“There is no doubt that many populist, Eurosceptic and even nationalistic parties are entering the European Parliament,” said the German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, after all the votes in Sunday’s election for the European Union’s parliament had been counted.
He did not say that the barbarian hordes were at the EU’s gates — but he probably thought it.
Boris Johnson, mayor of London, made the same observation rather more colourfully in the Daily Telegraph on Monday: “From Dublin to Lublin, from Portugal to Pomerania, the pitchfork-wielding populists are converging on…Brussels — drunk on local hooch and chanting nationalist slogans and preparing to give the federalist machinery a good old kicking with their authentically folkloric clogs.” There is much truth in what he says.
It is true that the EU’s parliamentary elections last Sunday produced a large assortment of nationalists, neo-fascists and hard leftists who are united in their dislike for the EU.
Together they will account for almost a third of the members of the European Parliament (MEPs), a situation that was unimaginable only five years ago.
However, it is not true that this bloc of rejectionist MEPs will paralyse the EU.
One reason is that the mainstream centre-right and centre-left blocs of MEPs still have a majority in the parliament.
They will probably create a grand coalition that makes all the key decisions behind closed doors, and then rams them through with little real debate. (Of course, this will further alienate the millions who voted for anti-EU candidates.)
The second reason is that the “pitchfork-wielding populists” will never constitute a single bloc, since they disagree on practically everything apart from their policy on the EU.
Some, like the National Front in France and the United Kingdom Independence Party, want their countries to leave the EU.
Others, like the far-left Syriza Party in Greece, just want to get rid of the common currency, the euro, and end the EU’s policy of enforced austerity.
The Alternative for Germany wants to keep the euro but allow the Mediterranean countries to leave it. Jobbik in Hungary and the Danish People’s Party are viciously anti-immigrant. Germany’s National Democratic Party and Golden Dawn in Greece are neo-Nazi. There is a fringe party for every taste.
The most important reason, however, is that the European Parliament has little authority over the bureaucrats who carry out EU policy and none at all over the national governments that actually decide on the policies. The parliament was created to add a dollop of democracy to the process, but it simply cannot paralyse the EU.
Yet this election has been a great shock, because it has revealed a vast reservoir of hostility to the EU among the populations of half its member states, including some of the biggest ones.
In France the anti-EU National Front got more votes than either of the mainstream parties, the Gaullists and the Socialists. In Britain the United Kingdom Independence Party beat both the Conservatives and Labour.
Precisely because the European Parliament has so little real power, however, this was a cost-free protest vote.
At least half the people who backed the National Front and UKIP in the EU election will probably go back to voting for the established parties when the next national elections are held in France and Britain, because the outcome of those elections will matter to them.
Nevertheless, it was a very loud protest, and it has badly shaken the European elites who took it for granted that progress towards a more united Europe was inevitable.
What they now have to figure out is whether this was just a cry of rage and pain caused by six years of economic crisis and falling living standards, or whether it really is a protest against any further expansion of the “European project” — indeed, even a demand to roll it back.
The pain and rage are real enough: even six years later, few European economies are back up to where they were before the banking crisis exploded in 2008.
Unemployment is still high right across the EU, and youth unemployment is catastrophically high in some countries. (In Greece and Spain, almost half of the under-25s have no work.)
If the EU’s current unpopularity is mainly due to a poor economy, then a few years of economic growth and rising incomes should make it go away.
Most of the national economies in the EU will grow at least a bit this year, and as the economic situation improves the anger should subside.
But what if the whole notion of an ever more united Europe is being rejected by the very people who were supposed to benefit from it?
As in many other parts of the world, the widening gulf between the few rich and the many whose living standards are stagnant or falling has created an incipient revolt against globalization — and the EU’s centralising tendencies are widely seen as part of that problem.
Renewed economic growth will not cure the EU’s malaise if the wealth does not trickle down to the majority.
In that case, there may ultimately have to be a retreat to a much looser form of European union.
Gwynne Dyer is a freelance Canadian journalist living in London. His new book, Crawling from the Wreckage, was published recently in Canada by Random House.