Despite sceptics, European unity is very much alive
Apart from filling vacancies that make them necessary, by-elections allow electors to use their vote as a progress report card on the performance of their representatives. They can register a strong protest against establishment politicians without changing a government. In that sense the European Union polls at the weekend were the biggest by-elections on earth. The European Parliament lacks power and Europeans generally do not take it too seriously, as evidenced by campaign apathy and a low voter turnout. But the continental parliamentary seat of Brussels is a convenient scapegoat for post-financial-crisis anger over austerity, unemployment and immigration. So the elections were a safe opportunity to send a strong warning message to mainstream politicians at home before they face a more decisive judgment at the ballot box.
Voters took full advantage. In what has been described as a political earthquake, populist anti-establishment parties of the far right and hard left, led by France's right-wing National Front and Britain's anti-European UK Independence Party, more than doubled their representation across the continent. While the centre-right and centre-left will continue to control more than half of the 751 seats in the 28-nation EU legislature, they face unprecedented opposition.
This has understandably prompted Eurosceptics to demand a rethink of the European model. But it should not be forgotten that discontent is driven by economic woes which have, temporarily, obscured the benefits of economic integration.
It has also prompted responses in praise of the European concept, which has resulted in 30-odd nations living in harmony amid political diversity and cross-border interaction, with a high quality of life as evidenced by several global indices, including life expectancy, per capita income, income equality, and corruption perception. European unity is far from a failed concept. But believers would be foolish not to be mindful of the sceptics, and the danger of Brussels seeming too remote from the day-to-day concerns of its multinational electorate.