factions miffed about how Europe is run (Greece’s far-left Syriza) or how it has expanded (Britain’s Conservative Party) to those actively plotting its demise (the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom, France’s far-right National Front) or worse (Hungary’s Jobbik or Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn).

Zealous populist patriots might pal around on principle, but banding together effectively is another matter. And it seems everyone is someone else’s pariah.

In Britain, Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party (UKIP)—a group Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron once famously dismissed as “fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists”—has refused to ally with Marine Le Pen’s National Front (who in turn has snubbed others, like Jobbik and Golden Dawn).

Farage told the Daily Telegraph, “We feel that anti-Semitism and general prejudice remains in the DNA of the [National Front].” Meanwhile, Farage has been slammed for his own off-color remarks about Romanians. He has also been reminded that his co-chair in UKIP’s European Parliament grouping, Francesco Speroni of Italy’s Northern League, has expressed sympathy with Norwegian mass killer Anders Breivik. Polls nevertheless have put UKIP in first place in the UK, with estimates it could virtually double its seats in Strasbourg.

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Farage’s DNA remarks refer to National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father. Now 85, Le Pen père, who once notoriously dismissed the Nazi gas chambers as a “detail of history,” sits as one of the National Front’s three unaffiliated European Parliament members and is up for another term. Campaigning as recently as Tuesday night in Marseilles, railing against immigration and global overpopulation, the old rabble-rouser typically quipped, “Monsignor Ebola [meaning the disease] can sort that out in three months.”

Since taking the National Front’s reins in 2011, Marine Le Pen, 45, has bottled lightning, shrewdly setting her party up for power and glory as never before, while looking to “de-demonize” its repellent reputation. A member of the European Parliament herself, she scored nearly 18 percent in France’s presidential election in 2012. Her party saw two members (including her niece) elected to France’s lower house that year and scored big in nationwide municipal elections this March, winning 11 towns.

In these European elections, Le Pen is set to quadruple the National Front's 2009 showing. Indeed, with 23 to 25 percent in the polls, she is projected to finish first in France. Anti-immigration and anti-euro currency, she has set her sights on blocking the controversial EU-U.S. trade pact in Strasbourg.

To that end and beyond, she sealed a deal months ago with Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders to band together in the European Parliament, based on this election’s results. “Today is the start of the liberation of Europe from the monster of Brussels,” the Dutch Freedom Party (PVV) leader declared in November after the pair’s talks in The Hague.

Forming a recognized group would exponentially boost the far-right faction’s influence. It requires at least 25 seats spread across seven countries and makes members eligible for E.U. funding, staff, more speaking time, and seats on committees.

The new European Alliance for Freedom would likely include among others the National Front, Wilders’s PVV, Austria’s Freedom Party (FPÖ), Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, and Italy’s Northern League. Late polling indicates the group should get the numbers it needs. While Farage has insisted he won’t join, Wilders and Le Pen have blithely suggested the Briton is merely playing coy for tactical reasons before the vote.

One Dutch news program projects Wilders’s PVV will win a landslide first place in the Netherlands despite an ugly incident in March that saw him bait a crowd into chanting that they wanted fewer Moroccans. That episode cost him in polls, saw party members resign, and spurred thousands of discrimination complaints against him. A Facebook page called “I Report Wilders [for Hate Speech]” has collected 98,000 likes.

The Dutch agitator also infamously compared Islam’s holy book to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Saudi Arabia reportedly is mulling trade sanctions against the Netherlands over stickers that Wilders had printed up in December. The stickers mimic the green Saudi flag, replacing its expression of faith in God and Mohammed as His prophet with another Arabic inscription reading: “Islam is a lie. Mohammed is a crook. The Qur’an is poison.”

Marine Le Pen recently conceded she didn’t condone Wilders’s anti-Moroccan remarks. But she nevertheless downplayed their differences as any obstacle to joining forces. “In terms of immigration and Islam, the PVV is extremely hardline. But it is also for gay marriage while I am against,” she told France’s Journal du Dimanche. “Does this impede us from having one same vision of the EU? What we are arguing together is for the sovereignty of states and nations. Beyond that, I don’t feel accountable for the way anyone expresses their political positions in their respective countries.”

Still, among so many sundry instigators prone to off-the-cuff remarks, the members’ prospects of having to play whack-a-mole at every allied indiscretion seems high. In April, a top candidate for Austria’s FPÖ, a Wilders/Le Pen ally, had to step down after calling the EU a “conglomerate of Negroes” and likening its regulations to the Third Reich’s.

Some argue that whether Europe’s surging populists manage to play nice with one another is beside the point. The real danger is their impact nationally, as their strong showing individually forces governing parties’ hands. After all, David Cameron—left in UKIP’s dust with his Conservatives poised to finish third in Britain this week—has already conceded to a national referendum on Europe by the end of 2017.

In France, where the National Front’s projected victory is deeply embarrassing to mainstream parties, the center-right opposition UMP has fissured over its Europe stance. And France’s ruling Socialists, on the hook to cut a gaping deficit, last week suddenly doled out 1 billion euros in emergency tax breaks for low-income earners, just the crowd Le Pen has successfully courted.

Moreover, with the EU’s credibility on the wane, Euroskeptics need only be nuisances to dig the hole deeper. They don’t need a majority or even tight groups for that; blustery chaos will do. Questioned by the Journal du Dimanche about her reportedly lackluster attendance in Strasbourg, Marine Le Pen tellingly shot back, “If the French hear about the EU in every circumstance, it’s clearly thanks to the Le Pens. If anyone has put this problem at the heart of political life, it’s clearly me.”

Some warn the populist surge will compel the parliament’s mainstream blocs inadvertently to vindicate the Europhobes. With its final polling analysis Tuesday, VoteWatch contends “the main trend overall will be a dramatic polarization of the Parliament.” With a slimmed-down mainstream, it suggests, the center-left and center-right blocs will be forced to operate more than usual in a “grand coalition” to “get anything done.”

But that is just the danger Mark Leonard and José Ignacio Torreblanca warn about in a European Council on Foreign Relations brief. If centrists are seen to systematically “huddle together” in a sort of “cartel,” they argue, it could bolster the populist impression Europe is led by a band of undemocratic elites far removed from the people.

With Nadette De Visser in Amsterdam