JOOST – Will the extreme right take over the European Parliament?

Will the extreme right take over the European Parliament?In the next couple of days, starting on Thursday in the Netherlands and the UK, European citizens will vote for a new European Parliament (EP). As I explained in my last column, these elections have triggered another round of debate on the pros and cons of the European Union.

Reasonable analysts and most voters agree the EU is indispensable in preventing a new economic crisis, for instance by putting tougher controls and conditions on big banks, and in tackling continent-wide problems such as energy security and migration. Still, the popularity of the 28-member-state block has taken a severe blow in the last few years.

The EU is blamed for austerity policies that have created massive unemployment in many countries. Traditional mainstream parties on the center right and center left are seen as being insensitive to the suffering of their lower-income voters and out of touch with a rising trend of xenophobic nationalismThere is strong and persistent speculation that this volatile political climate in large parts of Europe will lead to a resounding election victory this week of europhobes and radical-right extremists.

According to pessimists, the result would be an unstable and highly polarized EP and, even worse, this domination by tub-thumping mavericks could be the beginning of the unraveling of the whole EU project.Let me try to put things in perspective and dismiss some of these expectations as excessively alarmist.

First, the numbers. Opinion polls indicate that, indeed, the two main political groups in the current EP, the Christian DemocratsConservatives (EPP) and the Social Democrats (SD), will together have less seats in the new parliament with the center-right losing big and the center-left gaining only a few votes.

On top of that, pro-European Liberals and Greens are expected to do badly as well. Most probably, we will end up with three political groups that share some form of euro-skepticism Two of them were present in the outgoing parliament: the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), dominated by British and Polish conservatives, and the Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD) group, known for its flamboyant leader Nigel Farage.

The third potential player on the right could be a new extreme-right group formed, among others, by the French Front National of Marie Le Pen and the Dutch Freedom Party of Geert Wilders. Together, these three groups would occupy around 150 seats, that means 20 percent of the new 751-member EP.

The Le Pen-Wilders group, seen as the most extreme because of its mix of anti-EU, anti-migrant and anti-Islam views, will probably be as big as the Greens (40 seats). Personally, I find that highly regrettable, but it would be a gross exaggeration to think this small group will be able to steer the whole EP and thereby the EU toward the abyss.

Second, one should be careful in throwing the soft euro-skepticism of the ECR, the hard version of the EFD and the nasty anti-migrant positions of the Le Pen-Wilders coalition in one bowl. Many of them strongly disagree among each other on several important points and have already announced they will not join forces.

Besides, many expect the new extreme-right group to be very visible but hardly effective. As Cas Mudde, a Dutch specialist on European populist and radical-right parties observed, “Due to inner political disagreements, past failures of far-right groups in the EP and potential personal tensions, the chances this group will be an important political actor in the next EP are slim to none.

“It is true the presence in the new EP of a considerable number of euro-skeptics of all persuasions is a sign the established parties have failed in convincing large groups of voters that the EU is not part of the problem but of the solution. On the other hand, the European populists will be vocal in their opposition to the established parties but will, inevitably, not be able to come up with any realistic alternatives.

The unanticipated outcome of these elections could well be that, with the right-wing (and to a lesser extent, left-wing) fringes densely populated, the new EP will be dominated, as before, by the same three mainstream pro-European parties: Christian Democrats, Social Democrats and Liberals. That is not necessarily progress, but it is good to keep that in mind when reading scenarios that overdo the scaremongering in regards to this week’s European elections.

SOURCE: Today’s Zaman

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