News Analysis: Populist parties make big gains in EU vote

Posted in Europe | 15-Jun-04 | Author: Katrin Bennhold| Source: International Herald Tribune

Star candidate for the UK Independence Party Robert Kilroy-Silk, looks at one of his party's posters.
Political divide is said to deepen further

BRUSSELS The success of a host of euroskeptic and populist parties on both sides of the former Iron Curtain suggests that disillusionment with Brussels has reached a new and more concrete level than before, analysts said Monday.

"These elections have brought to the fore a new political divide in Europe - the pro and anti-European divide, which transcends the traditional left-right gap," said Jean-Philippe Roy, professor of political science at Tours University. "If politicians don't take this new phenomenon into account the disconnect between them and the voters will grow ever wider."

The most resounding triumph came in Britain, where the U.K. Independence Party, which is calling for the country's withdrawal from the European Union altogether, won 17 percent of the national vote and 12 seats in the European Parliament, four times as many as in the last election five years ago.

While Denmark's euroskeptic June Movement, led by Jens-Peter Bonde, unexpectedly lost ground, its Swedish sister organization, which was created specifically for the election, won almost 15 percent of the vote.

Meanwhile, in Poland, two anti-EU parties, the Self-Defense party of the far-right populist Andrzej Lepper and the League of Polish Families, together won 29 percent of the ballot.

Helped by the record-low turnout, which amplified the proportion of their votes across the Continent, euroskeptics also picked up seats in the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, raising their overall proportion of seats in the European Parliament to about 10 percent. That leaves the European Parliament more polarized than ever in its 25-year history.

Ranging from hard-line Communists to rightist Catholic parties and anti-immigrant groups, the colorful mix of anti-European parties is unlikely to make common cause; from environmental regulation issues to foreign policy, disagreements abound.

But by putting the traditionally pro-European mainstream parties on the defensive, the euroskeptics may prompt a shift in the political spectrum to a more cautious stance on European integration. As such, analysts said, the election result may have changed the face of EU politics.

Buoyed by their success at the ballot box, euroskeptics were promising to lobby the political center with their increased voters' base on issues ranging from economic policy to the imminent talks on the constitution.

"We will act as a pressure group at home and in the European Parliament," said Heather Conyngham, campaign coordinator of the U.K. Independence Party. "I think people are just waking up to the Europe certain politicians had planned for them and they feel fooled. They signed up to an common market and not to a common state."

Jens-Peter Bonde, head of Denmark's June Movement and leader of the Group for a Europe of Differences and Democracy, the largest group of euroskeptic parties in the European Parliament, acknowledged that even within the group, parties' ideologies differed widely. "But we all agree on one thing," he said. "We don't want any more integration and we don't want that constitution."

The fact that people voted for anti-European parties shows that they respond to election campaigns run on European issues, said Roy, the professor of political science. Pro-European governing parties and their main opposition parties concentrated their campaigns largely on domestic issues.

"You could say that in this sense the success of the euroskeptics is also a success for Europe - it shows that people have opinions about Europe," he said.

The key challenge for mainstream parties will be to define their different strategies for European policy in a way that voters can engage with, said John Palmer, director of the European Policy Center in Brussels. From economic policy to the allocation of the EU's E100 billion, or $120 billion, budget for the next spending round from 2007 to 2013, the potential for controversy exists.

In countries that saw their turnout increase during the election Sunday - Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark - voters appeared to be driven by the desire to punish their governments for supporting the United States in its military campaign in Iraq last year.

"That tells me that people understand the big issues and want a say," Palmer said. "But if you ask them to vote on a reheated national platform, why should they? Why not go to the beach?"

Discontent with the way the EU is run differs across countries, with a big gulf between old member states in the west and their new neighbors in the east. The irony is that the two movements may reinforce each other.

While unease about the Union's recent enlargement and concerns that it will increase immigration and subsidies to the east at the expense of western regions is dominating the euroskeptic debate in the west, anti-EU campaigners in the east are focusing on the idea that they are second-class citizens. Most of the old member states have imposed transitional restrictions on immigration from the east.

France, Germany and Greece are limiting the entry of workers for two years, while Spain, Austria and Portugal will issue a restricted amount of work permits. Only three months before the eastward expansion, even Britain, which had initially prided itself in throwing its doors unconditionally open, passed a rule in February, requiring immigrants from the new member states to register and stopping them from drawing benefits.

Meanwhile, six leaders, including Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of Germany and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, have demanded a freeze on EU spending at no more than one percent of the region's combined gross domestic product for the next 10 years.

Such demands have helped spark discontent in the new member states and bred support for parties like Lepper's Self-Defense group, which has campaigned against EU-inspired economic reforms and vowed to fight "thieves" at home and in Brussels.

"The real concern is the impact these fringe parties have on the politics of other parties - this is much more important than the immediate impact they may have by voting one way or the other in the Parliament," said Danuta Huebner, the European Commissioner from Poland. "The mainstream parties are becoming more defensive and there is a danger that they are tempted to become more euroskeptic."