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BW Businessworld

Will The European Union Crack?

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While India was glued to the television watching the oath-taking pageantry of Narendra Modi — the outsider who stormed into Delhi — Europe was waking up to stunning election results of its own. In nearly a dozen countries, extremist parties hostile to immigration and European Union’s pro-globalisation policies were elected to the European Parliament, some crushing incumbent parties. Europe’s anemic growth, unemployment and disillusionment with existing policies fuelled their rebellion, not unlike the anti-incumbent anger that propelled India’s rightist Bharatiya Janata Party to power.
 
The similarities end there. Eurosceptic parties are not about to take over the reins of any country. Ironically, they got themselves elected to a parliament they vow to dismantle. Yet, their victory signals the anger of the electorate and sends warning signals to not just European governments but to the world. Marine Le Pen of France’s ultra-right National Front and 39-year-old ultra-leftist Alexis Tsipras of the Greek Syriza party could be heads of their governments and reverse the course of integrating Europe.

The anti-immigrant National Front, which wants France to withdraw from the European Union, won 25 per cent of the votes, thoroughly routing Francois Hollande’s ruling Socialist Party and the conservative UMP of Nicolas Sarkozy. Equally spectacular was the victory of UK Independence Party (UKIP), which campaigned to take Britain out of the EU, securing the highest percentage of votes, defeating both Tory and Labour parties. The defeat of the two mainstream parties in France and Britain, which formed the core of the European Union, has raised concerns about its future.

The sense of disarray was heightened by the introduction of some of Europe’s notorious neo-Nazi parties like Greece’s Golden Dawn and Germany’s National Democratic Party (NPD) in the European Parliament. Golden Dawn has been associated with murders of brown-skinned immigrants and the NPD has described Europe as “a continent of white people”. Parties virulently opposed to immigration, like the Danish People’s Party, Dutch Freedom Party and Hungary’s right-wing nationalist party Jobbik, have boosted extreme right presence in the European Parliament. The fact that the so-called Eurosceptics — rather Eurohostiles — may constitute a third of the 766-member European Parliament does not mean they would be able to block legislation. But their presence and fear of public backlash that they may provoke through their opposition could render legislation on immigration or trade issues more difficult than before.

Perhaps, the most significant development has been the rise of the National Front led by Marine Le Pen, the kinder and gentler but no less hardline daughter of its anti-Semitic founder Jean-Marie Le Pen. In 2002, Le Pen caused a stir by winning second place in the presidential elections. Since then, the party’s support has gone up from 9 per cent to over 25 per cent. Given the widespread disillusionment and pessimism among the liberal voters (60 per cent of voters did not bother to vote), his daughter’s dream of winning the Élysée Palace is no longer unthinkable. Her simple solution to France’s deep-seated problems — taking France out of the European Union and closing the door to foreigners — can be   mocked by liberals but seems attractive to many left behind by the modern economy. Her party won 43 per cent of the workers’ votes and 37 per cent of the votes of the unemployed. 

Even if France’s National Front or Britain’s UKIP cannot grab power, their growing influence could pressure the ruling centrist parties to take a more hardline stance on EU integration and especially on immigration and trade liberalisation. Rising barriers within the 28-member union will mean even taller barriers with the world outside. The May electoral storm could end up creating an internally divided fortress Europe. 

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 30-06-2014)