Europe's Tea Party rising?

Americans are mostly mystified by European Union politics, but then so are many Europeans. It's hard to know exactly what to make of last week's voting across 28 EU member states for the European Parliament.

"An earthquake" is how French Prime Minister Manuel Valls described the outcome. And no wonder: Both his Socialists and the main center-right coalition got walloped by the populist National Front, which took a quarter of the vote.

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The other seismic shock came in Britain, where the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) led all parties with 27.5 percent of the vote. Prime Minister David Cameron, duly chastened, urged other European leaders to "heed the views expressed at the ballot box" and curtail the powers of the sprawling Brussels bureaucracy.

The upshot: Roughly a third of the European Parliament's 766 seats will be occupied by people who don't believe in the government of which they are a part. They despise the long-running European "project," which they view as foisted on them by supercilious elites. Comparisons with the Tea Party, which similarly loathes Washington elites, are inevitable. But while some media accounts lazily portray the results as a victory for the "far-right" fringe, that's not quite right.

The National Front and UKIP are more accurately described as nationalist and populist parties. They bemoan the surrender of national sovereignty to Brussels and the EU's open borders policy, which has flooded them with migrant workers from the less prosperous east and south of Europe. They are anything but free-market conservatives, viewing globalization and trade as threats not only to job security but also to traditional cultural mores and identities. The National Front took many voters from the left, winning 43 percent of the blue-collar vote and 37 percent of unemployed voters.

In fact, the Euroskeptics' strong showing is best understood as a protest vote against their own national governments. The insurgents are rebelling against a status quo they equate with economic stagnation, austerity, chronic unemployment (especially among the young) and unfettered immigration. You could even argue that European elections offer a safety valve for channeling popular frustrations in directions with little direct political consequence, since the European Parliament has limited powers.

What's more, some anti-Europe parties fell flat. In Italy, for example, Prime Minister Mateo Renzi's center-left Democratic Party won more than 40 percent of the vote, marginalizing the "anti-politics" movement led by comedian Beppe Grillo. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats also led all comers with 35 percent of the vote.

One clear message of the election is that many Europeans seem to be losing interest in Europe as it expands. Average turnout was low, around 43 percent. It's been declining steadily since 1979, when nearly 62 percent of eligible voters (in nine EU member states) cast votes.

Here's the other main takeaway: Euro populists of the right and left (Greece's left-wing Syriza party finished on top) have battened mainly on economic discontent. A return to prosperity thus would be the most potent antidote to the new radicalism. Growth is picking up in Britain and Germany, but prospects seem dismal elsewhere. Both Valls and Renzi are economic modernizers in the Clinton-Blair mold, but it's not clear either has the political support for the wrenching structural reforms France and Italy need to revive growth.

What does the EU election mean for the United States? In the short term, it will likely complicate already difficult negotiations over the transatlantic free trade treaty (TTIP). And as I've argued elsewhere, it could accelerate a turn toward "digital protectionism" in which EU authorities make it difficult for U.S. Internet companies to do business in Europe.

Most worrisome is an incipient anti-democratic tendency among some of the nationalist parties, especially the National Front and its leader Martine Le Pen. While mainstream European leaders have been taken aback by Russian President Vladimir Putin's naked display of power politics in Ukraine, Le Pen has been effusive in her praise of the Russian strongman. To her, Putin represents a counter to America, the driving force behind globalization and a supporter of European integration, and a return to "traditional" values rooted in national institutions.

A little Euroskepticism could be a healthy development, especially if it spurs mainstream political leaders to simplify the EU's ungainly governing structures and shrink its stifling bureaucracy. But rejecting modern values in favor of an atavistic, "blood and soil" nationalism is more sinister. It evokes the demons of interwar Europe, when parties and intellectuals on both ends of the spectrum were united only by their contempt for liberal democracy, with its "weak" institutions, bourgeois materialism and cosmopolitan ideals.

Last week's spasm of protests probably won't derail the six-decades-old project of European integration. But if European leaders want to get it back on track, they should start by delivering on people's basic aspirations for jobs and opportunity.

Will Marshall is president of the Progressive Policy Institute.