Europe's voters are 'angry with their governments not EU'

Supporters hold flags before French far-right National Front party leader Marine Le Pen delivers a speech in Marseille, France on May 20

Rightist euro-sceptic parties scored big wins in European parliamentary elections on May 25, suggesting that voters were angrier than anyone realised. But while Brussels makes a convenient target, public opinion polls indicate that Europeans are more furious with their own national governments than they are with the EU.

In fact, Europeans don’t seem all that keen to dismantle the Union. A YouGov poll completed a week before the election found that 51 percent of British voters and 71 percent of French voters wanted their countries to remain in the EU. A separate poll completed earlier in the month by the Pew Research Centre found that public attitudes toward the EU have improved, with 52 percent of British voters this year having a favourable opinion of the bloc, up from 43 percent in 2013. In France, the figure rose to 54 percent from 41 percent in 2013.

In still another survey, conducted earlier this spring for the EU, 71 percent of voters said they mistrusted their national governments, compared to 59 percent who said they mistrusted the EU. Even in Greece, the country hardest hit by austerity measures, voters had a more favourable view of the EU than they did of the government in Athens.

 No question, the election results are reverberating in European capitals. The head of Spain’s Socialist Party said he’ll resign because of the party’s poor showing; Ireland’s deputy prime minister also stepped down. The disastrous third-place finish of French President François Hollande’s Socialists is yet more bad news for his deeply unpopular government. And in Britain, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron “will face calls from members of his party to move further to the right on Europe and immigration,” analysts at Teneo Intelligence wrote in a note to clients on May 27.

Europe’s economic crisis has been an opportunity for protest parties such as France’s National Front and Britain’s UK Independence Party (UKIP), both of which notched big victories in Saturday’s election. It “has served as oxygen,” says Mats Persson, director of Open Europe, a London- and Brussels-based think tank. UKIP and the National Front gained traction by campaigning against immigration, which is only tangentially related to EU economic policy.

But euro-sceptic forces may not make much headway in Brussels. Despite their increased presence in the European parliament, they’re still heavily outnumbered by centre-right and centre-left parties. “Paradoxically, you may see the parliament begin to vote even more strongly in favour of Europe,” Persson says, because the mainstream parties “will have a stronger incentive to form a grand coalition.” Nothing inspires a coalition like a common enemy.

Moreover, the protest parties are a fractious lot. UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, has ruled out forming a parliamentary coalition with the National Front’s Marine Le Pen. She, in turn, has ruled out forming alliances with Greece’s Golden Dawn and Hungary’s Jobbik, two extreme-right parties that picked up European parliamentary seats.

French Prime Minister Valls and others called the May 25 vote an “earthquake.” In the end, it could be nothing more than a few scattered tremors.

* Carol Matlack is a Paris correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek.