Ever since I moved to Europe in 1978, I got used to a lot of talk about the standards governing European politics and remarks about Europeans “voting with their pocket,” national sentiments being a thing of the past and fanaticism dying down in an affluent and democratic European society with open borders. Such remarks came despite the violence and bloodshed that marked the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland and the Basque conflict in Spain.
It was obvious that at the time, Europe was moving towards rapprochement and integration out of self-interest, if nothing else. However, at the same time, Britain’s Conservative Party had just got rid of its pro-Europe leader and former prime minister Edward Heath, electing in his place the Eurosceptic, pro-American Margaret Thatcher as leader.
France, Italy, the Benelux countries and the former West Germany were the pioneers of the concept of European integration. The idea that began with the European Coal and Steel Community, established by the Treaty of Paris in 1951, later developed into the European Economic Community created by the Treaty of Rome in 1957.
At the time, there was a shared desire for continuing rapprochement among these countries with the aim of achieving full integration and, eventually, union. However, the six core states soon found themselves obliged to accept membership requests from states that were less committed in terms of their European identity, and with time the community grew, ultimately leading to the Maastricht Treaty that created the European Union in 1992.
At this point, we must note that former French president Charles de Gaulle stubbornly opposed Britain’s membership in the European body for many years, based on his belief that Britain’s loyalty did not lie with Europe and that London would never relinquish its “special relationship” with Washington in favor of building a united Europe. But circumstances changed, and so did the community’s political, strategic and economic priorities. With de Gaulle’s death, Paris’s reservations vanished. Heath and other pro-Europe figures emerged on the political scene in Westminster, and so Britain joined the European family.
Since it became a member, however, Britain has never ceased to express its reservations and doubts about Europe, issuing objections, making trouble and asking for exemptions and opt-out clauses. Another aspect of Britain’s rejection of a cohesive European unity can perhaps be seen in its strong support for the rapid expansion of the EU following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The rush to admit many post-Soviet states actually pushed the EU away from a solid “common” identity.
Those who are suspicious of Britain’s intentions have gone so far as to accuse London of deliberately obstructing European integration from within by emptying it of its content and “diluting” the influence and presence of the six core founder states. They say it achieved this through a number of means: by slowing the unification of EU institutions and by facilitating the expansion of the EU and turning it into a looser organization in terms of its member states and sources of funding, as well as the standard of living and political and social cultures of its members.
As a consequence, the speed and course of European integration changed, with economic contradictions and financial crises emerging, particularly after member states adopted a single European currency, the euro.
Naturally, the global financial crisis exacerbated the situation in Europe. Poorer member states such as Greece, Spain, Portugal and the Republic of Ireland saw their economies falter, while others complained about the flow of cheap labor from Eastern Europe thanks to the creation of open borders within the EU.
These new developments were bound to cause resentment and tension within the EU’s more prosperous states, where underlying separatist sentiments and political organizations already existed, including those for Scottish and Welsh nationalists in Britain, the Breton and Corsican separatists in France and the Lega Nord (the Northern League)—founded in 1991—which favors turning Italy into a loose confederation.
Following this, both the moderate Right and moderate Left parties that had traditionally monopolized power in Western European states were no longer capable of securing a broad consensus among different segments of society and special interest groups. We also saw the emergence of “single-issue politics” and the emergence of pro-environment “Green” parties. Most recently, following the EU’s absorption of Eastern European states, we have seen the emergence of increasingly radical splinter parties on both the Left and the Right.
Thus the rules of the democratic game seem to have changed.
The adoption of proportional representation in the European Parliament has guaranteed the representation of forces that were often considered marginal. These emerging parties and groups have now imposed their presence on the political arena. Still, extremism is nothing new to Europe given its unhappy experience with Nazism, Fascism and Stalinism. Neither is xenophobia a new phenomenon.
In the light of mounting economic crises, it seems more than natural for such irresponsible voices of dissent to emerge. Demagogues of all colors are witnessing their popularity grow, with ordinary people enthusiastically looking for a scapegoat to blame for their deteriorating living conditions.
This does not mean that France’s Front National or the UK Independence Party will necessarily be a transient phenomenon. But far-Right parties such as these, particularly in stable and longstanding democracies, need to possess an organizational structure that allows them to endure different circumstances and gain support from different segments of society. In France, the Front National has indeed managed to impose its presence across the country over the past decades, with former leader Jean-Marie Le Pen managing to secure a place in the final round of the presidential elections. Britain, a country with a more entrenched and stable partisan experience, is not necessarily heading as quickly towards change of this kind.
Furthermore, not all voices of dissent come from racist and far-Right parties. In Greece and Spain the sudden progress of the far-Left is remarkable. Left-wing parties have increased their share of seats in the European parliament in no fewer than six countries.
In any case, what we have seen from the latest EU elections is very interesting. The most interesting of all is that the ruling parties now have no choice but to meekly listen to the voice of their people and reconsider their policies accordingly in order to win back their trust.