European voters have sent their politicians into a tailspin by voting in unexpectedly large numbers for anti-European Union parties in the weekend’s European Union parliamentary elections. Those parties want to dump the euro, pull their countries of the E.U., and some of them even want to destroy the institution itself. Since the E.U. governs 503 million people in 28 nations, the implications could be far-reaching. Not surprisingly, Europe’s leaders are reeling from the results. People in Europe and around the world are wondering what it all means and what comes next. Here are some of the questions they’re asking:
1. Why should we care about the E.U. anyway?
The E.U. covers a huge swath of territory, from Britain to Poland, and its combined economy, worth about 13 trillion euros, is the biggest in the world, outsizing even the U.S. economy. From their headquarters in Brussels, E.U. officials implement thousands of decisions that the E.U. parliament has voted in. Those laws and regulations range from the very important – like rescuing economies from collapse and imposing sanctions on Syria, Iran and Russia, to the truly mundane. Until a few years ago, the E.U. regulated the shape of bananas and cucumbers – a response to the retail industry’s argument that it needed to know how many fitted in a box. On weightier matters, the E.U. is important to the White House. Europe is America’s closest ally in facing down foes like Russia’s Vladimir Putin or Syria’s Bashar Assad, and like the U.S., France and Britain are among the only five countries with permanent veto powers on the United Nations Security Council. The E.U. is also the U.S.’s biggest trading partner, with a new, sweeping free-trade agreement currently being negotiated. One last thing: since its precursor organization was founded in 1951, Europe has enjoyed its most peaceful period in history.
2. But if it’s such an important and powerful force for good why did politicians who actually want to destroy the E.U. do so well in the vote?
To be fair, only 43% of registered voters went to the polls. Most appeared too indifferent, or perhaps confused (yes, Europeans find this confusing too): The E.U.’s gargantuan bureaucracy can feel impersonal and distant and voters often feel uninspired. In addition, millions of Europeans rank the E.U.’s performance very poorly. Years of recession and high unemployment, coupled with expensive bailouts of faltering economies, like those of Spain, Ireland, Cyprus and Greece, have left voters fed up, wondering why their leaders are so unable to solve Europe’s problems. Their deep alienation handed the fiercely right-wing, nationalist leaders, like Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front and Britain’s Nigel Farage of the U.K Independence Party, or UKIP, an election gift. Both of those leaders won shock victories. There were also big wins for anti-E.U. far-left parties, like Spain’s Podemos, which didn’t exist four months ago and now has five seats in the E.U. Parliament. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising: The E.U.’s own pollsters recently found voter trust at its lowest point ever. The one bright spark, according to the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies, or CEPS, an E.U.-funded think tank, is that Americans have even less faith in Congress than Europeans do in the E.U.
3. These gains were just in the European Parliament. Do these Eurosceptic leaders want power in their own countries too?
Absolutely. Le Pen and Farage view their E.U. victories as a big step towards taking power at home. That’s a good reason why these elections have so shaken Europe’s presidents and prime ministers; their political futures are on the line. But some political observers argue that anti-E.U. politicians are sure to lose elections at home, and that the voters in these E.U. elections simply vented their anger and frustration at Brussels by casting protest votes, which might not translate, when they need to choose the next British Prime Minister or French President. “You have very deep economic wounds,” says Daniel Gros, director of CEPS. “Since few countries can accept they got themselves into this mess, the E.U. is the best scapegoat you can think of.” That might be so. But consider that in Germany, Europe’s strongest economy, the anti-E.U. party, Alternative for Germany, won 7% of the votes.
What’s more, the far-right politicians head to the E.U. Parliament with hugely increased credibility and visibility among voters at home, who might no longer see the parties as slightly nutty and largely irrelevant fringe organizations. The parties could also use their election victories to create a ground-force of organizers back home, ready to fight national elections. For Le Pen, however, France’s two-round presidential election system will almost inevitably filter out smaller parties like her National Front. Nonetheless, anti-E.U. leaders sound supremely confident when discussing their political futures. “The National Front will be in power within 10 years,” Le Pen told TIME in an interview last month. And Farage told the BBC after his victory on Sunday, “now anything is possible.”
4. Does that mean the E.U. is basically dead on its legs?
No. The E.U. is not about to die any time soon, despite the anti-E.U. politicians storming the barricades. The institution’s machinery is simply too complex and deeply entrenched to collapse that easily. And even though they made big gains the so-called Eurosceptics still won only an estimated 175 out of 751 seats in the E.U. Parliament. The old mainstream politicians still outnumber them. That said, these elections aren’t likely to leave the E.U. untouched. European leaders have holed up in emergency meetings in their capitals and Brussels since the shock results rolled in on Sunday night. Le Pen and her allies are vowing to block the new trade agreement with Washington, push to end the continent’s open borders, stop any attempts to add new E.U. members to the existing 28 countries and severely limit immigration to Europe. Even with a small minority, the anti-E.U. politicians will likely be much more vocal in the parliament. Le Pen envisions being able to nudge the debates in their direction, potentially allowing anti-E.U. groups to gain broader support for their causes. Their success at the polls could also persuade traditional politicians to sharpen some of their own criticisms of the E.U., and shift their own policies. Although Le Pen is unlikely to win on major issues that go against the E.U.’s constitution, like sealing borders, there are other possibilities for her to disrupt the E.U.’s agenda, or insert her own. If she succeeds in forming a trans-national, right-wing political group in the parliament, she will be entitled to attend meetings of political leaders. She would also be able to become one of the E.U. rapporteurs who report to parliament on specific policy issues, as they make their way through the committee procedure. A rapporteur’s “opinion carries a lot of weight,” according to the European Law Monitor, an independent information service.
5. These anti-immigration politicians – is that a polite way of saying they have racist policies?
Many Europeans, including some Muslims, would say so. No anti-E.U. politician will admit to racist policies, however, and most have worked hard to shed any lingering sense that their parties are racist. UKIP leader Farage has rejected joining a Le Pen-led political bloc in the E.U. Parliament, saying the National Front has a history of anti-Semitism; Le Pen has virulently disputed that. What unites both UKIP and the National Front is their belief that the growing number of immigrants to E.U. countries undermines Europe’s economy. Le Pen argues that French Muslims are imposing their beliefs on the Christian majority, and abhors any push to segregate girls and boys in public swimming pools, or exclude pork on school lunch menus. “Not all Muslims, but Islamists who, now permanently in France, are constantly asking for special treatment,” she told TIME last month, She told voters at a public meeting last month that France’s immigration policy was “a catastrophe,” and after the National Front won 11 municipalities in local elections last March, she said those towns would introduce pork on the menus of school canteens. Observant Jews and Muslims do not eat pork.