European election voters face shift towards political fringes
The results of the European Parliament elections are not expected to favour the political mainstream
“Despite the brightening economic picture, unemployment remains stubbornly high across Europe, particularly in the under-25 demographic.” Above: a queue outside an unemployment office in Madrid. Photograph: Andres Kudacki/AP
In less than three weeks’ time, voters in 28 countries across the European Union will go to the polls to elect the next European Parliament. Five years since the last set of European elections, the social and political context has altered profoundly. These elections will be the first since the full extent of the euro zone crisis became apparent, when Greece became the first of five European countries to seek a full or partial EU-IMF bailout in 2010.
But while the continent is now tentatively emerging from recession, as economic growth returns, government bond yields settle down and countries such as Ireland and Portugal regain full market access, the scars of the economic crisis run deep. Between May 23rd and May 25th voters throughout Europe will have their first opportunity to express their opinions through the ballot box. The results are not expected to favour Europe’s mainstream political establishment. A shift towards the political fringes has been creeping in to national politics in a number of European countries in recent years as voter frustration with mainstream politics has intensified.
The strong performance of Marine Le Pen’s National Front in this year’s local elections in France, the rise of Golden Dawn in Greece which has seen its national support grow from less than 1 per cent in 2009 to 7 per cent in the 2012 elections, and the surprise success of the left-wing Alternative for Deutschland (Afd) in last year’s German elections, less than a year after its formation, have shown that anti-establishment parties are making an impact on the political landscape.
Pollsters predict these national trends to be replicated at an EU level. A recent poll by Open Europe predicts that anti-EU parties could win more than 30 per cent of the vote.
So what are the main issues facing the 400 million voters eligible to vote in the European elections?
Despite the brightening economic picture, unemployment remains stubbornly high across Europe, particularly in the under-25 demographic. Twenty-six million people are out of work in the EU, with an average euro area unemployment rate of 11.9 per cent and one in four young people unemployed. While the median figures mask huge disparities – Germany and Austria, for example, have unemployment rates of 5.1 per cent and just 4.8 per cent respectively – countries such as Greece and Spain are continuing to experience youth unemployment rates of about 60 per cent.
EU commissioner for employment, social affairs and inclusion László Andor put it succinctly at the publication of the last set of figures: “The social situation in the EU shows little signs of improvement: inequalities have risen and the situation of many households and individuals is not improving, with ever growing numbers suffering from financial distress.”
Immigration has surged on to the electoral agenda in countries as diverse as Sweden, France and, in particular, Britain, where it has become a cornerstone of prime minister David Cameron’s plan to renegotiate the UK’s membership of the European Union. Dozens of parties are campaigning on a specifically anti- immigration agenda, including UKIP; the Danish People’s Party, now garnering 27 per cent support, according to polls; and the Austrian Freedom Party, which could also poll close to 30 per cent. Anti-immigration rhetoric is not confined to so- called fringe parties but is increasingly shaping the policy of mainstream political parties. In the Czech Republic the centre- right Christian Democrats, part of the governing coalition, were criticised for a section of their election manifesto that rejected “inadaptable immigrants” who “burn cars . . . deal drugs and bring radical Islamism with them.”
3. Economic growth and deflation
Despite the easing of the euro zone crisis, significant challenges still remain for the euro zone economy.
Despite GDP turning positive in the second quarter of last year economic growth is anaemic, mostly crippled by low domestic demand as consumers continue to battle with the euro zone’s policy of fiscal consolidation. At 0.7 per cent, inflation is well below the European Central Bank’s target level, prompting speculation that ECB president Mario Draghi may launch a bond- buying programme in a bid to kick-start the economy. If not, Europe could be facing a “lost decade” of Japanese-style stagnation. This year’s banking stress tests could also reveal capital shortfalls, potentially destabilising the European financial system.
4. Foreign policy
The crisis in Ukraine has left Europe facing political chaos at its doorstep, and has generated the biggest diplomatic crisis with Russia since the Cold War. How the EU and Nato respond to the unfolding crisis in Ukraine is of crucial concern to EU citizens, particularly in the east of the bloc. The Ukraine crisis has opened up questions about the EU’s enlargement policy, inevitably posing the question of whether EU enlargement has gone far enough. The impact of further sanctions on the European economy is also likely to dominate EU foreign policy in the coming months.
5. Energy and climate change
With Europe dependent on Russia for 30 per cent of its gas supply, the crisis in Ukraine has brought the issue of energy security into the spotlight. Concern about energy supply has also coincided with discussions on the EU’s climate change strategy for 2030. While the EU has traditionally been a global leader in terms of greenhouse gas reduction, commitment to renewable energy sources is waning in some countries who are worried about cost. The issue of energy diversification – and particularly countries’ willingness to embrace shale and nuclear – is likely to be a key issue for Europe in the months ahead.
Suzanne Lynch is European