European elections reflect a growing trend of bringing fringe extremist views into the mainstream

Next week’s parliamentary vote marks a stark contrast with the last elections in 2014 and highlights how much is at stake

Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage (C) and Brexit Party MEP candidates for Wales, James Wells (3L) and Nathan Gill (centre R) attend a European Parliament election campaign rally at the Trago Mills car park in Merthyr Tydfil, south Wales on May 15, 2019.  / AFP / GEOFF CADDICK
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It seems impossible to assess next week's European elections and what is at stake without taking a moment to look back. The last European elections in 2014 feel like an eternity ago and the world - Europe being no exception - seems like a changed place from just five years ago. Remember, for instance: in Italy, the young and sprightly Matteo Renzi, leader of the centre-left Democrat Party, managed the feat of scoring more than 40 per cent of the votes while the far-right Matteo Salvini, leader of the Lega, only managed 6 per cent. Mr Renzi surfed on this wave to become Italy's prime minister - only to resign two years later after losing a disastrous referendum on electoral reform. In France, Nicolas Sarkozy's centre-right party scored 20 per cent, just four points below the already powerful leader of the extreme right, Marine Le Pen. In Britain, a similar result showed Nigel Farage's far-right party UKIP outscoring the Conservatives by four percentage points to get 24 per cent of the votes.

The contrast with today is both stark and revealing. If we believe the polls, Italy's far-right leader Mr Salvini will outperform all his rivals and is expected to attract an astronomical 32 per cent of the votes for the Lega, with a centre-left Democrat Party lagging behind at just 20 per cent. In France, Ms Le Pen is predicted to come first with 23 per cent of the votes while what is left of the right and the left will most likely scrape an expected 12 per cent and 5 per cent respectively. The newcomer, French President Emmanuel Macron's party, which didn't exist in 2014, should arrive second with 20 per cent. Meanwhile Britain, in a state of paralysis due to the Brexit-or-no-Brexit pantomime, has Mr Farage's tailor-made Brexit Party polling an extraordinary 34 per cent of votes. Pollsters estimate the two main parties, Labour and Conservative, will lag far behind with 20 per cent and 11 per cent respectively. Those three countries are a good example of a general trend. In other words, Europeans are increasingly choosing populist and extremist political parties to represent them, both at a national and European level. The electorate is steadily bringing what used to be fringe political parties into mainstream thinking and policymaking.

One could argue that the arrival of Mr Macron in France, a young pro-European (some might even say federalist), has reversed the seemingly inexorable populist narrative of the last few years. However, isn't he also, in his own peculiar way, a populist, albeit a centrist one? After all, as the electorate worldwide starts electing, to the highest positions of power, politicians with no previous experience (think US President Donald Trump, Mr Macron, Ukrainian comedian-turned-president Vlodymyr Zelenskiy and US representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), it seems that people want to get rid of the old way of doing politics and try something new, something untested, something that will rock the house.

European elections have always been, rightly or wrongly, a catalyst for such political experiments. Mistakenly thinking their vote in EU elections won’t affect them quite so directly, voters have gotten used to playing with fire in the polling booth, often using their vote as a plebiscite against, or for, their own country’s leader, or simply wielding it as a scream of discontent and choosing extremist parties. It doesn’t help when leaders turn it into a now-or-never issue, a them-against-us narrative. Responding to months of personal attacks from Mr Salvini, Hungarian leader Viktor Orban, Ms Le Pen and Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders, Mr Macron could certainly find no better argument than to respond thus - probably unwisely - presenting himself as the European anti-populist archangel.

With his ambitious European Renaissance programme, Mr Macron now embodies the liberalism versus illiberalism debate in Europe, unfortunately with little help from a reluctant German Chancellor Angela Merkel, too busy thinking about her orderly exit from power. The Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa might have broadcast a televised message supporting Mr Macron’s initiative to create a political group within the European Parliament in Strasbourg for “progressives” but it is not certain many more head of states will follow his lead.

Brexit and the poisonous venom of division seem to have spilled over and slowly started to infect Europe. Will it unravel the EU from within? At each new turn and twist of the Brexit saga, Europeans’ cohesion is being tested. It had been impeccably steady and the 27 other members of the EU managed to always offer a dignified and united front but this held only until the last EU summit in Brussels when France and Germany disagreed publically on how to respond to the UK. Mr Macron eventually bowed to the majority but will he not be tempted if nothing has happened in Westminster by the end of October and Britain asks for another extension, to use his veto and say “non” – and in effect, trigger a no-deal Brexit?

There is another elephant in the room and that is immigration. The migrant crises of the summer of 2015 triggered a chain of reactions and events that are reflected in next week’s EU elections. In a recent interview with French philosopher Bernard Henri Levy, Mr Orban, on the subject of migrants, declared: “Europe’s problem is Islam. And on the rise of Islam, what can I say? It is Christianity that has resisted that rise. Christianity is still resisting it. Hungary is today, as it has been, the forward post of European Christianity.” He added: “Our European partners have to realise that the Hungarians are an ancient people, free and proud, who will not be lectured to. We were occupied by the Ottomans, by the Slavs, by the Communists. We didn’t go through this so we could fall under the thumb of Brussels.” Terrorist incidents claimed by Islamists in Europe, such as the Paris attacks in November 2015 and the Manchester Arena bombing in the UK in May 2017, have not helped fight what would have been considered an extremely marginal thinking two decades ago, but which has become more widespread and mainstream today.

In many ways, Brexit is a reflection of some Europeans’ irrational fear of migrants and the desire to control it at all costs. The Brexit campaign relied heavily on stoking those fears about migration and the EU policy of freedom of movement, its cornerstone and one of founding principles, is seen as the main culprit of migrant numbers.

A test of Europe’s future resides next week with young and first-time voters, precisely those who abstained in the Brexit referendum in 2016 and now bitterly regret it, and those who usually abstain at EU elections. Many who are feeling a sudden, visceral surge of what it means to be European, with an openness to the world nurtured by the EU’s freedom of movement, might turn the usual apathy towards the EU elections into a high turnout and reverse the pessimistic and inward-looking trend. Could they even help Mr Macron achieve his progressive Renaissance project for Europe? The 40 year-old French president certainly hopes so.

If you consider that Europe’s younger generation is far more concerned than their elders by the environment and climate change issues, it seems it is in their power to buck the trend of recent years. Will they seize their chance? This French citizen sincerely hopes so.

Agnes Poirier is a journalist, writer and broadcaster and the author of Left Bank: Art, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris 1940-1950