In Europe, elections to the European Parliament last week sent shock waves through the political firmament. Parties of the right and left that ran campaigns against the European Union — known as “Euroskeptics” — made significant gains in England, France, Denmark, and Greece, although pro-EU parties collectively will still be in the majority.
The political reaction was immediate, as leaders who had previously characterized the Euroskeptics as a fringe movement scrambled to respond to the wave. In Great Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron — whose Conservative Party was thumped and finished third in British balloting, behind the Euroskeptic UK Independence Party — acknowledged that people were “deeply disillusioned” with the EU. In France, where President Francois Hollande’s Socialist Party finished third behind the Euroskeptic National Front, Hollande went on TV to call for the EU to scale back its role. Noting that the EU had become “remote and incomprehensible,” Hollande said he will speak to other European leaders about focusing on the economy and added that the EU needs to be “effective where it is needed and to withdraw from where it is not necessary.”
The politics of multi-party European countries seem very murky here in the two-party U.S. It’s not clear whether the recent vote is the product of simmering nationalism — a very loaded word in Europe, where it provoked two devastating World Wars — or anger over austere financial policies and moribund economies, or concern about immigration, or a simple desire for self-determination rather than ceding control over policies to unelected bureaucrats in Brussels who are seemingly answerable to no one. Or perhaps it is a combination of all of those factors, as well as others.
The EU started as an economic entity that sought to combine the economies of European countries into a cohesive unit, with a single currency, that could compete on the world stage with the United States and Japan; eventually it became more of political and regulatory entity that plays an increasingly significant role in everyday life. A sizable number of Europeans now seem to be questioning whether they want what the EU has become. And Europe’s political leaders are wondering: what is the alternative?