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Why far-right and far-left parties are gaining ground in Europe

May 26, 2014 at 6:39 PM EDT
From Great Britain to Greece, anti-European Union political fervor surged in European Parliamentary elections over economic, globalization and immigration concerns. Jeffrey Brown discusses the rise of these anti-establishment groups and their potential impact with Antoine Ripoll of the European Parliament Liaison Office and Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeff picks up the European election story from here.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, how strong a protest? And what does it mean for European integration and relations with the U.S.?

We’re joined by Antoine Ripoll, director of the European Parliament Liaison Office with the U.S. Congress, and Charles Kupchan, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and professor of international relations at Georgetown University. He was director for European affairs on the National Security Council staff during the Clinton administration.

And welcome to both of you.

CHARLES KUPCHAN, Council on Foreign Relations: Thanks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Antoine Ripoll, let me ask you, what’s the message that comes from this election? What are the specific targets of protest?

ANTOINE RIPOLL, European Parliament Liaison Office: Well, I would say two issues.

The first one is that there’s a real preoccupation with the crisis after the — so during the crisis of the debt and the euro crisis, as we call it, people have the feeling that the future is dark, and people have the feeling that tomorrow will be worse than yesterday.

And they are worried. And they see this globalization and the impact of globalization on their life and their children’s life. And they are worried. So I think that the vote that was expressed yesterday is a vote of worriedness and tension, what’s going to happen tomorrow?

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you have to add to that, Charles Kupchan, and how strong aimed at the whole idea of Europe, beyond even the economic problems of the moment?

CHARLES KUPCHAN: Well, I think what has happened is that for the last six, seven decades, Europe sort of flew beneath the radar screen, starting with the early years after World War II.

People didn’t vote for or against. They were worried about other things. And then about 10 years ago, people started paying attention, because of immigration, because of the economic downturn, because of the enlargement to a union that now has 28.

And so if you go to a pub in pretty Britain or you go to a cafe in France or a taverna in Greece, people are actually talking about Europe, but they’re not saying nice things about it. As Antoine was saying, they feel they have lost a certain amount of control over their destiny.

So what we saw over the last four days of voting is that far-right and far-left parties, even though they didn’t win, because the center-left and center-right are still in control of national parliaments and the European parliaments, they keep gaining and gaining ground.

And that sends a message to those in Brussels and to those in the national capitals, we’re not convinced that we like this whole thing. We’re asking hard questions about whether European integration benefits us.

And I wouldn’t say — go so far as to say the project of European integration has hit a wall or it is going to go backwards, but for the first time I think since World War II, we’re asking questions about, is this perhaps the high watermark of the project?

JEFFREY BROWN: And as you — you said far left and far right. In front, the protests come from both sides. And they don’t necessarily agree with each other.

ANTOINE RIPOLL: Right. They agree that Europe is a scapegoat. That’s really what they feel.

JEFFREY BROWN: Europe is a scapegoat?



ANTOINE RIPOLL: And what I would like to say is that, when you look at the countries where — like in France, where they are most — I mean, the extremists are more powerful, why did it happen?

It also happened because the country — these countries have not done the reforms that they should have done. Like, Germany’s doing quite well because they have done the reforms 10 or 15 years ago and they’re well-off. Certain countries didn’t do their job and now they are facing very big difficulties and they are turning to Europe.

So, this is why speaking of scapegoat, because many people or many political — national politicians, when something is wrong, it’s a bit like here in D.C. It’s always the fault of Washington. So, there’s also a lot of Brussels-bashing by the elites, the national elites, and also the media. There is no European media in Europe.

Our people are informed only through the prism of national media. And it’s extremely difficult to form European public opinion. So, all this together explains partly or largely what happened yesterday.

JEFFREY BROWN: But if you say France, U.K., Greece, and the list goes on, is it a common thread? Is that the way to think of it? Or — because it is far left, some cases left, some cases right.

CHARLES KUPCHAN: I think there is a common thread, and that is this sense of loss of control, as Antoine was saying, discomfort about whether the future is going to be better than the past.

But one point that I think is important is, these various people who have just been elected to the European Parliament need to form groups to exercise voice, to get funding, to get the right to speak in the Parliament.

And given that they’re divided, some are anti-immigrant, some are anti-E.U., some are anti-free trade, they aren’t necessarily going to come together in a way that lets them push back in a powerful way.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me ask you first — I will start with you, Charles Kupchan — about Greece in particular, because just today the head of the — it’s the Syriza Party, which is on the left, when to the government and said, time to start — call an early election.


JEFFREY BROWN: So, does that suggest that these E.U. elections have immediate impact on national governments?

CHARLES KUPCHAN: Well, there are sort of two layers to that.

One is, it’s conceivable that one could see in one of these countries like Greece a rejectionist party actually win a national election. Then we’re in a very different game. Then we’re talking about countries possibly leaving the European Union.

The other problem is, in a place like Greece, the government has no choice but to listen to what the voters said. And that may mean they back away from austerity. It may mean, for example, in the European Parliament, they go slow on the kinds of reforms that they need to do, for example, fiscal union and banking

They need to push forward on integration, so they get out of the Eurozone crisis, but voters have just said, we’re not sure we want more Brussels. So that says, will the mainstream parties, even though they’re in control, back away from pushing on that door?

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, I introduced you in your job as liaison to the U.S. Congress. What do you say to them now about this vote? And particularly, is there an element or to what degree is there an element of anti-Americanism in some these votes?

ANTOINE RIPOLL: Well, yes, the negotiations were very much at the heart of the debate before the elections.

So what I tell my American friends and partners here is, this parliament is going — could be more difficult in the relation with the U.S., in the sense that, be it on the trade issue or on the privacy or on the NSA issue, this Parliament could be more vocal. This Parliament could be more difficult.

At the same time, I tell them that there is still very strong majority, probably 70 percent or 75 percent of this Parliament, which is very much pro-Atlanticist, which defends or which agrees that this trade agreement is a chance for our countries. We desperately need to open jobs exactly like the U.S., and we all believe — the mainstream of this Parliament remain convinced that we need to make it happen.

At the same time, we have some worries on the environmental or labor standards, and these reservations will be expressed maybe more strongly in this new Parliament.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just in our last minute, where do you see the implications for the U.S.?

CHARLES KUPCHAN: I think twofold.

One is that Americans would like to have on the other side of the Atlantic a more capable partner to do things in the Middle East, to help pen in Iran. This vote says that we may not get that Europe anytime soon, that this more collective entity is probably not within grasp while this Parliament is sitting. Who knows what will come next.

And then the second is on specific policies, the free trade area, the whole NSA scandal, general protectionism vs. free trade. This is probably a Parliament that is going to be a tougher customer for the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: And do you see an anti-Americanism in parts of this vote?

CHARLES KUPCHAN: No question about it, coming partly from the NSA scandal, partly from the whole question of privacy, Google, is the United States penetrating too much into Europe — that’s part of this whole narrative that you see in Europe about wanting to bring back the nation-state to keep outsiders at bay.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, briefly, part of that has shown up in support of Putin in this moment with the Ukraine.

CHARLES KUPCHAN: There is a sort of social or cultural tie. The anti-gay, the anti-immigrant narrative that Putin has been propagating has been picked up by the far right in Europe.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Charles Kupchan, Antoine Ripoll, thank you both very much.