Last night, a small British nationalist party won its first seat in England’s parliament.
In the tiny seaside town of Clacton, UKIP (The UK Independence Party) — a rising anti-EU party — scored a decisive win.
And although this was just one election, the vote will send shockwaves across Europe: The message is out — the eurosceptics are on the march.
For those willing to look, the signs of growing hostility to the European project have been easy to spot. In the last European parliament elections, hardcore eurosceptic parties captured 100 of the 751 seats, while almost a third were taken by other anti-establishment parties.
Notable among these are Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front, which won 24.95% of the vote in France (up from 6.3% in 2009), and Nigel Farage’s UKIP, which took 27.5% of the UK vote, giving it 23 MEPs and forcing Labour and the Conservatives into a humiliating scrap for second place. Scotland just held a referendum, pushed by nationalists there, on whether to leave Britain (and by default Europe). The nationalists got 45% of the vote.
In Greece, the radical left coalition SYRIZA came top of the polls with a 26.6% share of the total, on promises to campaign against harsh government spending cuts being imposed on the country by “the Troika” — a group consisting of the European Commission, the IMF and the European Central Bank.
Below are the results in full:
Rising anti-European sentiment has been attributed to the ongoing eurozone economic crisis, which has left up to a quarter of the working age populations of countries like Greece and Spain out of work and caused the region’s economy as a whole to flat-line.
The insistence on harsh economic reforms without compensating aid to those in need has compounded a sense that European policymakers are indifferent, or even hostile, to the hardships faced by huge swathes of the people within the monetary union. This has provided fertile ground for parties at the extremes of the political spectrum to build their support bases.
So far, voters have been willing to vent their frustration with policymakers through the European parliament, while (with the notable exception of Greece) mainstream parties continue to dominate at a national level. The significance of the UKIP vote is that it could mark the moment where this all changes.
Once dubbed a party of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” by UK prime minister David Cameron, UKIP has become Britain’s third largest party with the latest polls projecting a 15% share of national support. Similarly Le Pen’s National Front is now viewed favourably by over 20% of French voters, according to pollster TNS:
In the past, surges in support for these xenophobic, anti-immigration parties have failed to translate into tangible results at the ballot box.
Not any more, it seems.
UKIP’s victory in Clacton might have stolen the headlines but its loss by a mere 617 votes in a second by-election in the supposed safe Labour seat of Heywood and Middleton will set off the loudest alarms in Westminster — and beyond. It demonstrates a capacity to challenge both Conservatives and Labour alike in their heartlands. It could have been two seats.
One or two seats out of 650 in the House of Commons doesn’t seem like much. But remember that Cameron’s regime is already a coalition with the centrist Liberal Democrats. He needs every seat he can get, and UKIP just stole one of his bargaining chips.
Pro-UKIP sentiment has already forced Cameron into promising an in/out referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union in the next parliament, a vote that he is far from certain of winning. That promise hasn’t halted the rise of the eurosceptics by bringing them back into the Conservative fold. It seems to have only made them stronger instead.
The rest of Europe has every reason to be worried.
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