The leaders of the European Union have experienced a virtual earthquake as the strength of rightwing political forces demonstrated itself in major countries like Britain and France in the recent elections to the European Parliament. The swing to the right was not entirely unanticipated as ruling parties were well aware that there has been substantial dissatisfaction among the various populations, as a result of the deep economic recession that has affected some countries.
Indeed, for some time now, there has been grumbling in some countries about immigration from other EU member states (a particular complaint of voters in Britain that the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has been amplifying in recent years); and there has also been dissatisfaction in France in particular about continuing movement of nationals into Europe from Middle Eastern countries as turmoil continues there, particularly in Syria, as well as from some African states.
Where there has been relative economic stability, as in Germany, negative results have not characterized the ruling coalition’s support, and in particular Mrs Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party. On the other hand, in France for some time now, public opinion polls have shown continuing dissatisfaction with President Francois Hollande’s French Socialist Party as, in the opinion of a large portion of the electorate, he has failed to come to terms with the depressed economy of the country.
The elections have coincided with the imminent appointment of a new President of the European Commission over which there has been some substantial squabbling, one of the main points of opposition groupings in the European Parliament being that this appointment should be made not by the heads of states and governments functioning as a kind of quasi-cabinet, but by the parliament itself. And here the argument is that, as the parliament has evolved in constitutional strength, the presidency of the commission should now reflect the wishes of the popularly elected parliament.
And in effect, it represents a growing sentiment that if major decisions affecting the people are increasingly being centralised within a European institutional framework, then choices about who should be the major functionaries of that framework should be directly made by the national electorates.
The recent electoral demonstration of unpopularity of some of the leading governments of the EU comes at a time when the EU has collectively been making a series of decisions about the character of the integration arrangement as far as membership is concerned. The cosy relationship among the original six of what was then the European Community has been giving way to an increasing membership, encompassing countries which reflect a larger conception of Europe than was perceived as possible during the Cold War. There is now a major discrepancy in size between the orginal six and the present membership that includes small entities like Malta and Cyprus, as well as former members of the Soviet system such as Poland and Hungary and the smaller entities like Latvia and Estonia which Russia had originally seen as parts of its sphere of influence.
Further, in recent times, the EU has reinforced this tendency towards absorption of ex-communist entities, as has been demonstrated in the continuing tussle for the allegiance of Ukraine, a state considered by Russia as being its virtual cousin. From the perspective of the Russians, these attempts at what it considers to be geopolitical absorption, have converted the growth and development of the EU, originally perceived by many as an admirable experiment in economic and wider policy-making integration, into an expansion that would affect the nature of relations in wider Europe, transforming the EU into a major political power, changing the geopolitical relationships of Europe.
From Russia’s perspective, Europe’s recent behaviour over Ukraine represents an initiative to change the balance of power globally, in turn minimizing the influence of Russia in areas where it historically had some level of determination. The European Union, which Russia essentially sees as Western Europe, is now perceived by that country as encroaching on its boundaries, and acquiring a level of influence in various countries in wider Europe, which had not previously been the case.
Oddly, in some respects the views of the right wing parties that have been contesting the elections to the European Parliament coincide with those of Russia, though from a different perspective and rationale. Those parties have emphasized a characterization of the new states entering the EU as strangers, watering down the social and cultural unity of their Europe, and causing social and political dissatisfaction among the original European electorates.
In turn, immigration has become a substantial issue in recent elections in Western Europe, not least in Britain where the word, used in political discourse and electoral campaigns, has been virtually transformed from a mode of reference to persons from the West Indies and the Asian continent, into one referring to immigrants from the wider Europe, and now including also persons from the Middle East.
So the recent elections would seem to reflect a sense, within the various electorates, of turmoil in a changing Europe itself. In Britain, the rise of the (UKIP) reflects this sense of domestic turmoil, threatening the strength of the Conservative Party and its governmental coalition with the Liberals. There too, the British Labour Party, traditionally perceived as more empathetic to immigrants than the Conservatives, appears to be feeling the pressure. And indeed, the Labour Leader of the Opposition has felt a need to express understanding of the anti-immigration, anti-foreigner sentiments in Britain, a posture which former leader Tony Blair has felt it necessary to indicate as inappropriate for the party.
In Britain, too, the sense of turmoil among the electorate, and affecting the political parties, is also reflective of the imminent vote in Scotland on independence from the United Kingdom. And, it appears, with only a very gradual recovery from economic recession, it will be bolstered by the electorate’s concern with unclear prospects for a return to substantial economic growth.