The message of the European elections

June 19, 2014

Shaun Harkin draws lessons from the results of elections for European Parliament.

RECENT ELECTIONS for the European Parliament sharply underscored deepening political polarization and the continuing fracturing of political consensus among the 28 nation-state members of the European Union (EU)--fuelled by a traumatic debt crisis, austerity measures and intractable unemployment that are the consequence of the global financial meltdown of 2008.

Some 43 percent of the EU's 400 million eligible voters participated to elect a new parliament responsible for approving euro-wide legislation and administering a near $200 billion budget. Analyzing the degree of turnout, François Sabado of the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) in France wrote:

[T]he party of abstention remains the biggest party in Europe (with an abstention rate of 57%). These elections confirm the massive rejection of the EU by the popular classes. Since the beginning, the people have been left out of the European construction reserved for the dominant classes, the governments and the technocratic elites. But today, the conjuncture of this type of construction and austerity policies which strangle the people has led to a massive rejection. This reveals the formidable crisis of political representation, which affects nearly all the countries of Europe and opens a phase of sharp political crisis, not only in European institutions, but in intra-European relations.

Supporters of the National Front rally during a speech by Marine Le Pen
Supporters of the National Front rally during a speech by Marine Le Pen (Blandine Le Cain)

In many countries, ruling parties responsible for drawing up and implementing austerity measures, both center-left and center-right, were defeated or saw their support drop dramatically. Overall, the election represented a rejection of the dominant pro-austerity policies of the EU's leading powers.

But the victors in many countries of Europe were parties of the far right--most notably, France's National Front (FN, by its initials in French), the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), the Danish People's Party (DPP), and the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn in Greece and Jobbik in Hungary--made historic and significant gains, or maintained their support.

This led much of the mainstream press to declare that European politics have been taken over by "fringe" parties and the right. However, it's far from the case that the far right made breakthroughs everywhere. For example, the far-right Dutch Freedom Party (PVV) of Geert Wilders led in opinion polls before the election, but its vote declined to 13 percent, and the party came in fourth.

Elsewhere, anti-austerity parties and parties of the left--such as SYRIZA in Greece and the newly formed Podemos in Spain--also registered very significant electoral advances, in spite of the general retreat of social struggle against austerity in recent years, which has been a challenge for the left.

THE NEW York Times summarized the outcome as an "angry eruption of populist insurgency in the elections for the European Parliament rippled across the Continent on Monday, unnerving the political establishment and calling into question the very institutions and assumptions at the heart of Europe's post-World War II order."

Indeed, across EU countries, economic stagnation, growing inequality and cuts to the social safety net are producing increased insecurity, frustration and bitterness. This hostility and anger is directed at both EU institutions and domestic governmental parties associated with the debt crisis and austerity policies.

But while the election results were described as a "political earthquake" and produced great alarm, they were, in many ways, not surprising. The right's growth is certainly frightening, but there have been clear warnings for quite some time that parties like the FN and UKIP are making political inroads and were very likely to make substantial electoral gains.

The election marks, though unevenly, a strengthening of the far-right dynamic across the continent. After spending decades trying to become acceptable to the political mainstream, the economic crisis has created conditions for the far right--including organizations and parties clearly modeled on fascists and Nazis of the 1930s--to make headway. Support for the far right isn't a temporary contrivance for the elections, but is rooted in the dislocation developing across Europe over the last four decades and intensifying during the years of financial turmoil, as Sabado explains:

This general upsurge results from the rise of nationalism in a situation of economic crisis and historic weakening of the workers' movement. Social identity weakens in relation to national identity, class conflict gives way to the "ethnicization" of social relations, racism infects mass sectors of the popular classes...

This isn't the first time in the history of Europe that we have been faced with the rise of the extreme right. In the 1930s, the imperatives of a crisis which demanded the super-exploitation of labor to ensure the profits of the big capitalist groups and the need to contain the revolutionary upheavals linked to the propulsive force of the Russian Revolution led the dominant classes to the fascist option.

The far right parties are politically variegated, but they campaigned successfully on similar themes: nationalist opposition to austerity policies; opposition to the "authoritarian" and "bureaucratic" European Union project; racist opposition to immigration; and hysterical Islamophobia.

These themes are shared in various countries, but their exact form is shaped by the specifics of their own nationalism and nation-state. As John Palmer, former political director of the European Policy Center, wrote:

[T]he growth in support for far-right, anti-European, anti-immigrant parties has been fed by the worst world recession since at least the 1930s--mass unemployment and falling living standards, made worse by the self-defeating austerity obsession of European leaders.

Parties that skulked in the shadows, playing down their sympathies with fascism and Nazism are re-emerging, having given themselves a PR facelift. Marine Le Pen, leader of the French NF, plays down the anti-Semitic record of her party. The Dutch far-right leader has ploughed a slightly different furrow, mobilizing fear and hostility not against Jews, but Muslim immigrants. Like Le Pen, Wilders focuses on the alleged cosmopolitan threat to national identity from the European Union. It is a chorus echoed in other countries by the Danish People's party, the Finns party and the Flemish Vlaams Belang, among others.

For now, the French and Dutch populists are carefully keeping their distance from openly neo-Nazi parties such as Golden Dawn, whose paramilitary Sturmabteilung has terrorized refugees and immigrants in Greece, and the swaggering Hungarian Jobbik, which targets the Roma minority.

ELEMENTS OF the far right were certainly prominent before the crisis of 2008, but their profile grew significantly in the years of economic calamity. Much of the concern about the election results in mainstream analysis has focused on the rise of the "eurosceptics" who call for the break-up of the European integration project. Gareth Harding, writing in Foreign Affairs, described this development:

[E]lections are only partly about math. They are also about mood and momentum. And for Brussels backers, the inescapable fact is that Europeans are turning against the project that was founded in their name. The victory of the United Kingdom Independence Party in Great Britain and of the far-right National Front in France--and the strong showing for anti-EU parties in Austria, Denmark, Greece, Hungary and the Netherlands--is proof that euroscepticism is no longer a British disease, but is a continent-wide malaise.

It also has momentum on its side. Most media reported the election results as if they were a natural disaster--an unexpected political earthquake in a region not known for ideological fault lines. But it has been possible to sense the tremors for almost 10 years--since voters in France and the Netherlands, two of the EU's six founding states, roundly rejected a constitution for the union in 2005.

Among supporters of political and economic integration, the parties representing renewed nationalism and racism are a threat to the supposed shared peace and prosperity created in the aftermath of two gruesome continent-wide wars that left Europe devastated by 1945.

Capturing the sense of establishment alarm at the election results in France, German Finance Minister--and pan-Europe austerity czar--Wolfgang Schäuble declared "A quarter of the electorate voted not for a right-wing party, but for a fascist, extremist party." Pro-EU politicians like Schäuble, who hope to strengthen Europe-wide institutions, worry that their policies will face greater challenges, and that trade deals like the U.S.-EU Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) could be threatened. But it is the very policies of Schäuble and other EU leaders that are responsible for the success of the fascists and their far-right cohorts.

George Soros, the billionaire currency speculator-cum-liberal philanthropist, claimed that the EU "was originally conceived to be an ever-closer association of sovereign states willing to pool a gradually increasing share of their sovereignty for the common good. It was a bold experiment in international governance and the rule of law, aimed at replacing nationalism and the use of force. Unfortunately, the euro crisis transformed the EU into something radically different: a relationship of creditors and debtors in which the creditor countries impose conditions that perpetuate their dominance."

The supposed internationalism and solidarity of the "original" EU project was always strictly limited to the needs of the ruling class. But Soros' description of the new division between creditors and debtors is apt.

Germany, with the EU's strongest economy and the one least impacted by the banking meltdown, has used its hegemony to aggressively promote austerity. Saving German banks by exporting suffering has made Germany more powerful in relation to its European partners--but it has also bred growing animosity. This is certainly the case in France, Germany's historic co-founder of European integration.

IN FRANCE, Le Pen's FN won the European Parliament elections with almost 25 percent of the vote nationwide. François Hollande's governing Socialist Party performed disastrously, receiving less than 14 percent of the vote; it's worst-ever score in an EU election. The FN also defeated the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), France's main center-right opposition, and the party of former President Nicolas Sarkozy.

This comes just two years after the Socialists decisively defeated the UMP to become the governing party. Now the Socialists are paying the price for failing to deliver. The warning of the Left Party's Jean-Luc Mélenchon was dire: "In present conditions, because the dynamic is with her, nothing any more can block Madame Le Pen's way. What's more: the fruit is going to fall right into her mouth. All the putrescence of the political field either directly feeds her base, or carries away the [obstacles] that were standing against her."

In the European Parliament, the FN is now the fourth-largest individual party in the number of seats it holds, while Britain's UKIP is the fifth-largest. This election represents another step taken by FN to break from its former pariah status to being an accepted political party embodying French nationalism and ideals.

For many decades, the French FN has been viewed as the standard-bearer of the different forces of the European far right. It was founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen and a core of fascists, racists and anti-Semites. Since the 1980s, however, the party has developed a strategy of seeking legitimacy by playing down continuity with European fascism in order to attract support, with the goal of moving political discourse in France to the right.

In general, the FN and other far-right parties across Europe have succeeded in pulling mainstream politics to the right in their individual countries--which makes their political stances legitimate, especially on issues like immigration and European integration, and forces mainstream parties to adopt their positions. It's estimated that the FN received 40 percent of white working class vote--among France's youth, where unemployment stands at around 24 percent, its support was 26 percent, according to polls.

The FN's electoral success is significant for several reasons. First, it will contribute to the further development of a European far-right movement, whether the neo-fascist or right populist variety. Second, the FN will now set its sights on aiming to win domestic French elections, to turn its program into policy. And third, it has huge implications for the future of the EU.

From the beginning of the post-Second World War era, France was central, along with Germany, to the project of European integration, which led to the formation of the EU. European political, monetary and economic integration was seen as a means of making sure that the continent is never devastated again by warring European nations.

The project was supported by Europe's ruling classes, at the urging and with the oversight of a U.S. government concerned to create a free-market bulwark against the former USSR during the Cold War. As the EU has developed and expanded, it became a vehicle to strengthen and rationalize European capitalism in the face of an increasingly competitive neoliberal global market--and also expand deep into territory formerly dominated by the USSR.

Now, a political party aiming to "Conquer France" in order to "Destroy Europe" has won a national election.

While there is no threat of a continental war erupting among its main powers, the fragmentation of the EU project can destabilize European and international politics. A right-led move toward national solutions to the economic crisis--along with measures to remove immigrants and end the freedom of movement among EU members--would certainly increase political tensions across the continent.

The EU project parades itself as a "democratic" solution to Europe's centuries-old tensions. But in reality, it undermines democracy--most obviously, through the imposition of the austerity agenda across the continent, against the will of the majority of the population. The project is designed to benefit European and international corporate elites. It is doing so by pitting people in different countries of Europe against each other, generating the exact tensions that "integration" was supposed to reduce.

The FN has sensed the new political openings and attempted to further distance itself from the anti-Semitism and open racism previously at its core. Still, immediately after the election, FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen said a party critic would be "baked"--this was widely interpreted as a reference to the Nazi death camp crematories.

In describing the political evolution of the FN, Sabado adds:

Certainly, the FN has evolved, both in terms of some of its themes and its leaders: this is no longer the fascist organization of the 1980s, but this evolution has not involved a rupture with the neo-fascist origins...which means that on the one hand, the FN is "de-demonized," but on the other, includes openly fascist currents inside it or at its margins. The FN's rise provokes a double phenomenon: pressure on the traditional right and space for extra-parliamentary fascist groups who attack the activists of all left forces.

IN BRITAIN, the neo-fascist British National Party (BNP) lost its European Parliament seat and was completely eclipsed by the success of UKIP. Much of the UKIP's campaign emphasized similar themes to the BNP's 2009 electoral breakthrough, such as whipping up fear about the perceived threat of immigration from other EU member states into Britain to access its "generous" benefits.

UKIP is a racist, far-right populist party, but its attempt to portray itself in the tradition of British sacrifice and nationalism means it must thoroughly distance itself from any association with fascism. Thus, the UKIP has, for the time being at least, ruled out creating a bloc in the European Parliament with the FN, because of the French party's association with anti-Semitism, racism and fascism.

Though anti-fascists in Britain can celebrate the BNP's internal disarray and poor electoral showing, the rise of the UKIP demonstrates that the political space available for far-right formations continues to grow.

Plus, as in France, the mainstream parties are already adapting to the politics of the far right. Conservative Party Prime Minister David Cameron has promised a referendum on Britain's membership status in the EU by 2017, if the Tories are reelected. Meanwhile, nationalists in Britain are rallying to stop Scotland from voting for independence and leaving the over 300-old political union with England.

In Greece, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn received almost 10 percent of the vote. This result is, in many ways, the most shocking of all the electoral gains the far right because it came on the heels of a government crackdown following the murder of a prominent anti-fascist organizer by a Golden Dawn member. Leading Golden Dawn figures, including leader Nikos Michaloliakos and other members of its faction in parliament, are in prison, facing charges of membership in a criminal organization, murder and harassment.

In addition to Golden Dawn's EU election showing, its candidate for the mayoralty of Athens, the swastika-tattooed Ilias Kasidiaris, received 16.1 percent of the vote.

That Golden Dawn could consolidate its recent growth in electoral support despite its transparent association with Hitler and the Nazis and the government's crackdown against it tells us a tremendous amount about the depth of the political, social and economic crisis in Greece. As Helena Smith wrote in the Guardian, the party appears confident enough to further flaunt its neo-Nazi political identity:

Emboldened by its recent success in European and local elections...the extremists drove home the message that they were not only on the rebound, but here to stay. And as they ran roughshod through the house of democracy, hurling abuse at other MPs in an unprecedented display of violence and vulgarity, there was no mistaking what Golden Dawn is: a party of neo-Nazi creed, determined to overturn the democratic order...

[F]ar from being contrite, the handcuffed Michaloliakos was in unusually aggressive mood, giving Nazi salutes, telling the house speaker to "shut up", and instructing guards to take their hands off him. Outside, black-shirted Golden Dawn supporters, lined up in military formation in Syntagma Square, gave a hearty rendition of the Nazi Horst Wessel song--albeit with Greek lyrics.

There were other significant gains for the far right in the European elections. The Danish People's Party won 27 percent of the vote, doubling its seats in the parliament. In Hungary, where the center-right Fidesz party claimed almost 52 percent of the vote, the neo-Nazi Jobbik won almost 15 percent. The Austrian Freedom Party won nearly 20 percent, up from around 13 percent in 2009. Alternative for Germany received 7 percent of the vote for European Parliament, and the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany won a seat.

THERE WERE some important advances that point toward the potential for a left alternative to take hold in response to the crisis.

In Greece, the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) won the largest share of the national vote, at 26.6 percent--well ahead of the center-right New Democracy, which rules Greece in coalition with the center-left PASOK. In local and provincial elections, SYRIZA's Rena Dourou was elected governor of Attica, Greece's largest region, with 50.8 percent of the second-round vote.

SYRIZA emerged from the margins of national elections to take a close second in two elections for Greek parliament in 2012, based on its rejection of the austerity measures imposed on Greece by the "troika" of the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund. It surpassed PASOK, once the dominant party in Greek politics, to become the main opposition party.

SYRIZA's victory should give confidence to the left across Europe that the right's advance is far from inevitable. In defeating New Democracy, SYRIZA has brought the possibility of a left government closer to reality. If it can win the next national election, it would pose the potential of the first left-wing government in power committed to opposing austerity.

The European vote in Spain also pointed toward the potential for left alternatives to emerge. According to Luke Stobart, writing in the Guardian:

The two parties that have dominated politics since the end of Franco's dictatorship--the ruling conservative People's Party (PP) and the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE)--saw their share of the vote plummet from 81 percent of the total in 2009 to 50 percent. Many PSOE votes transferred to the mainly Communist United Left (IU)--whose share rose to 10 percent--and smaller parties such as the pro-independence Catalan Republican Left (ERC), which came first in Catalonia.

The bombshell, however, was the 1.2 million votes (8 percent) that went to an inspiring new organization based on opposition to austerity and "the political caste": Podemos (We Can). It had only existed for four months, its campaign budget was a fraction of those of the other parties, and it received almost no media coverage (something that has radically changed since). It is now the third party in several regions, including Madrid and Asturias.

In the Republic of Ireland, support for ruling conservative parties continued to decline. Eamon Gilmore, Ireland's deputy prime minister, resigned as leader of the Labour Party, following a disastrous electoral performance. The Labour Party is paying the price for participating as a junior partner in Ireland's pro-austerity government. Anti-austerity independents Sinn Féin (We Ourselves) and the left made gains in the EU and local elections.

Meanwhile, in Germany, Die Linke (Left Party) won 7.5 percent of the vote in the aftermath of an intense debate within the party on its posture to the EU.

DESPITE THE gains made by the far right in many countries and the left in others, the 751-member European Parliament will continue to be dominated by mainstream center-right and center-left parties that are committed to integration and austerity.

Furthermore, despite the advancing anti-democratic power of the EU, it remains much less important, politically and economically, than national governments and national elections. However, the policies of these establishment parties will continue to cause bitterness across Europe, laying the basis for a dynamic of further political fragmentation and radicalization.

As Kevin Ovenden, describing the relationship between elites, the center right and the far right, put it:

Viewed along one axis, the rise of radical right forces demonstrates the political weakness of those aiming at binding Europe together through austerity and neoliberal orthodoxy. The various radical right forces professed their anti-establishment credentials, ostensible opposition to austerity and actual opposition to the central political strategy of the European business classes for half a century.

It's fakery, of course. Marine Le Pen is now a part of the political establishment; UKIP in Britain is a free-market Thatcherite party; Golden Dawn has tight links to Greece's media barons and shipping dynasties, as well as to sections of the state. And so on.

Nevertheless, the pseudo-radicalism and outsider status is an important factor in gaining from the mass sentiment against the elites.

For all these reasons, we are not seeing politics as usual. The far right can continue to grow and expand by targeting the "bureaucracy in Brussels," as well as immigrants and the Roma people as the cause of impoverishment and insecurity. Governing pro-capitalist parties and opposition establishment parties, as long as they continue to back austerity, will adapt more and more to the program of the far right.

Based on the results in Greece, Spain, Ireland and elsewhere, it's clear that the left has the potential to pose a concrete alternative to ruling regimes, their policies and the far right.

This is absolutely crucial. Elections can be a real measure of mass sentiment, but for the left, the key is building an alternative to the parties of austerity and the parties of the far right by strengthening the capacity of organizations of the working class--the unions, social movements, anti-fascist organizations--to resist. There must be collaboration toward effective struggle and developing a coherent set of demands that embodies the deep popular aspirations for a Europe based around justice, democracy and solidarity.

This means combining opposition to austerity with opposition to all forms of racism. Full solidarity with Europe's immigrants, Roma, Jews and Muslims is essential to challenge the divide and conquer strategies of governing parties and to undercut the racist scapegoating of the far-right. Struggle, solidarity and a socialist vision for Europe are the key alternatives to capitalist austerity and the rise of the far right.

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