Growing extremism across Europe requires political parties in favor of deeper European Union integration to make their case more vigorously in a bid to avoid EU election losses, the head of the bloc’s executive arm said.
A legislative vote in May risks becoming “a festival of unfounded reproaches against Europe” unless mainstream parties deploy “rational arguments and passion,” European Commission President Jose Barroso told the European Parliament on Wednesday in Strasbourg, France. The May 22-25 elections to the 28-nation assembly, which has a say over EU laws covering everything from financial services to farming, could be “tense,” he said.
“We are seeing, in fact, a rise of extremism from the extreme right and from the extreme left,” Barroso said. “I hope we’ll have a more profound European debate and the European project will be more strongly defended than before. I hope, namely, that the mainstream political forces will be able to leave sometimes the zone of comfort, that they will no longer consider European unification as a given by implicit consent.”
The EU legislative elections may turn into a verdict on four years of European debt-crisis management fashioned by Germany, which has stressed national budget austerity as a condition for 496 billion euros ($676 billion) of international aid pledges to keep distressed nations in the euro area.
The European vote may also signal the U.K.’s future ties to the EU after British Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to renegotiate relations with the bloc before a referendum in 2017 on whether to stay a member.
As Cameron’s government applies measures to deter EU migrants from claiming U.K.-funded welfare payments, Barroso pledged to defend the right of the bloc’s citizens to move freely within the region.
“One issue in particular is already in danger of being subject to all kinds of populist rhetoric rather than objective assessment: free movement of people,” Barroso said. “Free movement of people is a fundamental principle of Europe. We don’t want citizens of first class and citizens of second class.”
The 766-seat EU Parliament’s biggest group is the Christian Democrats, with which Barroso, a former Portuguese prime minister, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are affiliated. The assembly’s No. 2 faction is the Socialists and its third- biggest group is the pro-business Liberals.
Nigel Farage, a British member of the EU Parliament and head of the U.K. Independence Party seeking an exit from the bloc, said the May elections will “shatter” the notion of the inevitability of the EU’s development.
“It’s going to be a battle of national democracy versus EU state bureaucracy,” Farage said. “Whatever you may say in this chamber, the people out there don’t want the United States of Europe. They want a Europe of sovereign states trading and working together.”
The debate was tied to the start of the six-month EU presidency of Greece, where the ruling coalition of the mainstream New Democracy and Socialist parties is clinging to a three-seat majority.
Greece, which triggered Europe’s debt crisis in 2009, has received two rescues totaling 240 billion euros in return for budget cuts and has gone through a six-year recession, has seen the rise of parties opposed to the conditions for aid.
In the debate on Wednesday, Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras told the EU Parliament that Greece is “on the road to recovery.” He said Greek “normality” including economic growth would help marginalize anti-European parties in the country including the nationalist Golden Dawn.
Golden Dawn has come in third in recent Greek public opinion polls that put Syriza in the lead and Samaras’s New Democracy in second place.