Trying to divine the political future from the results of European Parliament elections always involves an element of entrail-gazing. Across the continent, people take the opportunity to register protest votes; many don’t vote at all. The turnout for the June elections (43 percent) was at a historic low. But even with those caveats, two things are obvious: the center-right has won at the expense of social democrats, even in France, Germany and Italy, where voters might have been expected to give ruling conservatives a kicking; and the collapse of the left vote has let in an unprecedented number of far-right and neofascist candidates, as well as a few more Greens.
The far right made gains in the Netherlands, where anti-Islam campaigner Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party came in second, with 17 percent; in Italy, where the Northern League more than doubled its share of the vote; in Hungary, where the anti-Roma Jobbik party took three out of twenty-two seats; in Austria, where two extreme right parties polled 18 percent; in Slovakia, where strident nationalists won their first seats; and in Britain, which elected not one but two candidates from the British National Party (BNP)–a whites-only neo-Nazi group committed to “reversing the tide of non-white immigration.”
All these groups prey on white working-class insecurity, fattened on anti-immigrant scaremongering. Mainstream politicians have helped lay the ground for them with slogans like Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s “British jobs for British workers.” The refrain from BNP voters interviewed by the media has been “I’m not racist, but migrants from Eastern Europe are putting us out of work.” Yet one of their new members of the European Parliament (MEPs), BNP leader Nick Griffin, is a white supremacist and avowed Holocaust denier; the other, Andrew Brons, has in the past supported bombing synagogues and led marches chanting, “If they’re black, send them back.” Though they may now wear suits and ties instead of buzz cuts and bovver boots, both men have their roots in the old National Front, the violent racist group that terrorized Britons of color in the 1970s.
In northern Britain, in the cities of the Netherlands, in the industrial towns of Italy, in Hungary and Austria, the far right has rushed in to fill the vacuum left by social democrats. Some voters have changed sides, but the BNP’s Griffin in fact polled lower than he did five years ago. The reason he is now an MEP is that the Labour vote spectacularly collapsed. Elsewhere, the traditional left vote migrated to the Greens, who have increased their share of seats in the European Parliament from forty-three to fifty. In France former ’68er Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s Green coalition, Europe Écologie, finished less than 1 percent behind the Socialists; Greece returned its first Green MEP.
What explains the meltdown of the left in a time of recession and rage against bankers and bonuses? No European left-wing party has articulated a convincing alternative to the bailouts, or a coherent vision for the future. In France and Germany, voters see little difference between what social democrats are offering and the policies of their soft-right governments. Both Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel are launching big public spending programs and supporting generous welfare payments to protect the unemployed. When it comes to managing a crisis, one welfare capitalist seems as good as another–and better the devil you know than the devil who is, like France’s Socialists, in a state of disarray.