The electoral eruption of anti-European Union populism is a reflection of structural flaws in that body but does not represent a fatal political blow, according to Stanford scholars.
In the May 25 elections for the European Parliament, anti-immigration parties won 140 of the 751 seats, well short of control, but enough to rattle supporters of the EU, which has 28 member nations. In Britain, Denmark, France and Greece, the political fringe vote totals stunned the political establishments.
Stanford political scientist Francis Fukuyama said the rise of extremism and anti-elitism is not surprising in the wake of the 2008 economic downturn and subsequent high levels of unemployment throughout Europe. In one sense, the EU elites have themselves to blame, he said.
"The elites who designed the EU and the eurozone failed in a major way," he said. "There was a structural flaw in the design of the euro (monetary union absent fiscal union, and the method of disciplining countries once in the zone)," said Fukuyama, the Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at Stanford's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, and Research Afflilate at The Europe Center.
Some have argued that the European Union should adopt a form of fiscal union because without one, decisions about taxes and spending remain at the national level.
As Fukuyama points out, this becomes a problem, as in the case of a debt-ridden Greece, which he believes should not have qualified for EU membership in the first place. In fact, he said, it would have been better for Greece itself to leave the euro at the outset of the 2008 crisis.
Still, Fukuyama said the big picture behind the recent election is clear – it was a confluence of issues and timing.
"It is a bit like an off-year election in the U.S., where activists are more likely to vote than ordinary citizens," he said.
Fukuyama believes the EU will survive this electoral crisis. "I think the EU will be resilient. It has weathered other rejections in the past. The costs of really exiting the EU are too high in the end, and the elites will adjust, having been given this message," he said.
Meanwhile, the populist parties in the different countries are not unified or intent on building coalitions with each other.
"Other than being anti-EU, most of them have little in common," Fukuyama said. "They differ with regard to specific positions on immigration, economic policy, and they respond to different social bases."
Dan Edelstein, a professor of French, said the largest factor for success by extremist candidates was "ongoing anger toward the austerity policy imposed by the EU," primarily by Germany.
Edelstein estimates that a large majority of French voters are still generally supportive of the EU. For the time being, the anti-EU faction does not have a majority, though they now have much more representation in the European Parliament.
Edelstein noted existing strains among the anti-EU parties – for example, the UK Independence Party in Britain has stated that it would not form an alliance with the National Front party in France.
Immigration remains a thorny issue for some Europeans, Edelstein said.
"'Immigration' in most European political debates, tends to be a synonym for 'Islam.' While there are some countries, such as Britain, that are primarily worried about the economic costs of immigration, in most continental European countries, the fears are cultural," he said.
As Edelstein put it, Muslims are perceived as a "demographic threat" to white or Christian Europe. However, he is optimistic in the long run.
"It seems a little early to be writing the obituary of the EU. Should economic conditions improve over the next few years, as they are predicted to, we will likely see this high-water mark of populist anger recede," said Edelstein.
"This outcome was also the logical conclusion of a string of political betrayals, scandals and mismanagement that were only compounded by the persistent economic and social morass that has plunged France into perpetual gloom," she wrote.
Historian J.P. Daughton said that like elsewhere in the world, immigration often becomes a contentious issue in Europe in times of economic difficulties.
"High unemployment and painful austerity measures in many parts of Europe have led extremist parties to blame immigrants for taking jobs and sapping already limited social programs," he said.
Anti-immigration rhetoric plays particularly well in EU elections, Daughton said. "Extremist parties portray European integration as a threat not only to national sovereignty, but also to national identity.
Edelstein, Alduy and Daughton are all Faculty Affiliates of The Europe Center.
Russell A. Berman, a professor of German studies and comparative literature, said many Europeans perceive the EU as "somehow impenetrable, far from the civic politics of the nation states."
As a result, people resent regulations issued by an "intangible bureaucracy," and have come to believe that the European Parliament has not grappled with major issues such as mustering a coherent foreign policy voice, he said.
"The EU can be great on details but pretty weak on the big picture," said Berman, who is the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities, Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, and Faculty Affiliate of The Europe Center. "It is this discrepancy that feeds the dissatisfaction."
Yet he points out that the extremist vote surged in only 14 nations of the EU – in the other 14, there was "negligible extremism," as he describes it.
"We're a long way from talking about a fatal blow, but the vote is indeed a wake-up call to the centrists that they have to make a better case for Europe," Berman said.