JOOST – European elections: Worry, but don’t panic

European elections: Worry, but don’t panicLooking at some of the headlines in the European press the day after the European Parliament elections, one could get the impression a populist revolt had just swept away all mainstream parties and the EU was on the threshold of revolutionary changes. On most front pages there were pictures of the two leading firebrands: Marie Le Pen, leader of the extreme-right Front National (FN) that came out on top in France and Nigel Farage who did even better in the UK with his anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP).

Is this indeed the end of the EU as we know it? I don’t think so.Le Pen and Farage represent the forceful reaction in large parts of Northwestern Europe against highly unpopular austerity policies that have created unemployment, fear for the future and, above all, resentment against the EU.

The interesting thing, however, is that in countries where that social and economic pain is felt much stronger — like Greece and Italy — the winners of the elections were parties on the left: the radical Syriza of Alexis Tsipras and the more moderate Democrats of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. They have very little in common with the right-wing victors up north apart from their resistance against one-sided economic recovery programs.

So it would be a big mistake to conclude that all over the EU angry citizens have opted for the same sweeping radical-right answers. They did not.

In the Netherlands and Belgium, parties very similar to the FN lost votes because people preferred less extreme alternatives. In Germany, the only party fundamentally challenging Merkel’s euro policy got 7 percent of the votes.

Not really the kind of European-wide landslide presented by the mediaThat does not mean the hard blows dealt by Le Pen and Farage against the French and British establishment will have no consequences. But they will be felt first and foremost in Paris and London, not in Brussels.

The current French government will try to show they got the message by being more tough on migration and more slow andor flexible in implementing the economic policies agreed with the other member states. In London, David Cameron will be under even greater pressure to come up with a formula that could save Britain’s EU membership at the referendum he has promised.

Of course French reluctance to agree on more European surveillance of its economy and British efforts to negotiate further opt-outs will eventually have a chilling effect on the EU when necessary reforms will be blocked or postponed.That danger of stagnation will most probably not come from the new European Parliament.

With all attention focused on the 20-25 percent euroskeptics and extremists, one would almost forget that around 70 percent of the EP still consists of pro-European politicians who will do their utmost not to be hijacked by the radical fringes. Besides, how influential and effective will all these anti-EU rebels be when they remain split in different political groups or don’t manage to organize themselves in the first place?The thing to watch in the next couple of weeks is whether Farage keeps his promise not to form one group with Le Pen and whether or not the self-acclaimed modern day Jeanne d’Arc will be successful in convincing six other parties to join forces with her At the moment, the outcome of all these backroom deals is not clear at all.

We might well end up with a parliament in which the two main groups, the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, decide to strike a deal to save Europe from the barbarians.There is therefore good reason not to panic — at least not yet.

On the other hand, it would be a big mistake to carry on as if nothing has happened. The time has come to say goodbye to the extreme austerity policies that have triggered so much opposition and replace them with a European initiative that stimulates growth and permits member states to choose their own national mix of measures within certain limits agreed upon by everyone.

Add to that a fundamental debate about what the EU should do and which tasks can better be carried out at the national level. If the majority of the new EP manages to set these changes in motion, the spectacular victories of Le Pen and Farage will have produced the kind of lasting improvements many Europeans, not only the radical loudmouths, are longing for.

SOURCE: Today’s Zaman

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