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Anti-EU sentiment expands

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European stock market indexes rose to new highs this week when elections for the European Parliament showed Italian voters were sticking with their new premier, Matteo Renzi of the Democratic Party. With continuing public support, Mr. Renzi may have the chance to reduce obstacles to competition in Italian industry, bring government finances into better balance and put Italy back on a path to economic expansion.

In France and Britain, the European Parliament elections showed sharp drops in support for the national ruling parties. Marine Le Pen's National Front, hostile to foreigners and to the European Union, took 25 per cent of French votes, well ahead of 20 per cent for the conservative opposition party and about 15 per cent for the ruling socialists. Nigel Farage's United Kingdom Independence Party, which wants to take the UK out of the European Union, took 27.5 per cent of the votes cast in the UK, ahead of Labour at 25.5 per cent and the ruling Conservatives at 24 per cent. Anti-foreigner and anti-Europe parties also did well in Hungary, Austria and Sweden.

Voter turnout across Europe was weak at 43 per cent -- about the same as at the last European Parliament elections in 2009. The European Parliament is a minor player in European politics because the EU is run by the participating governments, especially France and Germany, and by its administrative agencies and departments. Voters are free to register a protest, knowing the parliament they are electing exercises no power. These elections are important mainly as a measure of the popularity of each member country's ruling party. In Britain and France, the public thumb was pointed down.

In these circumstances, Italian voters' support for Matteo Renzi and the Democratic (socialist) Party was remarkable. Italy is closely involved with its European neighbours since they bailed out its banks and ordered reforms to its public finances. Italy is also a favourite entry point for African and Asian refugees arriving in leaky boats from Libya and Tunisia. If there was ever a government vulnerable to an upsurge of anti-Europe and anti-foreigner sentiment, it would be Italy's government today. And yet, the Democratic Party took 41 per cent of the vote -- miles ahead of anti-Europe Beppe Grillo's Five-Star Movement, with 21 per cent.

When he became premier three months ago, leading a centrist coalition government, Mr. Renzi immediately sold off the government fleet of luxury cars used for transporting public officials. He aims to reform or eliminate the Italian Senate, abolish public financing of political parties and party newspapers. Following the long reign of media mogul Silvio Berlusconi and the interim leadership of technocrat Mario Monti and centrist Enrico Letta, Mr. Renzi seemed like a breath of fresh air. Italians clearly still have high hopes for him.

The ruling parties of France and the UK need to worry about the upsurge in support for their opponents, but there is no occasion for adopting their ideas. Britons nostalgic for the days before the European Union actually know that the British Empire is gone beyond recall. The country would never accept the economic sacrifices of cutting itself off from Europe. The open borders that allow workers to move where the jobs are benefit all European countries, Britain and France included. The UK Independence Party has yet to win its first seat in the Westminster Parliament, which makes the laws for Great Britain. It should enjoy this week's moment of glory while it lasts.

In France, the National Front has been winning slowly growing shares of the national vote since the early 1980s. Since taking over the leadership from her father in 2011, Marine Le Pen has been softening the hard edges of the party's former anti-Semitism and xenophobia so it is now almost a mainstream political party. She will get no help from Mr. Farage, however: He doesn't work with foreigners.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 28, 2014 A8

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