In the “through the looking-glass” world of the European elections, a surprisingly large number of candidates won by pledging to eliminate the very office they were running for. How the European Parliament responds to these insurgents could determine not only its future but also that of Europe itself.
The elections, held in 28 countries, determined the makeup of the 751-member European Parliament for the next five years. In France, the record showing of the isolationist National Front was “a shock, an earthquake,” said Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls. The UK Independence Party also had its best showing ever. Euroskeptics even made gains in Finland, doubling their membership in the parliament to two.
The exact configuration of parties and alliances will emerge over the next few weeks, and the parliament will still be controlled by more mainstream parties from across Europe. But it’s a good bet that anti-EU sentiment will soon have an official voice in Brussels, because only 25 members from at least seven countries are required to form a new bloc in the parliament.
In the most important ways, the Euroskeptics are wrong: The Ukrainian escapades of Vladimir Putin have erased any doubt that a more unified approach on foreign policy is needed. Moves toward a banking union, however tentative, are a welcome response to the financial crisis.
At the same time, almost 12 percent of the euro region remains without a job. Public skepticism of government in general and the European Union in particular remains high. EU members need to promote deeper economic integration—for instance, by investing in transportation and communications infrastructure and by widening the scope of cross-border competition. Those decisions are best made jointly. Where national as opposed to collective interests are uppermost—welfare policy, minimum wage, or, infamously, the curvature of a banana—coordination is both unnecessary and unwanted.
The one issue that best explains the elections’ results is immigration. Candidates such as Nigel Farage in the U.K. and Marine Le Pen in France won in large part by stoking fear and resentment of immigrants. If the EU is to confront these newly empowered skeptics, it must deal with the issue head-on. Free movement of labor across borders, like the free movement of goods and services, is an economic benefit not only to the EU but to member countries as well.
The European project, which stitched together a group of nations with no shared language, varying temperaments, and a catalog of historical enmities, has always been more idealistic than practical. It’s not surprising that the appetite of the 500 million citizens of the EU for further concentration of power could waver. Advocates need to make the case for how the union will create jobs and prosperity, rather than rules and institutions. So far, that’s missing from the debate.