'European elections do not signal the demise of the EU or a rise in fascism- everything has changed,' says James Woudhuysen

Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Marine Le Pen leader of National Rally

Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni (Left) and Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Rally party (right) did well at the European Parliamentary election

James Woudhuysen

By James Woudhuysen

Published: 11/06/2024

- 14:21

Professor Woudhuysen writes about the rise of the right in the European Parliamentary election

Those of us who voted for Brexit in 2016 may want to ignore the results of the elections for the EU’s Parliament, which conclude on Sunday. After all, we can no longer vote in them.

We’re well out of a circus which will elect no fewer than 720 of Members of European Parliament (MEPs), but still sees them unable to propose legislation (it’s the unelected European Commission that does that).

Alternatively, Brexiteers may prefer to chortle. Why? Because the liberal British media is set to wring its hands. If polling about the elections is at all accurate, the UK commentariat will be forced to watch its perennially reliable, impeccably democratic and internationalist pals in Brussels meet a surge of support for conservative parties.

Both Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France are likely to do well; so, too, more worryingly, is the Alternative for Germany (AfD). A poll of polls by the website Politico, for example, finds that ‘far-right groups’ could get as many as 184 seats in the Parliament – a minority, but a hefty one.

Marine Le PenMarine Le Pen's party is forecast to get its best-ever result at EU electionsX/@MLP_officiel

Brits who resist the idea that the EU bureaucracy embodied the essence of Enlightenment values may find it hard not to grope for that great, almost onomatopoeic German word schadenfreude: pleasure in someone else’s plight

But wait a minute. Before we accept the media’s account of a blessedly sane and grown-up Brussels being outflanked by rightist lunatics, we must ask a familiar question: are Left and Right the proper way of interpreting popular sentiment in Europe – or anywhere else?

In Europe there has been no mass conversion to free-market dogma, or to racism. Instead, what we are witnessing is a visceral distaste for the received wisdom about the need for Net Zero austerity through endlessly trumpeted Green Deals, together with suspicion of another, quieter policy: that Europe will always need to import millions of chaotically documented migrant workers from beyond its shores.

Giorgia Meloni Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's Brother's of Italy group won the most votes in the European parliamentary electionGetty

One sign of the new framework is that not just the much-maligned old feel this way, but also millions of young people. For instance, an Ipsos survey at the end of last month intimated that, among French under-30s who planned to vote in the elections, a sizable 34 per cent would plump for Le Pen’s party.

Will such patterns of voting mark the appearance of the wolf that so much of the British media loves to cry about – a return to the Germany of 1933? Does the EU, as one business writer for the broadsheet press had it last Friday, look ‘ever more like a menagerie of reformed fascists, proto-fascists, and actual fascists?

In fact, conditions are very different from the 1930s. Sure, Russia was around, but China and the Middle East had no purchase on European politics the way they do now. Nor did immigration, energy, or the conditions facing farmers, who today are furious with Ursula van der Leyen’s blinkered efforts to deprive them of their livelihoods. In more than 90 years, everything has changed.

History does not repeat itself. Indeed, a glance at the supposedly insurgent parties in this election reveals little desire to overturn the governance of the EU: even the Eurosceptic Afad wants the reform of Brussels, only countenancing a referendum if that doesn’t happen.

We will need to take the results of the elections seriously, even if the European Commission won’t. The results will mark no clash between sanity and insanity, as the 60,000 people employed by the EU love to suggest.

But neither will the outcome of the vote signal the imminent demise of the EU. Europe, like Britain, is in the foothills of the struggle for democracy, and nowhere near its peak. Still: inchoate as the coming protest vote may be, it will foretell a ferment worth celebrating.

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