EU Skeptic Election Surge Set to Rattle Leaders at Home

The European Parliament’s get-out-the-vote effort for this week’s election proclaims: “This time it’s different.”

The balloting, which runs from today through Sunday, will probably be different for the wrong reasons. Galvanized by the debt crisis and the European Union’s 10.5 percent unemployment rate, protest parties are set to surge in Greece, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Austria, the U.K. and elsewhere -- making it harder to steer the 28-nation bloc.

While dangers to the euro have retreated, better economic data have been slow to trickle through, fueling grievances about budget cuts, joblessness and immigration. The anti-establishment vote will deal a further blow to the German-style fiscal austerity that marked the crisis response and make national leaders warier of concessions at EU level.

Fringe parties will “use the EU stage as a platform to create noise, attract attention and create more tension and pressure for governments back home,” said Mujtaba Rahman, a former EU official who is now director of European analysis at the Eurasia Group in London. “There’s no appetite right now for further European integration.”

Election returns, due after 6 p.m. Sunday, will produce a “squeezed middle,” according to Simon Hix and Kevin Cunningham of PollWatch 2014, a non-partisan forecasting group. Parties deemed to be on the “right” of the spectrum will garner 22 percent, up from 16 percent now; support for mainstream parties will ebb to 65 percent from 72 percent, PollWatch said on May 20 in its final pre-election projections.

Control Business

The pro-EU forces will remain strong enough to control the business of the 751-member assembly, which has growing powers over EU-wide legislation. Banking union was the highlight of the last five-year term; energy independence, emission reductions, and broadband networks will be the keynotes of the next five.

The biggest impact of the vote -- the second-largest democratic exercise on earth after India’s election -- will be on leaders of EU national governments, who aren’t on the ballot. What the Parliament actually does is far from the minds of French voters rallying behind Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration National Front or British voters set to give a fillip to Nigel Farage’s U.K. Independence Party, which wants to pull Britain out of the EU.

National Impact

Le Pen typifies the economic rage of Europe’s new breed of rejectionist parties. Dismissed as racist during its early days under her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the National Front now courts those left behind by France’s subpar growth, forecast at 1 percent by the EU in 2014.

Farage has made opposition to migrant workers his principal anti-EU theme, and gotten into trouble for it. On Tuesday, two days before Britain’s vote, he took out a full-page ad in the Telegraph newspaper to deny that he is a racist or despises Romanians.

“Each populist party is much more interested in having an impact in its own national arena than on Europe as a whole,” said Angelos Chryssogelos, a lecturer in European politics at the University of Limerick in Ireland. “The importance of populist parties has been not so much on policy making as on changing the atmosphere.”

Most vulnerable is Prime Minister Antonis Samaras of Greece, the country that triggered the euro crisis and suffers 26.7 percent unemployment. A strong showing by the Syriza opposition party, which wants less austerity and more debt relief, could unsettle Samaras’s two-seat majority in the Greek parliament and force new elections.

Political Instability

“What Greece doesn’t need would be a government crisis or a collapse of the government,” former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who hopes to use the EU vote as a springboard to become president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, said in an interview in Brussels yesterday. “That would be highly dangerous.”

Bond markets are on guard against political instability, especially in the southern European countries hit hardest by the debt crisis. Greek 10-year yields reached 6.96 percent on May 16, the highest in eight weeks. Concern that Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s coalition will be rattled by the vote pushed Italy’s 10-year yields up to 3.34 percent yesterday, a seven-week high.

Public Interest

Increased EU parliamentary powers have gone along with decreased public interest. Some 62 percent of voters in the then nine-nation bloc cast ballots in the first Parliament election in 1979. Turnout has dropped steadily since, to 43 percent in 2009, often seen as a sign of the widening disconnect between the EU’s elite and the people.

That decline may come to a halt this year, though not because the EU is suddenly in fashion. Instead, politicians opposed to the EU or 18-country euro have fired up supporters on the margins, prompting a counter-attack by mainstream parties and generating more headlines than usual.

Euro-skeptic parties “are politicizing European Union politics quite a bit,” said Piero Tortola, a research fellow at the Centre for Studies on Federalism in Turin, Italy. “Paradoxically these European Union elections are going to be much more about the EU than ever before.”

There are signs of a mood shift. With the economy gradually improving and three financially stricken countries -- Ireland, Spain and Portugal -- weaned off emergency aid, the election may mark the high point in the euro-skeptics’ fortunes. A seven-nation survey by the Pew Research Center put the EU’s favorability rating at 52 percent. That’s up from 46 percent in 2013.

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