Last weekend’s European Union parliamentary elections shocked the political mainstream in some of its 28 member countries as Euroskeptic parties’ candidates did well in France, the United Kingdom and Denmark, with spirited showings in Germany and Greece.
Victories by the National Front in France, the U.K. Independence Party in Great Britain and the Danish People’s Party were embarrassing to the centrist, pro-EU ruling parties — the Socialists in France and the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in the U.K. The news was particularly shocking in Great Britain, where a national election must take place by next year.
The issues producing victories for the right were the economy, inequality and related hostility to immigration. Europe is still suffering from the effects of the recession dating from 2008. Unemployment is high and inequality of wages and opportunity between rich and poor remain glaring, which has led to resentment toward immigrants, who are seen as competition for jobs and social services.
European countries, like the United States, need immigrants to do a certain amount of work, given the low birth rates of industrialized nations. But that does not ease the conflict that can follow when newcomers are willing to work for low pay or lack of opportunity is felt in a society. Immigration pressure in European countries is augmented by political upheaval and wars in Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, pushing people into southern tier EU nations, from which they head north toward more jobs and social services.
There is another side to the coin, however, in the EU election results. The mainstream parties retained a two-thirds majority in the 751-seat parliament. Many Europeans either didn’t vote or considered the vote just a throw-away expression of discontent.
Although the Euroskeptics’ triumph was a wake-up call to the mainstream parties, it was probably not their death knell.