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Interview: Why Did Euroskeptics Triumph At EU Poll?

Europe is reeling following the big gains of anti-EU and nationalist parties in European Parliament elections on May 25.

RFE/RL's Claire Bigg discusses the causes and implications of the Euroskeptics' triumph with Judy Dempsey, a nonresident senior associate at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of the "Strategic Europe" blog.

RFE/RL: Unemployment, immigration, and mounting disillusion with mainstream parties are just some of the reasons cited for the huge gains made by Euroskeptic and far-right parties in the May 25 elections. In your opinion, why did so many voters across Europe back these parties?

Judy Dempsey:
The mainstream parties really didn't campaign very hard. They didn't take a stand on certain things -- standing up for what the European Union means, what Europe means as a place for immigrants as well. It left the field wide open for the fringe parties. And they capitalized on this.

RFE/RL: Can we speak of a protest vote, or do voters who cast their ballots for anti-EU and far-right parties genuinely identify themselves with the values upheld by these parties?

Well, these values are very strange. It's a mixture of values. But I think what binds them together is antiglobalization, anti-immigration, and anti-what they see as this huge federalist monster called the European Union. They certainly played on this kind of anti-European, antiglobalization. And a lot of voters went for it.

RFE/RL: Could this vote actually threaten the European Union's fundamental principles? Is Europe at stake?

The treaties are not affected by this. And the four big planks of the European Union -- labor, capital, people, democracy -- these are very important and won't change. What changes is the tone, how Europe is perceived by the outside world, and how the presence of the fringe parties in the European Parliament will affect Europe's defense and security policy.

Enlargement, the attitude toward Russia, relations with Ukraine, relations with Turkey, and the Middle East -- these are big foreign-policy issues and the inward-looking attitude of these fringe parties does not bode well at the moment for Europe.

RFE/RL: Will these parties have enough leverage in the European Parliament to influence the EU's foreign policy?

If you look at the numbers, no. But they can be an incredible nuisance. They have a lot of votes back in France, Britain, and other countries, so they will make a lot of noise. But it's up to the mainstream parties to pull together and stand up for what they see as worth defending. And it's not just values. It's the whole identity of Europe, of the European Union.

The European People's Party, the socialist group, will probably do grand coalitions of the willing, so to speak. It will be unpleasant with the fringe parties. But everybody knows that once fringe parties get together, at the European Parliament or at other parliaments across Europe, they behave very badly and they perform very badly. So we'll see if they can put up a united front. UKIP [U.K. Independence Party] has already said it wouldn't [work] with [France's] Front National.

RFE/RL: French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has described the election's result as a "shock" and an "earthquake." Did the Euroskeptics' triumph really take everyone by surprise?

It's an extraordinary result, frankly. Front National No. 1 in European Parliament elections? The turnout is very high, too. So yes. Opinion polls said they would do well, but gosh. The prime minister is right, it was a shock."

RFE/RL: Do you think their poor showings in this election will force mainstream parties to rethink their policies, including on immigration?

David Cameron, the British prime minister, has been criticizing Europeans who come to work in Britain. It's just not right, the way he criticizes the Poles and those "living off the welfare state," whereas in fact a lot of these immigrants have contributed hugely to the British economy, paying their taxes and making Britain a more tolerant and open place. But Cameron, because of UKIP, decided to play the nationalist, populist card. This has backfired very, very badly. If the mainstream parties want to pander to these right-wing parties, they might as well give up everything they believe in. There has to be a serious amount of rethinking now.

[Fringe parties] stand for very little, for a very insular view of the world. These countries cannot go it alone. If they believe they can, they are deluding themselves. The mainstream parties must not perpetuate this delusion.