Unhappy EU: British voters boost UKIP as Euroskeptic parties surge across disunited continent
BATH, England – In a tiny pub in a genteel corner of England, the rest of Europe feels far away. Which is just how Nigel Farage likes it.
Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, sips his impeccably English pint of beer with the smile of a man on track to win the biggest share of British votes in elections this month for the European Parliament — a parliament Farage wants to abolish, along with the entire 28-nation EU bloc.
"The whole thing is a monstrosity," said Farage. "We want our country back. It's been sold out."
Increasing numbers of voters agree with him — not just in Euro-wary island nation Britain, but across the continent.
Amid economic crisis and austerity, a union built from the ruins of World War II on a vision of peace, unity and prosperity is looking a little shaky. Parties that want to reform, remake or even just dismantle the EU are gaining ground. Years of recession and austerity have eroded Europeans' faith in an institution with an annual budget of 140 billion euros ($200 billion) and influence over everything from farming to justice.
Polls suggest Euroskeptic parties could take between 25 and 30 percent of the 751 European Parliament seats in May 22-25 elections. In Britain, Farage's UKIP — which advocates U.K. withdrawal from the EU and has never won a seat in the British Parliament — has pulled ahead of the Labour Party into first place. The Conservatives, who lead Britain's coalition government, look likely to finish an embarrassing third.
Campaigning on the Georgian streets of Bath, 100 miles (160 kilometers) southwest of London, Farage drew a strong and — for the most part — welcoming reaction.
Resembling an affable country squire with his mustard-colored trousers, tweed jacket and ruddy complexion, Farage is one of those lucky politicians with a knack for popularity. Tourists ask for photos. Two environmental activists who stop to berate him about fracking come away smiling. A man who starts out criticizing Farage ends up downing Sambuca shots with him.
Farage campaign stops are also being met with protests, and the occasional hurled egg, though, from opponents who accuse the party of xenophobia and racism. That charge — also leveled at other anti-EU parties, from France's National Front to Italy's Northern League — is one UKIP may need to overcome if it wants an electoral breakthrough.
The party has been stung by gaffe-prone members such as the local councilor who blamed winter flooding on gay marriage. It has dumped several election candidates for offensive or racist comments, including one who said black comedian Lenny Henry should move to a "black country" and another who called Islam "evil."
The bigger parties have also slammed UKIP for its anti-immigration billboards, including one showing a finger pointing at the reader with the words: "26 million people in Europe are looking for work. And whose job are they after?"
Farage insists his party is not racist and is being disproportionately scrutinized.
"We do not have a monopoly on stupid people," he said.
The criticism has not deterred the hundreds of people showing up each night at rallies around the country to hear Farage's populist message: "The best people to govern Britain are the British people themselves."
Although the 50-year-old Farage has been a member of the European Parliament for 15 years, many see him as a refreshing political outsider.
"Before this I had a choice between bad or worse," said Cyril Hales, a retired gas technician. "Now we have a man who is in touch with the people.
"I think we've lost control of our country," said Hales, who sees UKIP as "a party of common sense."
That sentiment is echoed across an increasingly disunited Europe. Many voters in rich countries such as Germany resent having to bail out southern neighbors like Greece and Portugal whose economies almost collapsed under unpayable debts in the past few years. People in the bailed-out countries feel humiliated and punished by the heavy repayment burden.
Euroskeptic parties rail against the EU red tape that they say enmeshes farmers and businesses, and against the open borders that mean French and British workers must compete with jobseekers from Poland or Spain.
Their message appeals to right-wingers opposed to immigration and worried about national identity and growing Muslim communities. But it also echoes left-wing concerns about the power of banks and big business.
"There's a well-defined electorate for a party like UKIP, and in most European countries we are seeing parties emerge who appeal to them — older, less well-qualified, economically struggling blue-collar voters," said Manchester University politics lecturer Rob Ford, co-author of a book about UKIP, "Revolt on the Right."
In Greece, the country worst hit by the financial crisis, opposition to the EU stretches from the Communist Party and left-wing Syriza to right-of-center Independent Greeks and neo-fascist Golden Dawn.
Such animosity may be expected in beleaguered Greece or ambivalent Britain, which is not among the 18 countries using the euro. But countries that have been among the strongest supporters of the union are also seeing a surge in skepticism.
Finland's Finns Party became the third-largest force in the national parliament in 2011 and has pushed mainstream parties into a more critical stance on Europe with its call to restrict immigration and claw back some powers from the EU. It doesn't want to leave the bloc, but it strongly opposes bailouts, saying richer countries have done too much for ailing eurozone members.
"There is general agreement that the eurozone as it exists today doesn't function," said spokesman Samuli Virtanen.
In Italy, the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement led by comedian Beppe Grillo is polling about 25 percent of the vote ahead of the European elections. Grillo argues that Italians have subjected themselves to European control in exchange for membership in the single currency, and has said 5-Star will push for a referendum on leaving the euro.
Add the 5 percent or so likely to be won by the regional, anti-immigrant Northern League, and almost a third of Italian votes will go to parties hostile to the EU — a remarkable development in a country that has long hitched its star to Brussels.
Even Germany, the EU's economic powerhouse and staunchest supporter, is not immune to the Euroskeptic bug. The Alternative for Germany party, founded last year, seeks an end to the euro in its current form and a halt to bailouts of indebted eurozone countries.
It doesn't want Germany to leave the EU, but it calls for an end to expansion and for major democratic reforms. A small but growing force, it hopes to better the 4.7 percent of the vote it got in last year's German national election.
Party founder Bernd Lucke, an economics professor, says that even though the worst of the economic crisis appeared to have passed, "not a single problem in Europe has been solved."
"The symptoms have been treated in that all the problems have been patched up with a lot of money," he said.
Even if Euroskeptics win big, the demise of the EU is not imminent. The European Parliament will remain dominated by two big blocs of the center left and center right. The Euroskeptics' influence is likely to be limited by their relative inexperience and the huge differences among them.
Alliance for Germany has criticized UKIP's populist, anti-immigrant tone and insists it won't team up with the British party. Parties seeking electoral respectability steer clear of far-right forces like Greece's Golden Dawn or Hungary's Jobbik. Farage has rejected an alliance with the Netherlands' anti-Muslim Freedom Party or France's far-right National Front.
Whatever the election outcome, Euroskeptic parties are having an impact. Parties that were once on the political fringe have managed to sway national politics — notably in Britain, where Prime Minister David Cameron has promised a referendum on EU membership in 2017.
For years, as the EU expanded to take in former Communist countries of eastern Europe, it seemed as if the bloc would only grow bigger and stronger. No one is taking that for granted now.
"I don't think the impact of these elections will necessarily be greatest in Brussels," Farage said. "It will be in the member states. It'll be in shifting the center of gravity of the national debate, shifting existing parties' positions on the EU question and bringing us much, much, much closer to having a big referendum — not just here but in many other countries in Europe. And I think we are nearing the time when we can realistically say that Britain will not be part of this union."
Associated Press writers Frances D'Emilio in Rome, Colleen Barry in Milan, Geir Moulson in Berlin, Karl Ritter in Stockholm and Matti Huuhtanen in Helsinki contributed to this report.
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