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This summer’s elections to the European Parliament, the legislative body of the European Union, marked a radical swing against the greater centralization of power in the hands of Eurocrats in Brussels. A great many of the Euroskeptic parties that had big wins were the French National Front and the British United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Other Euroskeptic parties on the continent, in Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Greece, and elsewhere, also made out quite well. It was a wake-up call to many European leaders who had been complacent and tried to label Euroskeptics as fringe or extremist. The performance of UKIP in particular, which beat all three mainstream parties in the election, made those labels ridiculous.
The victory was not, however, for any sort of universal ideology. Indeed, the far left and far right in Europe tend to converge when it comes to the issue of Europe. It is rare that an avowedly pro-free market party like UKIP would be making common cause with Syriza, the radical leftist party of Greece, yet they share a similar vision when it comes to the EU: it is undemocratic and thieves the political power from sovereign states.
It cannot be denied that there is a certain unsavory flavor in many of the resurgent Euroskeptic parties. This has as much to do with their histories as with their current policy prescriptions. The National Front of France, for example, has long had a deep animosity toward immigration, not just as an economic issue, but as a racial one. Marine Le Pen, the head of the party, has made an effort to alter the language of the party to be more appealing to a mainstream French audience, but many remain skeptical of the National Front’s intentions when it comes to the treatment of minorities.
UKIP has suffered from similar concerns. For years the party was tarred with the same brush as the British National Party, a quasi-fascist organization known for its quite overt racism. Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP and a member of the European Parliament, has made a huge effort in the past few years to alter the party’s message to a more libertarian, free-market, anti-EU line. He has kept a largely anti-immigration platform, but his basis tends toward economic justification. He has even expelled members of the party who made racist and anti-Semitic remarks.
The association, whether real or imagined, between the more free-market and libertarian political movements in Europe with racist undertones has served to taint their message in the public sphere. UKIP and its ilk will only break into the real mainstream by cleansing themselves once and for all of those sentiments and that dark legacy.
UKIP represents a certain glimmer of hope in this regard. There remains a sentiment among many Britons that the rank-and-file UKIP members retain many of the racially charged sentiments that once made the party a political pariah. It will take more than the party leader repudiating such sentiments to truly convince Joe England. Yet the work has clearly begun. While much of the support UKIP saw in the EU election may have been the product of protest voting against the mainstream, it will take more to translate that public discontent into seats in the national Parliament. If that challenge can be met, there may be a bright future for free-market ideology in the UK, and in Europe.