By Jack Craver
If you run in elite European circles, you’ll rarely meet anyone who seriously believes their country should leave the European Union.
In EU founding nations such as France and Germany, “Euro-skepticism” has historically been relegated to the margins, with anti-EU nationalists on the right wing and anti-globalization activists on the left.
But in times of economic distress, Euro-skeptics are joining the mainstream. Anxiety over unemployment, stagnant wages and immigration have prompted citizens across the continent to ask what they’re getting out of the 28-nation EU or the euro, the common currency used by 19 of the bloc’s members.
Few people outside of Greece had ever heard of Syriza, a leftist party, until its leader was elected prime minister in January following a campaign in which he pledged to reject debt repayments demanded by creditors.
Paradoxically, Syriza does not favor withdrawal from the EU or the euro zone. But it owed victory largely to voters who wondered what their economically ravaged country had gained from membership in the euro zone, which many see as run by “class bully” Germany.
“The franc was great.”
Explicitly anti-EU parties have made inroads elsewhere. For instance, the True Finns came second in Finland’s general election last week.
In France, the percentage of voters who support EU membership dropped to 51 percent last year from 67 percent in 2004. Rising skepticism benefits the National Front led by Marine Le Pen, the only major party to oppose the EU.
“The franc was great,” a 25-year-old friend told me the other day, referring to France’s former currency. Like many young Frenchmen, he spends a slab of his income on cigarettes, which now sell for €6.50 a pack, more than twice what they cost in 2002, when France adopted the Euro.
In fact, the dramatic price rise is not the fault of the euro, but stems from tax increases in France to raise revenue and combat smoking. But the contention that the EU and the common currency have made life worse in France often goes unchallenged.
So mainstream forces let out a giant sigh of relief last month when the National Front managed to grab only 61 of the more than 4,000 seats in countrywide local elections.
Even if Marine Le Pen makes it to the second, run-off round of France’s presidential election in 2017, the establishment parties are likely to form a tactical alliance to deny her victory, just as they did when her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, made it to the second round in 2002.
From the rubble of WWII
In the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron has placated Euro-skeptics in his Conservative party by promising a referendum on whether Britain should leave the EU if he wins an outright majority in next month’s parliamentary elections.
The crucial question is whether Euro-skepticism will fade if Europe’s nascent economic recovery takes root. If the near-collapse of Greece can shake the world economy, then the popularity of parties seeking to undermine the EU matters to everybody.
The EU would shrug and carry on if the UK voted to leave. It is hard to imagine that it would survive the exit of France: reconciliation between France and Germany is at the heart of the regional cooperation that emerged from the rubble of World War Two.
If misgivings about European unity persist, the EU will be hard-pressed to demonstrate the economic and geopolitical leadership that the bloc’s original architects — and allies around the world — have expected of it.
Jack Craver is an American journalist. Formerly a political reporter at the Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin, he currently lives in Dieppe, France, where he works as an English instructor and writes a weekly column in French for the local newspaper, Les Informations Dieppoises. He blogs about American and European politics at jackcraver.com..