Tom Stringham: EU election earthquake: extreme right, or just extreme?

Sunday’s European Parliament election results have shocked the world, as Eurosceptic parties scored unexpected victories across the continent. The United Kingdom Independence Party and France’s Front National, both anti-federalist in orientation, won a surprising plurality of votes within their respective countries.

Also ascendant (in lesser numbers) were hyper-nationalist parties, neo-Nazi groups and hard-left anti-austerity parties, which included factions in Denmark, Hungary and Greece, respectively.

The understandable temptation of news writers has been to combine these disparate electoral phenomena into an overarching narrative. Some have done this with passable accuracy: Reuters referred to a “Eurosceptic election surge”. Other outlets are noticeably cruder in their interpretation: “That ‘earthquake’ in Europe?” shouts CNN, “It’s far-right gains in Parliament elections.”

Maybe populist nationalism and anti-immigration activism are far-right, maybe they’re not. But European voting patterns seem to suggest that UKIP and FN’s gains represent more than a move to the right. In fact, most of the popular support for these movements appears to be coming from voters who are, or were, near the centre—on both sides.

There has been little talk of which European parties lost seats on Sunday. Of the top three players, the centre-right European People’s Party and the centre-left Alliance of Liberals and Democrats lost a significant share of seats, while the mainstream socialist bloc stayed level.

Certainly there are right-wing voters, including far-right agitators, who have mobilized in this week’s election. But if the numbers are any indication, it appears that many voters in the centrist EPP and ALDE parties deserted the middle for the fringe. What else explains the stunning victory of Marine Le Pen’s Front National?

European wonks are baffled: “France is moving the way of Italy or Greece in economic terms and moving the way of Britain in its relationship with Europe,” said one foreign relations observer. The governing Socialists are close to speechless: how, they wonder, could their leftist populace betray them for the far right?

But nationalism is not a neatly right-wing cause, as any student of European history should know. After all, the most famous “far-right” political faction in history called themselves the “national socialists”.

The muddied political language of the post-war era is clouding our judgment, convincing many observers that this earthquake is shifting Europe rightward on the political landscape. A much likelier story is that the troubled continent is being polarized, pushed from the centre to its fringes on all sides.

The Hustings