Official Europe is getting more radical. Here's what that means for the world

Marine Le Pen laughs

LISBON, Portugal — In case you’re bored with the Republican primary antics, consider taking a closer look at European politics.

Yes, European politics.

Democracy on the continent has always had its wacky side. Consider Portugal’s national election, on Oct. 4. Among parties is a Maoist group using "death to the traitors" as a campaign slogan. Another leftist faction is led by a heavily pregnant psychologist with a penchant for posing naked on magazine covers. There's a party that wants human rights extended to animals; and one for pensioners, running under the acronym PURP.

For decades such colorful groups have enlivened the fringes of Europe's political debate, while power remained in the hands of solid centrists leaning gently left or right. They may have battled over taxation levels and public spending rates, but basically agreed on big-picture stuff like the market economy, international trade, social safety nets, European Union membership and the trans-Atlantic alliance.

Not anymore.

From the radical new leadership running Britain's opposition Labour Party to the leftist economic iconoclasts just re-elected in Greece; from nationalistic leaders battling to keep refugees out of central Europe to rampant separatists seeking to break up some of the old countries of Europe — the centrist consensus is under threat like never before.

Such forces are now in government or leading oppositions in several EU nations. Their influence could have profound consequences on matters like NATO, refugees and the economy.

1. Defense, Russia and the trans-Atlantic alliance

The UK has traditionally been the United States’ staunchest ally in Europe and a lynchpin of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Now its biggest opposition party is led by a man who called the foundation of NATO a "tragedy" and questions the alliance’s existence.

"We must think far more seriously about why we are in NATO," Jeremy Corbyn, who was elected leader of the Labour Party this month, told parliament in 2013. He's recently backed away from calls for Britain to leave NATO, citing the lack of public support, but wants to "restrict its role."

Among front-line politicians across Europe, Corbyn is far from alone in voicing doubts about the trans-Atlantic military pact.

In theory, the leader of France's far-right National Front party, Marine Le Pen, is Corbyn's ideological opposite, but she shares his distaste for NATO.

Le Pen promises to pull France out of the alliance's military structure if she wins presidential elections in 2017. "NATO is nothing but an appendage of America," she said recently. "The United States is a hegemonic power ready to do anything to tighten its grip on our country."

"NATO is nothing but an appendage of America," she said recently. "The United States is a hegemonic power ready to do anything to tighten its grip on our country."

Both Corbyn and Le Pen want warmer relations with Russia and are highly critical of the West's reaction to Moscow's intervention in Ukraine. Russia's ambassador in London, Alexander Yakovenko, last week welcomed Corbyn's elevation to the party leadership as "a radical breakthrough in British politics."

Although many doubt Corbyn's ability to unseat the ruling Conservative party in a general election, he could already influence British defense policy by denying Prime Minister David Cameron a parliamentary majority backing air strikes against ISIS in Syria.

Another thing Corbyn, Le Pen and other radicals on the left and right share is opposition to the trans-Atlantic free trade agreement, known as TTIP, which is currently being negotiated between the United States and European Union.

2. Refugees and migrants

The European Union's mainstream political groups are tearing each other apart over the bloc's response to the refugee crisis. The president of the center-left group in the European Parliament on Wednesday called for the expulsion of Slovakia's governing Social Democracy party due to Prime Minister Robert Fico's stance.

 "The position made clear by Mr Robert Fico ... regarding the 'restriction of the freedom of Muslims in Europe' or again that 'Slovakia is built for Slovaks, not for minorities', has embarrassed the whole progressive family," said Gianni Pittella, president of the Socialists and Democrats in the EU parliament.

Many are calling for the center-right to take similar action against the party of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Some want Hungary's voting rights in the EU suspended over his hard-line approach, which has included building razor wire fences and sending in troops to keep out refugees seeking to pass through his country.

"For these countries on the eastern front, the EU seems to mean just two things: subsidies and a big market place (for their goods)," the French daily Le Monde wrote Wednesday. "Too bad for the shared base of democratic, human values that are supposed to underpin European integration."

Orban has denounced what he calls the "moral imperialism" of German Chancellor Angela Merkel who has tried to press eastern Europeans to take more refugees. In an apparent attempt to sow division among the ranks of Merkel's center-right supporters, he traveled to southern Germany this week to meet with conservatives critical of her decision to welcome refugees.

Needless to say Le Pen's group and similar rightist parties are vehemently opposed to letting in more  migrants.

Mainstream politicians fearful of losing votes to the far right are taking harder lines. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy accused European authorities of telling "lies" about he scale of the refugee situation, warning "millions and millions" of migrants are pushing to enter the EU.

3. The economy

Fears that the euro zone's economic crisis could be reignited by last Sunday's victory of the far-left Syriza party so far do not appear justified.

Re-elected Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras says his government will respect the $96 billion bailout-for-austerity deal he was forced into by other euro zone leaders back in July. But Tsipras is talking tough again, and promises to renew the fight to push international lenders into forgiving much of Greece's mountainous debt.

He hopes to get help from the spate of other elections coming up across Europe.

In the next few months, far-left parties will be vying for power in other countries hard hit by the euro-zone economic crisis. Pablo Iglesias, leader of Spain's Podemos party, is hoping the victory of his Greek buddy will boost flagging poll ratings ahead of Spanish general elections in December. Gerry Adams of the leftist Sinn Fein party in Ireland wants the same.

"Just imagine what could happen if the Greek prime minister has at his side Pablo [Iglesias] in Spain, Gerry Adams in Ireland and a progressive prime minister in Portugal," Tsipras said last week, suggesting such bloc of "progressive forces" could force radical changes in Europe's economic policies.

Portugal's vote will be the next test of the left. Despite the colorful characters on the fringes, the campaign is being led by mainstream parties of the center-left and center-right. They are neck-and-neck, but neither is looking like winning an outright majority. Opposition Socialist Party leader Antonio Costa has not ruled out forming a coalition government with the Communists or the Syriza-allied Left Bloc.

4. European unity

Euro-skepticism is a growing political force. That’s raising fears over the future of the unity project that supporters laud for underpinning peace and prosperity in post-War Europe.

In Britain, successes by the nationalist UK Independence Party, pressured Prime Minister Cameron into calling a referendum on withdrawal from the 28-nation bloc by 2017. Many on the continent fear a British exit, or "Brexit" could lead the union to unravel.

Cameron says he'll campaign to keep Britain in — if he can secure concessions from the other members, like greater control over immigration. He faces opposition from a strong euro-skeptic faction in his own Conservative party. Corbyn says Labour will campaign to keep Britain in the EU, despite his previous ambivalent approach — he voted against the EU in the last referendum back in 1975.

Elsewhere, anti-EU sentiment is widespread in countries that were once staunch supporters of  united Europe.

Le Pen says she'd be a "Madame Frexit" to pull France out of the euro. “We should get out of the euro zone and out of the European Union," says her Dutch far-right ally Geert Wilders, whose party currently tops opinion polls in the Netherlands.

Euro-skeptics have been heartened by EU governments' failure to forge a united response to the refugee crisis and by the decision of some to suspend the Schengen passport-free-travel treaty long trumpeted as one of the EU's crowning achievements.

Poland has been a forceful EU supporter in recent years under a centrist government, but polls indicate Oct. 25 elections will bring a win for the conservative Law and Justice party, which has a record of prickly relations with EU partners.

Besides demanding a tougher line on keeping out refugees, Law and Justice is out of step with mainstream European thinking on the environment. It opposes a binding agreement at the upcoming UN climate change summit in Paris, because it wants Poland to carry on burning coal to generate its electricity.

As if holding the EU together wasn't hard enough, surging separatist movements are hoping to pull apart some of its member countries.

Nationalists say they will prise Catalonia out of Spain if they win regional elections there on Sunday. 

Separatists holding all but three of Scotland's 59 seats in the British parliament are mulling a second referendum on leaving the United Kingdom — if English voters chose to take the UK out of the EU. Scotland voted decisively to stay in the UK just a year ago.

Will you support The World?

There is no paywall on the story you just read because a community of dedicated listeners and readers have contributed to keep the global news you rely on free and accessible for all. Will you join the 219 donors who’ve stepped up to support The World? From now until Dec. 31, your gift will help us unlock a $67,000 match. Donate today to double your impact and keep The World free and accessible.