Europe moves to the right in parliamentary elections


LONDON — Europe's political center shifted toward the right Monday as a weak economy, disarray among parties on the left, protest votes against the establishment, anti-immigrant sentiment and a political scandal in Britain combined to influence the outcome of the biggest multinational election in history.

The results of the vote for the European Parliament were felt most acutely in Britain, where an abysmal showing by the Labor Party — its worst performance in a national vote in a century — put new pressure on Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who's fighting for his political life. He faced rebellious party members late Monday in a desperate bid to stay in office after the eighth resignation by a Cabinet official in one week.

Shock waves reverberated across the region as results of the voting to fill 736 seats in the European Parliament emerged Monday after four days of voting in all 27 EU countries. Center-right parties, which captured 264 seats, were the big winners at the expense of their counterparts on the left, who gained 183. Smaller, far-right parties also made notable gains, including the openly racist British National Party.

"This is a major earthquake" for parties on the left, said Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, a Spaniard who's a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "It's very humiliating."

Center-right parties came out on top in big countries such as Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Poland, as well as in smaller countries such as Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria. Denmark and Greece were exceptions to the rule, handing gains to left-of-center parties.

Analysts attributed part of the success that center-right parties achieved — including those of France's Nicolas Sarkozy and Germany's Angela Merkel — to their ability to co-opt some of the language and ideas of the left in response to the economic crisis.

"We're seeing a change in the political vocabulary between left and right," said Bob Leonardi, an expert on European issues at the London School of Economics and Political Science. As the economic crisis unfolded in recent months, center-right leaders, including Sarkozy and Merkel, backed more regulation and more state intervention in the economy. As a result, Leonardi said, "the left has lost its orientation."

Britain's Labor Party — the traditional home of labor unions and other liberal types — is more centrist than its continental counterparts, but it's facing the biggest crisis of all as a result of the European parliamentary vote. Labor, which won 13 seats of Britain's 72, placed third in the popular vote, behind the opposition Conservatives, which won 28, and the relatively small U.K. Independence Party, which got 13. Both those conservative groups are skeptical about the EU, and the U.K. Independence Party is calling for Britain to leave the European Union.

The British National Party, an anti-immigrant and anti-EU party that doesn't allow black people to become members, won two seats in the European Parliament, in regions that Labor traditionally dominated.

Many British Labor voters stayed home from the polls to show their disgust at a government that's lurched from one crisis to another, most recently the scandal over the abuse of expense accounts by members of Parliament. Despite mounting calls for Brown's resignation as party leader, a poll done for the British Broadcasting Corp. found that two-thirds of Britons think that replacing Brown as the head of Labor wouldn't help the party's prospects significantly.

Elsewhere in Europe, far-right and nationalist parties gained in the Netherlands, Hungary, Austria and Slovakia, seizing on worries about immigration, crime and terrorism. Analysts said that some of the far-right gains also might be due to a low turnout in the European voting, which left a vacuum that the extremists filled.

"Many people see no difference between globalization and the European Union," Torreblanca said. "To them, it means opening up to immigration and foreign goods." The result, he said, is that the far-right parties are "significant and will be growing."

Leonardi said the latest European vote increased the chances that a new European constitution — known as the Lisbon Treaty — would pass. Ireland is the only European country in which voters have rejected the treaty, which all EU nations must adopt unanimously.

Ireland plans a second vote in October, and the Irish party that's campaigning hardest against the Lisbon Treaty, a group called Libertas, fared badly in the elections over the weekend. This suggests that Irish voters will back the treaty if they have a chance to vote on it in the fall.

The treaty calls for strengthened European institutions and a directly elected European president. Sarkozy was pushing Monday to delay the reappointment of Jose Manuel Barroso to another term as the president of the European Commission until the results of a second Irish referendum are known.

As for foreign policy, "look for greater cooperation between the U.S. and Europe," Leonardi said. "A Europe after Lisbon will be in a position to be a better partner to the U.S."

(Sell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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