x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Extremists benefit at EU elections

The far-right benefits from voters' dissatisfaction with mainstream parties and low turnout in the EU parliamentary elections.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, second left, casts her ballot for the European Elections on June 7, 2009 at a polling station in Berlin.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, second left, casts her ballot for the European Elections on June 7, 2009 at a polling station in Berlin.

Right-wing success in the EU parliamentary election left European social democrats with an identity crisis today, while the whole political spectrum rued the lowest-ever voter turnout. The current economic crisis should have boosted the popularity of the centre-left parties, instead they suffered humiliating defeats, European newspapers said. Left-wing parties in power in Britain, Spain and Portugal were punished by their electorates while their allies in opposition in Germany and France suffered brutal losses.

"The traditional parties of the left should ask themselves why, in the midst of crisis, just when free market theories appear to be most challenged, people continue to prefer liberal recipes," Spain's El Mundo said. Provisional voting figures showed the European People's Party, an umbrella group of conservative parties, remaining the largest bloc in the EU parliament with 265 of the 736 seats. They widened the gap over the second-placed Party of European Socialists, who won 162 seats, according to the latest official figures.

The Liberals also took a bashing, winning just 80 seats, while the Greens made gains with 51 seats. Some commentators pointed to the ideological rift between traditional leftists and market-friendly Tony Blair-style social democrats, blamed in some circles for aiding and abetting the global recession. Apathy was also a big winner, with just 42.94 per cent of the 388 million eligible voters bothering to cast ballots in the world's biggest transnational elections.

One of the biggest losers was the British prime minister Gordon Brown who saw his ruling Labour party relegated to third place nationally, behind the opposition Conservatives and the fringe UK Independence Party (UKIP) which wants Britain out of the European Union. Brown faces mounting pressure to quit amid parliamentary sleaze stories, cabinet resignations and a poor showing in local elections. His precarious position is raising fears in Brussels and elsewhere over the fate of the EU's reforming Lisbon Treaty.

The opposition Conservative leader David Cameron, expected to be the next prime minister, wants the Lisbon Treaty put to a referendum even though Britain has already fully ratified it. Such a move "would be irresponsible to our European neighbours and partners," said British MEP Graham Watson, head of the European Liberals. German chancellor Angela Merkel was in much happier mood ahead of national elections in September, saying the strong showing of her conservative Christian Democrats meant their national hopes "have grown clearly".

Hardline nationalists and increasingly popular anti-EU parties such as UKIP will create a bigger and more worrying section of the European parliament. Almost immediately after results were announced the major groups organised meetings to discuss the possibility of a grand coalition of the pro-EU centre in the hopes of forming a parliamentary majority. Nick Griffin, the leader of the far-right British National Party, fired a warning shot to "the elites of Europe" that the anti-Islamic platform which catapulted him to the EU parliament was something they "have to get their heads round".

The two seats won by the BNP represented the first parliamentary contests ever won by a far-right party in Britain and mirrored a trend seen in other parts of the continent. The British MEP Watson acknowledged that the far-right had tapped into public concerns that mainstream parties have been unable to address. "I don't believe the far right will have a great influence on the policies of this house, but I regret the fact that disillusionment as a result of economic depression and a failure to integrate immigrants in our society has led to a rise for representatives of parties which preach hate and xenophobia."

* AP