Nationalists emboldened by EU crisis, debt pact

AP News
Posted: Oct 29, 2011 8:10 AM
Nationalists emboldened by EU crisis, debt pact

This week's debt deal for Europe doubles down on the concept of European integration, and could provide further ammunition for the nationalist movements that have been gaining in popularity partly as a reaction to the idea of a single Europe.

In order to back the investment in the euro, leaders in the eurozone have advocated a deepening integration of economic policies, transferring power from the national governments to the European level.

But "euroskeptics" have made advances in arguing that Europe's elites are turning the bloc into a federal superstate against the wishes of their citizens. This week's developments threaten to boost their arguments.

"This is a big step, only it's in the wrong direction," Dutch Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders said.

The eurozone rescue plan presents a dilemma for European leaders when it comes to resisting such attacks.

Failure risks an implosion of the euro, a giant setback for the European project of forging an ever closer union. But success means deepening integration of economic policies in the eurozone core, transferring power from the national governments to the European level.

That would provide further ammunition to the nationalist groups who say Europe's elites are turning the bloc into a federal superstate against the wishes of their citizens.

"If there's anything positive in this it's that it sets the stage for a new debate on the EU that has been missing in the past 10 years," said Jimmie Akesson said, the leader of the far-right and anti-EU Sweden Democrats.

That debate is already taking center stage in Britain, never the most enthusiastic EU member, where lawmakers this week launched an unsuccessful motion to hold a referendum on leaving the 27-member union. Dozens of Conservative MPs rebelled against Prime Minister David Cameron's orders and voted for the motion, which was rejected in a 483-111 vote.

Nigel Farage, leader of the euroskeptic U.K. Independence Party, claimed that some Conservatives were thinking about defecting to his party, which has no seats in the House of Commons and won just 3 percent of votes in the 2010 election.

"I'm not going to tell you they are on the verge of coming across. All I can tell you is that it's being discussed. I do know people in the Conservative Party _ and I've spoken to some this morning _ who are deeply depressed at the moment," The Evening Standard quoted Farage as saying Thursday.

A poll published Monday by The Guardian newspaper found that 70 percent of respondents wanted a referendum on UK membership in the EU; 49 percent said they would vote to withdraw, 40 percent said they would vote to stay in and the rest were undecided.

ICM Research interviewed a random sample of 1,003 adults by telephone on Oct. 21-23. No margin of error was given.

Simon Tilford, chief economist at the Center for European Reform in London, said the emboldening of euroskeptics in Britain could have relevance for other countries as well.

"Ongoing crises could turn people against the EU. But closer integration is going to be unpopular, too," he said.

Poland and the Czech Republic have postponed plans to join the euro. Voters in Denmark and Sweden have previously rejected the euro and the debt crisis has killed any chances of their pro-euro governments revisiting the issue anytime soon.

Tilford said it's not impossible that attitudes will turn euroskeptic also in southern Europe if Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy get stuck in a cycle of stagnation, rising debt, high unemployment and pressure to hand over economic policymaking.

"That could prove poisonous in terms of domestic politics and that would feed into the hands of anti-EU forces," he said.

Even Germans are wavering in their typically steadfast commitment to Europe amid resentment at having to bail out Greece. Though Germany has no euroskeptic party to capture that sentiment, a recent opinion poll showed that many Germans might vote for one.

To avoid feeding such feelings, European leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy must provide a "positive narration for the European project that, throughout this crisis, has been sorely lacking," said Robert Harmsen, a political science professor at the University of Luxembourg.

"The economics now increasingly demand some form of closer integration," he said. But that "doesn't match the politics, which is going in the other direction."

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Austria's Heinz-Christian Strache, whose far right Freedom Party has become the country's second-most popular in part through its anti-EU stance, registered a complaint earlier this month at the European Court of Human Rights against Austria's participation in Greece's bailout.

The party "will leave no stone unturned to prevent Austria's participation in this game of fortune or to reverse it," he said. "Every Austrian is hurt through the transfer of Austrian tax money on financially barren states and in particular on the lenders behind them."

Within the 17-member eurozone, the strongest skepticism is found in Finland and the Netherlands, where nearly 70 percent are against bailouts.

In Finland, the right-wing populist True Finns party _ which has since changed names to The Finns _ made resounding gains in April elections on an anti-EU platform that led Finland to question its participation in eurozone bailouts.

"The opposition, and The Finns party in particular, have been fueled by the financial crisis in Europe that is tending to move the union in an increasingly federalist direction," said political scientist Jan Sundberg of the University of Helsinki. "But other parties, too, are quite skeptical."

Some analysts note that parties like The Finns, the Dutch Freedom Party and France's National Front still represent a minority in Europe and say they won't necessarily gain from crisis, amid increasing awareness of what a eurozone collapse would entail.

"It would have devastating effects on banks and growth prospects," said Adriaan Schout of European the Hague-based Clingendael Institute, a European think tank. "So strangely enough the crisis gives support to the European integration project, probably more than it ignites euroskepticism."


Robert Barr in London; Toby Sterling in the Hague, Netherlands; Matti Huuhtanen in Helsinki; Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark; Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Poland; George Jahn in Vienna, Austria; and David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.