Mike Jones on the widespread dissillusionment towards the EU, evidenced by the emerging support for far-right parties across Europe

EU Parliament Building

The people of Europe are revolting. From France to Greece, Denmark to Bulgaria and the UK to Hungary, the results of last month’s elections to the European Parliament were as shocking as they were predictable. Voters in their millions took a step to the right, motivated to varying degrees by three key factors: a perception of uncontrolled immigration, frustration at faceless EU bureaucracy and disillusionment with traditional mainstream political parties. They vented their anger at the ballot box and delivered a slap to Europe’s political elite. 

Some observers fear the outcome of the vote signals the emergence of a new era of radical extremism on the continent that will once again provide fertile ground for fascist ideologies to breed. But is this really the case? The results certainly raise a number of interesting issues that are not necessarily as straightforward as they might appear.

Since the start of the financial crisis, there have been warnings that the economic impact would fuel the growth of parties on the peripheries of the political spectrum. Certainly this would explain the popularity of the ultra-nationalist Golden Dawn party in Greece, which won seats in Brussels for the first time. 

Greece is the country that has been affected most by the effects of the bailout set up by the EU and IMF to rescue nations facing financial meltdown. Four years on from that, the overwhelming majority of its citizens would most likely argue that the ‘cure’ has been worse than the disease, and that the system put in place to save them was in reality developed to protect richer nations and the eurozone project.

Golden Dawn has benefited from this simmering resentment, but not as much as the country’s Syriza party, which also campaigned on an anti-bailout platform (this time hailing from another extreme, on the political left). Syriza won the popular vote in Greece and showed voters are as likely to turn left as they are right in search of a political solution.

There is, however, little doubt that right-wing ideologies increased support broadly across Europe. In France, Marine Le Pen’s extreme Front National defeated its more moderate mainstream rivals, although it is hard to disseminate just how much backing the party really has when many used their vote to protest against François Hollande’s hugely unpopular socialist agenda, which they blame for the country’s economic turmoil.

In the UK, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) undermined a century of dominance by the country’s three biggest political parties and won the largest percentage of votes cast. UKIP has only two genuine policies – bring Britain out of the EU and limit immigration – but these were persuasive enough. The fact that their manifesto is almost non-existent ought to provide some reassurance to those traditional parties that voters may not go down the same route in next year’s national elections. However, nor should those parties be complacent. 

Voters have a tendency to be more reactive in elections where they do not consider the outcome unduly important – a fact that should worry the EU. As such, voter behaviour is likely to be different in polls where power really matters. Nonetheless, the political classes have been warned. 

Germans were disturbed by the election success of its far-right National Democratic Party. The fact it secured only a single seat is almost an irrelevance in a country still deeply scarred by the politics of its past. It is a seat too many. Yet there is scant evidence of history repeating itself in any widespread or meaningful way, either in Germany or among most of its neighbours. The extremist party headed by controversial politician Geert Wilders had been expected to perform well in the Netherlands, but Dutch voters deserted him. 

The reality for Europe is not so much a future dominated by echoes of the 1930s. Instead, the EU is faced with an intractable political mess entirely of its own making. For too long its lawmakers have been a law unto themselves but now voters have had enough. Many of those elected to Brussels in May are from parties that want to see their nation leave the EU, are opposed to the EU’s existence, or both. Although mainstream, traditional parties remain in the majority, their influence has been eroded and could be undermined by a loose alliance of like-minded parties determined to stymie the political process.

For businesses operating within and from Europe, the results of the 2014 EU elections represent both political risk and an unwelcome sideshow. At a time when true clarity of vision is needed from the EU in terms of tackling the threat of competition from more flexible emerging markets, by making it easier for companies to operate without fear of being strangled by red tape, there is a danger that the Brussels parliament could instead choke itself to death.