When the leader of the British National Party (BNP) was egged during a press conference recently, the mainstream political elite breathed a collective sigh of relief. Nick Griffin was midway through claiming victory in the elections to the European Parliament, in which the BNP secured two seats, when an angry mob of anti-fascist protestors began throwing eggs. After a brief scuffle, he was whisked away by security and forced to abandon his victory speech.
The demonstrators were angry at Griffin's success in the North West region on June 8. Andrew Brons, another BNP politician, had also won the seat in the Yorkshire and Humber area. Commentators have compared these results to the rise of the Nazi brand of fascism of the 1930s. This interpretation is extreme, most obviously because Europe is not suffering the devastating political and economic consequences of a world war that the Nazis were able to tap into. Still, there is something fascinating about a party like the BNP having this kind of electoral success, especially when it leads to such a strong backlash from the public.
Griffin himself described his victory in the European elections as "an astounding earthquake in British politics". Meanwhile, condemnation from the major parties has focused on how a minor fringe party that is widely viewed as racist, even xenophobic, could have achieved this result.
The party claims to speak on behalf of the “indigenous” British population and believes that this native population will be an ethnic minority within 60 years. It advocates for the voluntary resettlement of immigrants and opposes further integration with the European Union. How did a party with an overtly nationalist policy platform make its way into the European Parliament?
While it is rare that far-right parties hold much sway in national assemblies once elected, it is not hard to find examples of their success. When the leader of France's National Front Jean-Marie Le Pen received the second highest amount of votes in the first round of the 2002 French presidential elections, the country was in uproar.
What examples like this show is the importance of accounting for the specifics of the domestic political situation at the time. In Britain in 2009, as in France in 2002, support for mainstream political parties is waning and resulting in an increased percentage of the popular vote going to fringe parties like the BNP and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). In either case, an increased vote for nationalist parties does not translate into genuine support for their more radical policies. It is more likely explained as a protest vote against mainstream parties like Labour and the Conservatives.
The protest vote explanation is clearly a factor, especially with the ruling Labour Party receiving only 15.8 per cent of the overall vote in the elections. This is part of a broader trend, with all EU member-states witnessing a swing towards the centre-right and a drift away from the left. But the BNP's success is also an indication of the shortcomings of European politics.
An increased vote for the far right was not confined to Britain, suggesting that domestic political factors alone cannot explain the election results. In Austria, for example, two far-right parties, the Freedom Party and the BZO (Alliance for the Future of Austria), also secured two seats after receiving more than 17 per cent of the vote. Similar results were achieved in the Netherlands, Eastern Europe and the Baltic states.
A more telling explanation may lie in the record low voter turnout for this year’s elections. About 43 per cent of Europeans cast a vote in June, compared with 45 per cent in 2004. Voter participation has continuously declined since the first direct election was held in 1979, suggesting that many voters find it difficult to identify as “Europeans”. National and local identities remain quite strong and in some countries, especially the former communist states where democracy is even weaker at the national level, voters are apathetic towards European politics. Under the current system, Europe votes for the same political parties as those who compete in national elections. It is a voting system that needs to be reformed. After the results of the election were announced, Andrew Duff, leader of Britain’s Liberal Democrats, proposed the creation of pan-European political lists to “galvanise European as opposed to national political parties”. Others have suggested that Europe needs a Barack Obama-type leader, someone all Europeans can relate to and who can surmount these national boundaries.
The egging of Nick Griffin outside Parliament shows the enduring pull of national and local concerns at the expense of European issues. In casting a protest vote against Labour, Britons voted for national politicians campaigning on national grounds. The 34 per cent of voters who went to the ballot box in Britain, well below the Europe-wide average, were those that felt passionately enough about national issues that they were willing to punish their politicians at the European level. They took a risk that, hopefully, will spur Gordon Brown and his supporters into action back home.
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