Europeans in 27 countries voted last week for the 736 seats in the European Parliament. A record low turnout of voters rejected the ruling center-left and handed victories to center-right parties, and in some cases, far-right anti-immigration parties.
In Britain, meanwhile, the governing Labour Party turned in its worst showing since World War I, with less than 16 percent of the vote. Prime Minister Gordon Brown was left fighting for his political life.
RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher asked Fraser Nelson, the political editor of "The Spectator" and an expert on European politics, what these results mean.
RFE/RL: I want ask you about the results of the European Parliamentary elections, but first let's look at the political bloodbath that occurred in Britain. Prime Minister Gordon Brown is barely holding on to power after his Labour Party was humiliated at the polls.
Fraser Nelson: That's right, the Labour Party of the governing party has got only 16 percent of the vote. Now, when you also remember how low turnout was, that shows that only 6 percent of people eligible to vote in this country have chosen the [current] government. That's a devastatingly low figure, and they've [even] been beaten by the U.K. Independence Party, which isn't really a real political party, it's a protest group that has a simple manifesto for taking Britain out of the European Union.
So this goes to show that the election was a devastating one for all the main political parties. The Conservatives finished top but they didn't pick up hardly any of the votes that Labour lost. So nobody really is that happy today, apart from the U.K. Independence Party and the far-right British National Party.
Brown To Go?
RFE/RL: Some observers are saying that the devastating result for Labour in fact opened the door for the British National Party (BNP) to win their biggest electoral breakthrough ever, with two seats in the European Parliament. Do you see that connection, and also, who actually voted for the BNP?
Nelson: It's strange that people call the BNP, of course, a far-right organization. They are technically far right. But the BNP supporters are former Labour Party members. The area where BNP were strongest are the areas where Labour's votes is the greatest.
It's when the working class feel disillusioned with the Labour Party that they start to look around for alternatives. One of the slogans the BNP use is a simple one, saying, "We are the Labour Party that your grandfather voted for." They claim to be the authentic voice of working-class Britain and contrast themselves to what they portray as the metropolitan and remote priorities of the governing Labour Party.
So they have tapped into an antipolitics feeling in Britain, which of course affects all main political parties, but disaffection with the government and the Labour Party, in particular.
RFE/RL: It's being said that many members of Prime Minister Gordon Brown's own Labour Party want him to resign. Who actually wants him to stay at this point?
Nelson: It's incredible that Gordon Brown is emerging to be the most disastrous and vote-losing leader the Labour Party has ever had. It seems an eternity ago that we had Tony Blair -- the most incredible election winner Britain has ever seen -- who was pushed out by Gordon Brown, and it turns out that Brown is a disaster. His economic policies have imploded, his debt bubble has exploded, and you ask a good question as to who actually wants him to stay.
Now, the answer to that, as far as I can work out, is only his staff members and blood relatives. Because the rest of the Labour Party think that they are heading for disaster. But they are stopping short of getting rid of him for the simple reason that they can't think of an alternative.
For a party to change its leader, especially when it's in government, is a tremendous upheaval. And it's an upheaval which I don't think the Labour Party is ready for. They've resigned themselves to losing power in the next 12 months, whenever the next general election is held. And I think that they have adopted the brace position and they're just waiting for the crash. They don't really have much of an appetite to go in and try to pull the aircraft out of its nosedive.
RFE/RL: Where in particular is the dissatisfaction coming from? What problems are people unhappy about and blaming mainstream politicians for?
Nelson: The economy is dreadful here and while the world is in recession, no other economy has unemployment that's rising as fast as it is in Britain. In some of our major cities -- in Liverpool, in Glasgow -- we already have a quarter of people who are unemployed or claiming benefits. And that is only going to rise.
Immigration has also been a major issue here, and the number of immigrants has almost doubled in the last 10 years. And some people are concerned about that.
But none of the major parties address it. So this gives the BNP a great opportunity. Immigration is ranked as the most important issue the British public are concerned about, second only to the economy. And the BNP is, in a sense, given a monopoly over the whole issue of immigration because neither the Labour Party nor the Conservatives are really willing to campaign on it.
The Immigration Issue
RFE/RL: What exactly is the BNP's position on immigration?
Nelson: The BNP is a racist party, by which I mean, it has a whites-only membership policy: if your skin isn't white, you can't join the BNP.
That's an incredible proposition, and a proposition which has always failed in Britain. Even when we had Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts in the '30s and '40s, they never got anywhere. We had the National Front, which is a British version of the French Front Nationale -- they never achieved anything. This is the first time in Britain that a racist party has made any significant electoral breakthrough.
Now, they have got a number of campaign themes. Like most neo-fascist parties, they've got a very far-left socioeconomic agenda; they propose nationalizing lots of industries, and they propose protectionist trade policies. But primarily they are against what they call "mass immigration." And they also offer what they call "voluntary repatriation" -- anybody who hasn't got a white skin can apply to them for money and go "home."
So it's incredible that this type of politics has any sort of foothold in Britain. It has never happened before. And we've always regarded the BNP as a fringe party, as a bunch of cranks. But we can't do that now because they have two seats in the European Parliament and they've made a fundamental leap towards the political mainstream.
RFE/RL: In fact, the BNP was only one of several far-right parties that did well in the elections: Austria's far-right Freedom Party nearly doubled its support from 2004, and the anti-immigrant Danish People's Party also garnered twice as many votes as it did last time. Are we seeing a trend?
Nelson: It is a trend, and the reason for the success of the far-right parties across Europe is actually very simple: Every country in the [European] Union has seen a mass influx of immigration. This all started around the turn of the century.
And when you combine mass immigration with mass unemployment, which most countries are seeing due to the recession, you create the perfect conditions for the far right to prosper. It's textbook academic stuff, actually.
Of course, France and Austria have long had far-right parties in their political make-up but this has never affected Britain before. So in a way what Britain is experiencing is in no means extraordinary, it's happening all over Europe. It just comes like a bolt in the blue to us because we have never before had any far-right party achieving any degree of electoral success.
RFE/RL: What sort of policy impact do you think these newly empowered anti-immigration groups will have, at the European Parliament level and at the national level in countries where they made gains?
Nelson: At the European Parliament level, I doubt the British National Party will augment things very much. I imagine that Nick Griffin, their leader, will seek to probably lead a new fascist group, and join his Romanian and French and Italian counterparts.
They tried this in the European Parliament a few years ago but they always tend to fall out with each other. I mean, the history of neo-fascist groups tends to be one where they always attempt to form a united front internationally and they always fail because they argue too much.
It will have an interesting effect on the domestic debate of all countries in Europe, really. Because it is a message to all the governing parties that they need to take a more stringent line on immigration.
The European Union, of course, doesn't allow member states to control immigration from within the EU boundaries. And the recent accession of Bulgaria and Romania has been very controversial, especially in Italy, for example, where they've even tried to send some Romanians back. You can't really do that under the EU laws, but they've tried to.
But you're getting all sorts of scare stories. For example: Romania is currently issuing passports to Moldovans, which would mean that the Moldovans who are given these Romanian passports can come and work in any EU country they like, including Britain.
Now, this would unnerve people at the best of times. But during a recession, when people are believing that the immigrants are competing with them for jobs, it makes it especially delicate. And people are more receptive to the arguments of the far-right parties.
So I imagine that a lot of governing parties would look at the success of the far right and think, "we really need a more muscular response to the immigration situation, or the far-right parties are going to come and take all our votes."
RFE/RL: Across Europe, the turnout for this election was pretty dismal -- a record low of 43 percent of 388 million eligible voters. What does that say about the interest among Europeans in having a voice in the direction of the EU?
Nelson: It's very embarrassing for the European Union project to have turnouts decline year after year after year. And I think you can read something very significant into that.
Initially, people wanted to vote because they bought into the idea of it, they thought this Parliament might actually be useful, it might help things for the better. The more experience they've had with it, the more skeptical they've become.
And I'm not really surprised. If you look at the way the Lisbon Treaty, the so-called EU constitution, has been pushed through, the member states have been trying to deny a referendum for their people because it's so unpopular. Only by denying people a vote in this can you push it through.
We're in the bizarre situation where they Irish are being asked to vote again because their first "no" wasn't the right answer. And the people of Britain, of course, were promised a referendum by the Labour government, who later changed their minds.
So a lot of people certainly in Britain, will think to themselves that the vote they want in Europe isn't to chose an MEP [member of European Parliament] whose name they're not even given the power to identify, the vote they want is on this EU constitution, which will fundamentally alter the sovereign powers of Britain. And they're being told by the EU and by their government that they can't have a vote on that.
So the whole concept of EU democracy is in rather murky territory right now. It feels as if they only ask you the questions that they want to hear the answer to. But questions like, "Are you happy with the EU project, Are you happy with the way it's expanding?" and, "Do you want this new constitution, this Lisbon Treaty to go ahead?" are questions that are not asked because they won't like the answers.