The Economist says Sunday was “a worrying night for those who believe in a Europe of open borders” noting that, “In many countries, large protest votes went to populist, fringe and hard-right politicians vowing to close borders, repatriate immigrants or even dismantle the European Union in its current form.”

They highlight that, Britain elected two members of the avowedly racist British National Party and in the Netherlands, a populist party which vows to ban the Koran and close the European Parliament, picked up four seats with 17% of the vote, coming second only to the ruling conservative Christian Democrats.”  Elsewhere, “Far-right and anti-immigrant parties picked up seats in Austria, Denmark, Slovakia and Hungary. The hard-left picked up an extra seat in Denmark, but failed to make breakthroughs predicted in France and Germany.”

A quick scan of the headlines will show that the Economist editors were not alone in propagating this meme.  In addition to that piece (“European election results Battered and bruised“) we see “European elections 2009: far-Right and fringe parties make gains across Europe amid low turnout” (The Telegraph); “European elections: extremist and fringe parties are the big winners” (The Times); “The European Parliament: Now further right and pirate-friendlier” (National Post); “Angry Europe embraces the fringe” (The Globe and Mail); “Fringe Gains Four EU Seats In Dutch Vote” (Wall Street Journal); “The European Parliament: Where the Fringes Flourish” (TIME); “Europe’s shift to the right – Why conservatives, far-right fringe parties, and Swedish pirates won big in EU elections” (The Week); and “European fringe parties set to gain seats in European Parliament” (Vox Africa).  And those are just stories that had the word “fringe” in the headline.

This may well be journalistic hyperbole rather than rational political analysis, however.

Perspective Needed?

Andrew Gardner, writing at European Voice, attempts to dispel the panic in “Fringe parties fail to make big gains.”  While acknowledging that “fringe groupings and independents will be more numerous in the next Parliament, increasing their 141 seats in the outgoing 785-member assembly to 178 in the new, 736-seat Parliament,” he notes that “since 33 of those additional seats come from the creation of a new grouping formed by the mainstream conservative parties in the UK, Poland and the Czech Republic, the role of small and radical parties will be only moderately greater than in the old Parliament.”

While Geert Wilder’s notorious Party for Freedom (PW), Italy’s Lega Nord, Austria’s Freedom Party (FPÖ) and Denmark’s Danish People’s Party (DFP) made big gains, several others, notably France’s National Front, lost seats.  So did several hard-left parties, notably the Communists in both Italy and the Czech Republic.

The truth of the matter is that more than 75 percent of the seats in Brussels are still going to be held by centrist, mainstream parties.

Fringe vs. Radicals

Too many of the stories lump in silly candidates, niche parties, anti-EU parties, and anti-globalization, anti-immigrant, nationalist parties together as “the fringe.”  Only the latter grouping are problematic.  We simply must distinguish small, legitimate parties from radical, dangerous ones.

For example, news that Sweden’s Pirate Party (Piratpartiet) won a seat got the attention of editors and producers around the world.  And it should: It’s funny, interesting, and unusual.  But the fact thatthe EU Parliament will be 1/736th friendlier to those who think music should be exempt from copyright law doesn’t exactly fill the heart with dread.

The British press, especially, made a lot of hay over the fact that the governing Labour Party came in third place, behind the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).  And that’s interesting and newsworthy for a whole variety of reasons.  But we should not confuse UKIP, which advocates a go-slow approach to the EU, with the British Nationalist Party, which advocates expelling non-Anglos from the country.  The latter, incidentally, won just two seats.  And Health Secretary Andy Burnham correctly analyzed the meaning: “The BNP is like the ultimate protest vote. It is how to deliver the establishment a two-fingered salute. I think largely it is a comment on Westminster politics.”

Institutions to Blame

It’s also true that even the dangerous, radical parties have much more representation in Brussels (and in the EU’s constituent state parliaments) than they do in the United States Congress.  While there are some cultural reasons that may make anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant sentiment stronger in Europe than in North America, the fact of the matter is that the extremes are overrepresented in Europe and underrepresented in the USA for institutional reasons. 

The United States employs a single member district, first-past-the-post system.  Essentially, representation is divided into various geographical areas and the plurality winner in each of them gets a single delegate.  This makes it extraordinarily difficult for fringe parties to do well and virtually forces the radicals to make common cause with moderates under the big tent of a catch-all party.  

Conversely, European Parliament delegates are chosen according to the electoral system in place in each of the 27 constituent states.  Many of them employ a form of proportional representation whereby delegates are allocated in the aggregate based on the percentage of votes the various parties received.  Instead of rewarding a single district winner, even parties that appeal to a very tiny segment of the population can win a seat or two. 

Center for American Progress fellow Matt Yglesias puts it just right:

The multiple-member constituency model that the UK uses to elect MEPs makes it possible for a party with very low levels of support to sometimes win a seat or two if the people are distributed correctly. Under the circumstances, you can’t lose sight of the basic reality that this is a party with a very low level of support.

Not only does focusing on the anomalies allowed by the system, as The Spectator‘s Alex Massie observes, “paying so much attention to the BNP is unfair on the 98% of the electorate who didn’t vote for the BNP.”  Indeed, as British journalist Chris Dillow notes, “For every person who voted BNP, 29 did not vote at all. It’s probable, then, that BNP voters are swamped by the number of voters who chose to express their contempt for our political system in a non-racist fashion.”

American political scientist Steven Taylor notes, too, that “we are talking about one election for a body that is unique in its scope and limited in its policymaking powers,” which makes it “difficult to draw any sweeping conclusions.”

Interestingly, there is talk to reform the voting system to minimize both the impact of fringe parties and the focus on local (i.e., state-level) politics.   Bruno Waterfield, reporting for The Telegraph:

Joseph Daul, the chairman of the European People’s Party, parliament’s biggest Christian Democrat led grouping, has hinted at changes to minimise the impact of national issues, such as Britain’s expenses scandal, on wider Europe.

“Perhaps we need to rethink electoral systems,” he said. “The turnout at each election seems to strengthen extremism. Some are asking if the electoral system is still a valid one.”

Under current rules, voters across Europe choose between the same political parties as during national elections, a situation, some have suggested, downgrades the EU.

Andrew Duff, leader of Britain’s Liberal Democrats, is planning to propose pan-European political lists for at least 25 seats to break the link between national parties and EU votes.

“The thinking is to move away from European elections dominated by national issues. The idea is start discussion about a European dimension to politics and to galvanise European as opposed to national political parties,” he said.

Parliament sources have acknowledged that a reform debate is needed to bring “some needed stability to the institution”.

Such changes will be extraordinarily difficult to enact, however, for both cultural and practical reasons. After all, the MEPs brought in under the current system will naturally be loathe to change it.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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