The victories by populist and anti-establishment groups in the European elections over the weekend pose a new challenge for European unity at a delicate time. The outcome doesn't pull Europe apart at the seams, but it could undermine a unified approach to a range of issues, from controlling debt and growing the regional economy to managing immigration and global security crises. The United States needs Europe to remain strong and united to continue as a major ally on the international stage.
Four days of balloting across the 28 member-states that make up the European Parliament saw an unprecedented showing by fringe insurgent groups. In France, the far-right National Front took 25 percent of the vote, drubbing the Socialist Party of President Francois Hollande, which placed third. In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron fared worse; his party came in third after the U.K. Independence Party took 28 percent of the vote, the first time in a century that a group outpolled Britain's major political parties. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany noted aptly that the outcome was both remarkable and regrettable. For the mainstream parties, the vote adds another layer of drama to a political union that seems to operate in constant turmoil.
The pro-European centrists still remain the dominant force in Parliament, with mainstream parties holding about 70 percent of the assembly's 751 seats. But the insurgents' impact will far exceed their numbers. The new makeup will amplify simmering tensions over immigration, jobs, public spending, debt and tough austerity policies. Neo-Nazi and other fringe groups will tap into nationalist fervor and economic discontent to drive the public further away from a body that many already criticize as bloated, secretive and out of touch.
That promises to complicate new discussions over domestic cost-cutting, job development and border control as Europe continues to struggle to recover from its debt crisis and the recession. And it will likely sap support for closer European integration as the mainstream parties respond to the skeptics. Voter turnout — near the record low of 43 percent — shows the lack of confidence that Europeans have in the assembly to meaningfully address basic issues from joblessness to corporate investment. Of the seven nations with the lowest economic growth last decade, three are European industrial powers. No wonder millions on the continent are looking for a scapegoat.
Europe's future depends on strong and durable ties across the continent. Domestic extremism comes and goes, and it's no surprise that insurgent groups would make gains in a tough economic climate. But European unity has been a force for stability, expanded trade and democracy in the postwar world. And a united Europe is essential if the United States and the West hope to promote global order through nonmilitary means. As the region's leaders react to the elections, they should see that voters are looking for more from European unity. The task now is not to run from higher expectations and retrench, but to acknowledge the challenges and keep working together to meet them.