Tuesday, June 9, 2009 8 comments ++[ CLICK TO COMMENT ]++

European parliament shifts towards the right...and a bit further towards the far-right

(non-investing post so skip it if you aren't interested in politics)

Often, but not always, large upheavel in politics occur during economic downturns. One of the big question marks in my mind is the impact of the current recession and the financial crisis on politics. My big concern is the potential for the collapse of the Chinese government. But coming closer to home, we have seen a shift to the left in America, with huge gains for the Democrats. Of course, one can never be sure what is driving change but I suspect the economic performance of the Republicans in the last term, possibly along with the Iraqi war (although Americans still seem to be heavily in favour of the war and it wasn't a major issue during elections.)

Well, another part of the world is seeing some change, although it isn't as big as it appears. In Europe, voters have shifted their votes towards the far-right. Roughly speaking, the left lost votes, the moderate right stayed flat, and, for the first time, the far-right gained a sizeable number of seats. The Globe & Mail reports on the outcome:

In a startling flight to the fringes, the European Union's 490-million citizens sent an amazing range of angry, racist, anti-European, anti-immigrant, separatist, protest and far-right parties and candidates to represent them in Brussels, a ragtag protest vote that now represents more than 16 per cent of the European Parliament.


At a time when European countries from France to Greece have been riven with protests and strikes against the devastation caused by the credit crisis, and unemployment is soaring across the continent, the vote marked a humiliating trouncing for such mighty forces of the left as Germany's Social Democrats, France's Socialists, Spain's governing PSOE and especially Britain's governing Labour Party, all of whom saw their lowest poll results in the parliament's 30-year history of elections.

Britain's Labour Party fell to third-place status, with only 15 per cent of the vote, behind the far-right, anti-Europe UK Independence Party, a result that deepened Prime Minister Gordon Brown's leadership crisis and led another cabinet minister to resign Monday.

Parties and coalitions of the right, such as those of Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, France's Nicolas Sarkozy and Germany's Angela Merkel did very well, turning their European parliament bloc, the European People's Party, into a powerhouse with 36 per cent of the vote. And Britain's Conservative leader David Cameron, who won his country's biggest share of the seats by a wide margin, is planning on shifting his party into a further-right, anti-Europe coalition, moving the legislature's centre of gravity hard to the right.

The Labour Party in Britain is facing huge problems and I think it will have a hard time over the next decade. In addition to political problems (over MP spending, leadership, etc), Britain is facing serious economic problems. Britain had a bigger real estate bubble than America and some of its mega-banks are in far worse shape than the American banks.

The biggest surprise, one that the mainstream media is attributing as a protest vote, are the huge gains by the far right:

So the legislature now contains, for the first time ever, members of the British National Party, which forbids blacks from being members and calls for the “voluntary” repatriation of anyone descended from immigrants. They won two seats, both in northern England, despite a joint effort by all of Britain's mainstream parties to keep them out.

They'll be sitting alongside the Freedom Party of Dutch firebrand Geert Wilders, a party increasingly devoted to anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant agitation, which came second in the Netherlands with 4 seats. Austria's extremist Freedom Party, Hungary's fascist Jobbik Party, and Denmark's DVP, an extreme right-wing party, had record results, and Italy's fascist Northern League won a strong eight seats.

And anti-Europe parties, which believe that the Parliament in which they sit should not exist and the EU should be abolished, also did extremely well. Britain's United Kingdom Independence Party, which wants the EU abolished and immigration ended, outpolled the governing Labour Party with 13 seats, and Finland's anti-Europe True Finns captured 13 per cent of the vote.

Most of the far-right and anti-immigrant parties also hold anti-EU platforms, and together with the two major anti-Europe coalitions, Union for a Europe of the Nations and Independence and Democracy, at least 121 of the 736 seats are now held by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) who do not believe the parliament should exist.

It remains to be seen how the European Parliament will perform given how a sizeable chunk of the elected members are anti-EU and favour dissolving the parliament. I'm not sure what the far-right parties will attempt but I suspect they will probably try to pass laws limiting immigration and expelling immigrants they don't like.

Having said all this, the European Parliament is largely symbolic and has little power to do anything.


8 Response to European parliament shifts towards the right...and a bit further towards the far-right

June 9, 2009 at 5:06 PM

thanks for your interest in matters across the Atlantic. I guess I will differ from contrariandutch here, but the European parliament has actually significant power to legislate. They don't control the big issues of the economy or politics, but have actually much regulatory power. Even though this power is sometimes, it has impact on the lives of Europeans. The Economist, however Eurosceptic they are, gave a good summary last week.
As for the significance of the vote, who knows what to make of it? In Europe the social democracy has been historically dependent on trade unions, both for votes and as a school of leadership. This support in the unions is slowly disappearing and nothing is replacing it. If you wish, there are plenty of "Reagan democrats" around in Europe, working class people who are not convinced by the left. In some cases, they indeed end up voting for the far right. Although, to tell the truth, I would not be that impressed. A few years ago the far right was much more powerful in France or Austria, and this time their total score is actually not that impressive. More intriguing is the shrinking of the far left. I don't know what to make of it. Maybe they don't have the funding they used to have from the Eastern bloc (Venezuela notwithstanding), and I am convinced that the right wing has lots of money going for it.
For the record, I am a Spaniard living in the Netherlands, and voted for the Dutch MEPs. One of the features of this election is that you can actually vote in a country other than yours if you are resident there. And I was saddened by the Dutch result; I read it as a reflection of how the Dutch character is. The elites in Holland believe their country is a cultivated, tolerant land. However, the actual population obviously does not match with their ideal. A bit similar to the US, where the elites in the cities have an idea of how the country is, and then they are shocked by the election returns.
Finally, a big (and false) interpretation is to say that the 30's are coming again. In times of crisis, Europe turns to the right (and extreme right even), whereas the US go to an FDR-like figure. It is false, but it is a nice irony for all this good-thinking Europeans so despondent about the Americans, their leaders and their role in the world. At least Americans have Obama, whereas in Europe we keep on voting for Berlusconi and Sarkozy!

June 9, 2009 at 7:11 PM

Did ContrarianDutch leave an answer? I don't see it. Here is how I see things. Since this post will be really long, let me break it up :)

June 9, 2009 at 7:27 PM

Speaking as someone who is left-leaning, or at least who considers himself to be one ;)  , the problem with the left is that it need a re-thinking of what it stands for.
Once upon a time, the left used to represent liberalism--freer speech, pro-drugs, secular religion, pro-immigration, and generally anti-war. In terms of economics, it tended to be pro-worker, pro-taxes, and pro-welfare. As for free trade, it's a mixed bag wtih most of hte left against it some degree but the centrists generally in favour of it. I think most of the left has been weakening because they used to rule countries in Europe--your Spain is overseen by the so-called Socialists; Britain ruled by Labour--but they have nothing to show for in the last decade, or two. So it's not surprising that voters are losing faith in the left-wing parties.
The far-left has basically disintegrated and it shouldn't be surprising. After all, most of it rested on an anti-capitalist stance and recent history, notwitstanding the financial crisis, has shown that capitalism is hard to argue against in the long run. I mean, what does the far-left represent right now? The so-called Socialists aren't really socialist (even a chunk on the right would argue for minimum wage, reasonable welfare, unemployment insurance, and so on.) The so-called Communists have been thoroughly discredited, and I'm even surprised that they are still around.
I don't really think it's a funding issue. Usually it comes down to a bunch of social or economic issues. I mean, in America, Obama supposedly had far greater spending yet he was polling very close to McCain until the economy completely fell apart (after which he took a huge lead).
Speaking as someone who is left-leaning, I personally hope that everyone on the left go back to our origins, which is basically liberalism on social affairs and economics.

June 9, 2009 at 7:44 PM

As for the gains by the far-right, I am not that concerned by it--at least not yet. There is a certain chunk of the European population that is supportive of fascism (or similar systems) and I would rather have it out in the open than closed behind doors. For instance, it is amazing to me that there is still a huge chunk of Italians who are openly fascist. Let's see what these parties can do before jumping to conclusions.
The increasing popularity of the far-right was sort of predictable. Europe is facing some problems with immigration and what you are seeing is simply the symptoms of it. The fact that we are in the thick of a severe recession probably helps the far-right. After all, it's easier to blame job losses and all the social problems on some "evil Muslim immigrant" or a "poor Eastern European worker".
Believe it or not, I think America (and Canada to a minor degree) are also facing some increased problems with immigration. It's not uncommon to see someone bashing some Hispanic immigrant from Mexico for the problems in America. Similar to Europe, the economic situation is probably driving the hatred. The difference, of course, is that America doesn't have a history of any far-right support. You also never hear anyone suggesting that non-illegal immigrants should be expelled because, well, most Americans are immigrants too (in contrast, many supportive of the far-right in Europe are indigeneous to those regions.)
In the long run, Europeans will end up stronger for tackling these issues now.

June 9, 2009 at 7:53 PM

"Finally, a big (and false) interpretation is to say that the 30's are coming again."
Yeah, this is nothing like the 1930's. Even if it were, Europeans surely wouldn't be dumb enough to pursue a similar path.
If I had any concern, it would be the Eastern European countries. A 1930's-like scenario can easily happen in those countries. There are a lot of so-called Communists, who have embraced capitalism and become fascists, who scare me. These leaders in waiting, just like the Communists before, are just thugs. If the econmic problems bankrupt many of those countries, a totalitarian, who will actually be democratically elected, can easily take over. It can end up like Central Asia (Turkmenistan, Tajikstan, Afghanistan, etc) except the Eastern European countries are big and more developed. Or maybe closer to some history you are likely familiar with, General Franco in Spain.
Anyway, this is all wild speculation and let's hope nothing comes of it... the thing that worries me is that long periods of calm and prosperity and followed by upheavels :(

June 12, 2009 at 7:31 AM

I didn't leave a coment before, so Zitron must be guessing my opinions.
And Zitron, you really should read the treaties underpinning the EU. You will find that the parliament is mostly a talking shop (and comfy retirement for politicians). Real power is in the hands of the commission and the council of ministers. That said, the parliament has a pretty big bully pulpit to raise a stink if it wants.
An important thing to note about the rise of the "far right" is that anglophone media tend to label a lot of parties as "far right" and even "fascist" that in no way fit that description. The "Freedom party (PVV)" cannot be regarded as "fascist" or "far right" and neither can the Italian Lega Nord. The first is a liberal-conservative party that worries a lot about extreme accomodation of Islam favored by some and the second is a conservative party that seeks autonomy or even independence for Northern Italy because they are unhappy with the state of the Italian state.
Last, Zitron, if you are going to suggest that the population of the Netherlands is ïntolerant or uncultivated, please do explain what gives you such negative views, especially consierding that you seem to prefer living among these terrible people instead of in a more agreeable place.

June 12, 2009 at 5:41 PM

I only meant that one's opinions can be roughly expected, if one takes into account the previous opinions one has written about. 
As your point on the parliament, I agree that it is not the center of power. In fact, that is the reason why I don't understand the claim that European elections are the occasion to discuss about Europe in the public sphere. Precisely because national governments have the most power, national elections are the time to discuss these matters. But this is another story.
And finally, concerning the "hard right", if you wish, it is a bit of an academic exercise to argue how far right they are. Their opinion is often not a nuanced analysis of the immigration policies, but rather a call to rather base instincts of human nature. Here, you could also say that communist parties (or Venezuela for that matter) share the call, but direct their anger to a different group. A rationalization in the line that they worry about the "extreme accomodation of Islam" is not quite compatible with their claims that Islam is incompatible with the Western values. Saying that Muslims have no place in our societies implies that they are against any accomodation of Islam, not their extreme forms. And my comment on how "uncultivated and intolerant" Dutch people was an ironic observation that a country whose population happily votes for Wilders party is definitely not a tolerant and open one. And for the record, yes, in Spain we killed each other about 70 years ago, so we are not that tolerant and cultivated neither. But Spanish elites do not have the image of themselves as being so, whereas many members of the Dutch elite have such an image. 
In any case, let us no try to kidnap Sivaram's post and observations with our discussion.

June 12, 2009 at 10:48 PM

ContrarianDutch: "An important thing to note about the rise of the "far right" is that anglophone media tend to label a lot of parties as "far right" and even "fascist" that in no way fit that description. The "Freedom party (PVV)" cannot be regarded as "fascist" or "far right" and neither can the Italian Lega Nord. "
Perhaps fascist is too strong of a word and isn't quite correct--yet. Nevertheless, it is leaning in that direction. Any party that explicitly singles out a specific group (Muslims in this case) and calls for Muslims to voluntarily leave the country is starting to use some plays from the fascist rulebook.
As Zitron alludes to, they are not even saying that some extremist group or someone committing some illegal activity or whatever should be targetted. Nope. Instead, they want all Muslims out. Of course, they call for Muslims to leave voluntarily but what happens if they seize power and then don't think it should be done voluntarily?

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