Europe needs to stand up to extremism

02.07.2014 - Interview

In an article in the Frankfurter Rundschau published as the constituent part-session of the newly elected European Parliament gets under way, Foreign Minister Steinmeier calls for the introduction of a threshold in European elections and a resolute response to anti-Semitism and xenophobia. Published in the Frankfurter Rundschau on 2 July 2014.


The constituent part-session of the newly elected European Parliament is taking place just now. The European elections showed that Europe's citizens do take an interest in the European project. The election campaign, which for the first time featured nominated lead candidates from the two main political groups in the Parliament, helped to mobilise European voters. The tangible increase in turnout in some member states – almost five percentage points in Germany – marks a new trend. In the EU as a whole, voter turnout steadied after decades of constant decline.

The democratic political groups in the Parliament again have clear majorities. The new European Parliament is capable of action and of decision-making. The experience of the last legislative period shows that, notwithstanding all their differences on policy, the European democrats – the Social Democrats, Conservatives, Liberals and Greens – want to and can work together as well as with the Council and Commission to shape and advance European politics.

However, there are also critical developments which we cannot afford to ignore: I am profoundly concerned that so many extreme right-wingers have been elected to the new Parliament. Almost ten percent of seats from more than ten countries all across the EU have gone to parties which openly oppose freedom of movement and minority rights.

Populist parties which reject European integration have won more seats than ever before. In some member states, extremist groupings will be one of the bigger parties, perhaps even the biggest party representing their country in the European Parliament. The shock waves triggered by the results of the elections have been felt throughout Europe ever since 25 May.

Openly right-wing parties have seats and voices in the new Parliament. It is shameful that the NPD won a ticket to Strasbourg and Brussels. As a result of the Federal Constitutional Court’s removal of the three percent clause, German splinter parties with no serious political agenda are entering the European Parliament. The large number of small groupings certainly won’t make it any easier for the Parliament to work objectively in the face of resistance from extremists and populists.

The reasons for the success of xenophobic parties are many and differ from country to country. There is no doubt that the repercussions of the severe economic and financial crisis, which hit southern Europe particularly hard, played a role. People in those countries – young people especially – no longer associate Europe with the promise of a better life. Rather, they see it as a threat. The drastic rise in unemployment in many member states, and in particular the intolerable youth unemployment levels in Spain or Greece, for instance, are obviously causing some people to doubt the political status quo and therefore opt for Eurosceptic and even extremist parties. The process of reform has brought social hardship; this too was reflected in the polls.

Now that the worst of the economic crisis is behind us and tender shoots of growth and economic upturn can be seen across Europe, we therefore need to live up to people’s justified expectations and work hard to stimulate new growth, create jobs and give Europe’s citizens prospects for the future. It is good that there is strong agreement on this in Europe. The designated President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, will receive a strong mandate from the member states and the European Parliament to promote growth and create jobs.

If we manage to do this, the extremist parties will lose their support. But that in itself is not enough. We also need to stand up to the populists and extremists in the European Parliament and set them clear limits. The European Parliament must resolutely reject any expression of xenophobic, racist or anti-Semitic tendencies in the plenary, the committees or in public.

I believe the correct response to right and left-wing extremism would be the establishment of a new European Parliament committee against racism and anti-Semitism. This would provide an appropriate forum in which to counter regularly, not just sporadically the challenge posed to our European values by xenophobia, anti-Semitism and extremism and to give a clear response to it.

I would also call for the introduction of a pan-European threshold of a certain percentage of votes required for entry into the European Parliament, because I fail to see how the election of small splinter parties, generally focusing on a single issue, improves the representation of a country's political spectrum. Many countries do have their own national percentage hurdle for entry into the European Parliament. Establishing a uniform hurdle across the European Union would be an important step enabling us to strengthen both European democracy and the legitimacy of the European Parliament.

The fight against xenophobia and racism will be a major task for European policymakers in the coming years. It is a matter of defending our fundamental European values: respect for the dignity of the individual, freedom, equality, democracy and the protection of minorities.

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