With the EU increasingly coming under the microscope in 2014, Greg Bianchi looks at the rise of anti-EU sentiment across the continent in search of its cause.
Ahead of the European Parliament elections in May much has been made about growing anti-EU sentiment across Europe. In the UK the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) is set to win the most seats with its strong anti-EU rhetoric.
The same can be said for the Front National (FN) in France led by Marine Le Pen, daughter of the more extreme Jean-Marie Le Pen, and the Freedom Party in the Netherlands led by the controversial Geert Wilders. Add to this the growing influence of the far-right, neo-Nazi extremist parties of Jobbik in Hungary and Golden Dawn in Greece and the future of the EU appears increasingly uncertain.
The Euro-crisis has been blamed for growing discontent as government’s tried desperately to shore up their finances. In addition to this there has been growing discontent among electorates as to the influence of Europe on national sovereignty. Some governments have harnessed this for political gain – with the increasing influence of UKIP in the UK the Conservative party has increasingly sought to distance itself from Europe promising a referendum on EU membership by 2017 if they win the next election. In addtion to this the Conservatives are calling for the repeal of the Human Rights Act claiming it is part of a European influence which stops the government from deporting suspected terrorists and foreign criminals.
Has anti-EU sentiment peaked?
While it’s true that anti-EU parties have been growing in influence, it’s hard to see their success lasting beyond the EU elections later this year. Due to the voting system in the UK it is unlikely UKIP will win a significant amount of seats in the national parliament, therefore it’s possible that the clamour for anti-EU policy will be less vocal and therefore less influential on the government.
In a broader European context it can be said that the EU has been through huge turmoil in the past few years and has emerged largely unscathed. While Greece has defaulted and the Euro has looked unstable at times there were still no major exits. Furthermore, and most importantly, no states left the EU and reverted back to traditional spheres of influence or even worse, back to authoritarian government.
In addition to this, the images spreading across Europe from the Maidan protests in Kyiv and Ukraine last month may have served to give the EU an important image. As a bulwark for democracy against an increasingly authoritarian Russia and a mediator between the West and East; it should be noted that many European countries have to balance their interests against Russian aggression more finely than the United States does. However, the images of western Ukraine wanting to join the EU has helped propel the image of the EU as a collective organisation which can be seen as a force for strength and diplomacy in the region.
The numbers game
Finally, the debate over the EU can be seen as a numbers game. Polling generally shows that in the UK the older the voters the more sceptical they are about the EU. Add to this the issue that young voters are less engaged and this helps explain why anti-EU parties are increasingly important and influential.
However, when asked many young people favour staying in the European Union – something which may be generational as many young Europeans have grown up after the fall of the iron curtain and with the EU as an ever-present form in their lives.
Therefore, it may be that while the anti-EU parties are enjoying relative success now, this sentiment will eventually begin to change as new generations become more politically engaged and begin to drive the national agenda.
Until then, we will still have debates over the EU. But, just maybe, this could be the last major threat to the union.