ONE SHOULD not read too much into the rise of populist anti-European Union parties, most of them right-wing, in Sunday’s elections for the regional parliament. Yes, the far-right National Front finished first in France. The Euro-skeptical U.K. Independence Party did the same in Britain. Ultra-left Syriza and neo-fascist Golden Dawn combined for 36 percent of the vote in Greece. Yet these percentages were magnified by the low turnout for a low-stakes campaign. The far-right vote actually fell in Hungary and the Netherlands. In Italy, the Democratic Party of Matteo Renzi, the reform-minded new prime minister, posted a solid victory.
But one should not read too little into the results, either. The rise of anti-Europe politicians in the continent’s second- and third-largest countries, promoting simplistic messages tinged by xenophobia and Russophilia, is genuinely worrisome. Obviously demagogues have tapped into a deep vein of dissatisfaction, rooted in the continent’s strange but real mix of stagnation and crisis and, perhaps, in a sense that united Europe works well for prosperous Germany but not for anyone else. According to a March Eurobarometer survey, 49 percent of Europeans said life would be “more difficult” for today’s European children than it is for their parents. The figure in France was a remarkable 63 percent. By 47 percent to 41 percent, voters in Britain said their country would be better off outside the European Union.
Sunday’s actual winners — the established parties who, let it not be forgotten, got 70 percent of the seats — ignore this protest at their peril. Voters have a right to be upset — angry, even — at the high levels of joblessness, especially for young people, that plague Europe. They have a right to participate in fashioning practical, home-grown solutions, such as the tax and regulatory reforms Mr. Renzi is bringing Italy, rather than just German-backed budget cuts and tax hikes.
After the election, politicians of all stripes promised to heed the voters’ protests, as they have in response to previous surges from the extremes. They need to reflect far more deeply than usual on the purpose of Europe. The European Union’s original goal was to abolish Franco-German rivalry as a cause of war; that has been achieved. By the same token, Europeans have benefited hugely from economic integration — the free flow of goods, capital and people — even if, in hindsight, both the single currency and immigration from impoverished Eastern Europe have brought their own challenges.
Yet these achievements were accompanied by an ever-expanding bureaucracy and a loss of any purpose higher than crisis management, as if the powers that be in the European Union see “Europe” as an end in itself, independent of its actual impact on the daily lives of ordinary people. The “democratic deficit” in Europe is real. More than anything else about the European Union, that must change. Otherwise, the very real benefits that union has brought will be at risk.