In the "Through the Looking Glass" world of the European elections, which ended today, a surprisingly large number of candidates won by pledging to eliminate the very office they were running for. How the European Parliament responds to these insurgents could determine not only its future but also that of Europe itself.
The elections, held in 28 countries over the last three days, determined the makeup of the 751-member European Parliament for the next five years. In France, the record showing of the isolationist National Front was "a shock, an earthquake," said Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls. The U.K. Independence Party also had its best showing ever. Euroskeptics even made gains in Finland, doubling their membership in the parliament to two.
The exact configuration of parties and alliances will emerge over the next few weeks, and the parliament will still be controlled by more mainstream parties from across Europe. But it's a good bet that anti-EU sentiment will soon have an official voice in Brussels, because only 25 members from at least seven countries are required to form a new bloc in the parliament.
In most important ways, of course, the Euroskeptics are wrong: The Ukrainian escapades of Vladimir Putin have erased any doubt that a more unified approach on foreign policy is needed. Moves toward a banking union, however tentative, are a welcome response to the financial crisis, which highlighted the unworkability of a piecemeal approach to financial regulation.
And yet. In the aftermath of that financial crisis, almost 12 percent of the euro region remains without a job. Public skepticism of government in general and the European Union in particular remains high. Brussels, where much of the EU government and bureaucracy is based, is still widely perceived as both meddling and inattentive. In many cases, it is guilty as charged of mission creep. In others, it's not doing enough.
How to differentiate? EU members need to promote deeper economic integration -- for instance, by investing in transportation and other communications infrastructure, and by widening the scope of cross-border competition. Those decisions are best made jointly. Where national as opposed to collective interests are uppermost -- welfare policy, minimum wage or, infamously, the curvature of a banana -- coordination is both unnecessary and unwanted.
The one issue that best explains today's results is immigration. Candidates such as Nigel Farage in the U.K. and Marine Le Pen in France won in large part by stoking fear and resentment of immigrants. If the EU is to deal with these newly empowered skeptics, it must deal with the issue head-on.
In the campaign, the response to the likes of Le Pen was pathetically ineffective. It's easy to call your opponents racist. The harder case -- but more compelling -- is to emphasize how the free movement of labor across borders, like the free movement of goods and services, is an economic benefit not only to the EU but to member countries as well
The European project has always been more idealistic than practical. The original motivation for stitching together a group of nations with no shared language, varying temperaments and historical enmities was the desire to curb "men's biologic urge to readjust the map of Europe," in the words of the poet Siegfried Sassoon.
It's far from clear, however, that the 500 million citizens of the EU have any appetite for allowing a further concentration of power at the center, or for expanding membership to include Iceland, Montenegro, Serbia or any of the other candidate countries in the waiting room to become the 29th member nation.
With today's results, those who would forge even closer ties between member states face an even more difficult challenge. There's already a perceived deficit of democracy that allows the antis to portray the European decision-making process as diktats from Brussels. Advocates need to make the case for how the union will create jobs and prosperity, rather than rules and institutions. So far, that's missing from the debate.
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