European Elections

UK election could accelerate unravelling of EU

June polls threaten to accelerate push for economic nationalism

British Prime Minster Theresa May, center, delivers a stump speech at Netherton Conservative Club in Dudley, England, during the Conservative Party’s election campaign on April 22. © AP

France has become the latest European country to propel a far-right politician to within reach of leadership after the weekend victory of anti-European and anti-Immigration Marine Le Pen in the first round of the French presidential election. Le Pen, who will face independent centrist Emmanuel Macron in the run-off vote in May, is unlikely to win, according to polls, but her success underscores the seriousness of Europe’s current trend toward right-wing nationalism.

Le Pen has pledged to reinstate border checks and take France out of the European Union, following the path that Hungary’s illiberal Prime Minister Victor Orban has taken for some years to champion Hungarian sovereignty by challenging the EU’s democratic rules. In the Netherlands, the anti-immigration and anti-Islam party of Geert Wilders came in second in a parliamentary election in March and last December, Austria came within a hair’s breadth of electing a far right president.

With Prime Minister Theresa May’s unexpected announcement of a general election on June 8, Britain becomes the fourth EU country to go to the polls this year. The ruling Conservative Party is expected to increase substantively its now slim majority amid accusations of authoritarianism and attempting to override the democratic process.

And, unless May or the EU make a policy U-turn, Britain will leave both the union and its single market two years from now, in a move being described as a “hard Brexit.” The other 27 members of the world’s biggest trading bloc are closely watching how things unfold to determine whether some of them could also leave the EU.

There are many worrying contradictions. The EU is primarily a trading bloc, but the intricate workings of commerce, currency and markets cannot be explained in one-line campaign soundbites. This is what politicians in the U.K. and elsewhere are trying — but mostly failing — to do, with the result that too many policies have little resemblance to complex realities.

Why, for example, does anti-EU rhetoric advocate reaching out for special trade deals with China, Japan and India when these nations represent the very globalization blamed for so much of Europe’s discontent? And what impact would a more right-wing Europe have on the EU and on the world economy?

In the 1930s, a similar rise of ethnically-based nationalism followed the Wall Street crash of 1929, ultimately leading to war. That is unlikely to be the case now. But the 2007-08 financial crisis exposed gaps in wealth distribution and growing inequality. A growing resentment over such disparities has helped create the nationalist movements that are making their presence felt throughout the continent.

Britain’s narrow Brexit decision in 2016 hinged not on living standards, but on issues of sovereignty, dignity and immigration, with veteran millionaire film star Sir Michael Caine summing up the popular view that he would rather be a “poor master than a rich servant.”

Immigrant backlash

The growth of nationalist sentiment has come in response to the influx of refugees from the Middle East, which reached more than a million last year, as well as protracted sluggish economic performances in most EU countries. Almost 9% of European adults are unemployed, with that figure reaching more than 20% among the young. Greece, Spain and Italy are among the worst affected. A 2015 Oxfam study found that between 2009 and 2013, the number of Europeans living with “severe material deprivation” rose by 7.5% to 50 million, which it blamed on increasing inequality.

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