European Earthquake

by John Fund
The voters demonstrate their Euroskepticism, but will elites listen?

How big was the “Euroskeptic” uprising in the elections for the European Parliament on Sunday? Martin Schulz of Germany, who is the left-wing candidate to become the next president of the European Commission, admitted that the results across the 28 member countries showed voters’ “total loss of trust” in pro-Europe parties. Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister who heads a centrist bloc of deputies in the Parliament, told a reporter that he, too, is now a Euroskeptic who wants reform in Brussels.

But the reality is that most committed supporters of an ever more powerful European Union will be tempted to ignore Sunday’s results, hoping that public dissatisfaction with bailouts and bureaucrats will abate. But the public might not play along. The best economic estimates are that Europe is facing another “lost decade” of economic growth — stagnant economies will do nothing to reduce sky-high unemployment among young people, and the need for more Eurocrisis bailouts will keep taxes high.

In Britain, the political earthquake was huge as the United Kingdom Independence Party, an avowedly Euroskeptic party, won 29 percent of the vote and became the first party other than the Conservatives and Labor to place first in a nationwide election in 108 years. Graham Watson, a defeated Liberal Democratic member of the European Parliament from Cornwall, told the BBC, “Britain is now more anti-European-integration than at any time since Napoleon.” Daniel Hannan, a National Review contributor and Conservative member of the European Parliament, told me last month that “the elites who promised us that greater centralization of power in Brussels would lead to peace have instead delivered what I warned against: animosity between nations and the rise of extremists.”

In bemoaning the bureaucratization, Hannan mentioned the remarkable showing of France’s National Front, which came in first in Sunday’s vote with 25 percent. (It won only 6 percent of the vote in the 2009 European Parliament elections.) While the party has moderated its xenophobic message since founder Jean-Marie Le Pen retired as its leader, the Front still harbors enough sketchy characters to make UKIP leader Nigel Farage promise that he will not formally cooperate with them in the European Parliament.

All across Europe, voters have lost faith in traditional parties in direct proportion to the collapse of economic growth. In countries with free-market growth policies — such as the Baltic states — ruling parties actually gained votes in Sunday’s vote. But in Spain, France, Greece, and other countries, the traditional major parties of the Left and Right won less than half the vote. Even in Germany, the large nation most clearly committed to European integration, an openly Euroskeptic party pulled in 7 percent of the vote and will enter the European Parliament for the first time.

The reason for all this ferment is clearly economic dissatisfaction. In France, where growth is zero, two-thirds of voters recently told pollsters for the Financial Times that the economy is worse now than it was a year ago. In Italy, too, most voters said the economy is weaker than it was a year ago. Asked if they felt more secure in their jobs, 58 percent of Italians answered: “No, not at all.” In the five largest European countries, more than half of voters in the FT poll agreed with the statement that their country had “too many immigrants from the EU.”

Sadly, European Union leaders have in the past demonstrated a bullheaded refusal to listen to voters who are skeptical of European centralization. The bureaucrats at the helm ignore referendums that go against the wishes of Brussels, dismiss protests against economic bailouts, and give only lip service to addressing the public’s desire for greater accountability and transparency.

Hannan says that despite such a record, there is still time for Europe to preserve the best of the postwar progress it’s made in bringing nations together — the free movement of goods, services, capital, and tourists — while avoiding the mistakes of misbegotten political union. “The voters are making their views clear,” he told me. “The question now is whether any of the political elites will finally pay attention and engage in real reform.”

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for National Review Online.

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