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EU: Union In Line Of Fire As Election Dramas Unfold

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The surprising success of French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in reaching the presidential election runoff has put the European Union directly in the firing line. Nationalist Le Pen rejects ceding authority from Paris to Brussels. His comments, though often more extreme, reflect those of other politicians elsewhere in the EU. What is happening to the bonds between the EU and its constituent states?

Prague, 23 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The electoral success of French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen has added a new dimension to the wave of criticism that has engulfed the European Union in recent months.

The day after he finished second in the initial presidential vote behind incumbent President Jacques Chirac, Le Pen urged what he called "patriots" to unite in opposing the "technocratic Europe of Brussels." Later, there followed an attack in which he said he will work for the "recovery of French liberty" and the withdrawal from the Europe of Maastricht -- a reference to the integrationist EU treaty of the 1990s. In another comment, he blamed the European Union for a wide range of ills.

"Don't let yourselves be tied up in the old divisions between the left and the right. You -- who for 20 years have endured all the mistakes and tricks of the politicians; you, the miners, the steelworkers, workers of all those industries ruined by the Euro-globalism of Maastricht; you, the farmers, who retire on impoverished pensions, doomed to be ruined and to disappear; you, who are the first victims of insecurity in the outskirts and in the cities -- I call on all of you French, whatever race or religion or social status, to come together behind this historic chance for national recovery."

Despite his skillful appeals to people's resentments and insecurities, Le Pen is expected to lose by a wide margin to Chirac in the second round of the presidential vote on 5 May. Until then, he is certain to use his position to hit at Europe again.

His hostility to the EU is not unique. It mirrors that of Umberto Bossi, a minister in the Italian government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Bossi, head of the anti-immigration Northern League, has lashed out at Brussels and the euro single currency.

Even German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, a leading mainstream figure, has accused EU authorities of being "anti-German."

And in Austria, far-right leader and EU skeptic Joerg Haider remains a powerful figure, with his Freedom Party a member of the ruling coalition in Vienna.

So is the tide in Europe turning against Brussels?

Hungarian political analyst Pal Tamas of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences says one of the problems is that the EU is perceived as being part of the trend toward globalization, an economic phenomenon opposed by many on both the hard right and left.

"What is a new phenomenon now is that important groups in the societies of the core countries of the globalized world -- I mean Western Europe and even in the United States -- you have groups of losers [who get poorer], and I would see this new vulnerability, the social vulnerability of the core countries, as becoming larger as a result of modernization and globalization. And now you have a reaction to that."

There are other reasons, too. The increasingly large inflows of immigrants to Western Europe are causing unease, with people fearing a loss of national identity. That translates in part to hostility toward Europe-wide integration. Allied to that is the fact that both the Maastricht treaty and the more recent Nice treaty have led to EU integration on an unprecedented scale, which has led to a backlash from nationalists.

Analyst Petr Drulak of the Czech Institute of International Relations in Prague worries that far-right politicians in Europe -- he cites leaders in Italy, Austria, and Norway -- are becoming what he calls "salon acceptable," or acceptable in polite society. But he says he does not see a coalition of rightist forces being built that could hinder European integration.

"They are still disconnected, and they are not able to -- at least so far -- they have not been able to gain momentum to reshape the EU to their own liking."

Tamas in Budapest also thinks there is a silent, pro-European majority that should be able to ensure that integration continues.

In another weekend election, this time in Hungary, the swing was not to the right but to the left. The Socialists will form the next government in Budapest, replacing the center-right administration of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. In a speech to supporters after the vote, the Socialist candidate for prime minister, Peter Medgyessy, made clear his commitment to EU membership.

"What is essential is that the Hungarian electorate entrusted the next government with implementing the common platform of the Hungarian Socialist Party and the Liberal Democrat Alliance, which will make the turn toward prosperity for all citizens and toward Hungary's European integration."

Analyst Tamas also says the Socialist win in Hungary removes what he called the "rightist axis" in Central Europe, consisting of Hungary's Orban, Austria's Joerg Haider, and Edmund Stoiber, prime minister of the south German state of Bavaria and candidate for chancellor.

Orban's departure should help repair relations between the Visegrad group of countries -- Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia -- which had deteriorated somewhat due to Orban's nationalist remarks concerning the minority rights of Hungarians in neighboring countries.

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