NEW YORK – According to the latest opinion polls, the big winners in the European Parliament election later this month will be right-wing populist parties that share a common loathing of the European Union, most notably the National Front in France, the Freedom Party in the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom’s Independence Party. Though the Euroskeptic right may not win a majority of seats, its collective strength is a blow to the cause of European unity. Why is a project that began with such high hopes in the wake of World War II running into so much resistance?
The success of right-wing populism in Europe stems not only from unease with the EU, but also from a surge of resentment against liberal/left elites, who are blamed for many sources of anxiety: immigration, squeezed economies, Islamic extremism, and, of course, the alleged domination of the “Eurocracy” in Brussels. As is true of Tea Party voters in the United States, some Europeans claim that their countries have been taken away from them.
People feel politically helpless in a world that seems to be increasingly ruled by big corporations and faceless international bureaucracies. The appeal of populism is its claim that things would surely get better if only we could be masters of our own homes again.
What has broken down in many countries is not just confidence in European institutions, but the underlying liberal/left consensus that emerged from the catastrophe of two world wars. After 1945, Christian and Social Democrats shared an ideal of a peaceful, united Europe, with continental solidarity – a commitment to economic equality, the welfare state, and multiculturalism – gradually replacing nationalism.