-OpEd-

BERLIN — Europe sees itself as the home of democracy, but do democratic values truly run to its core? If you believe the regular warnings about the danger of extreme right-wing parties, democracy is little more than a thin veneer stretched across the continent. Throughout Europe, the euro skeptics are growing in popularity.

From Italy’s Lega Nord and Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement to the Freedom Party of Austria and Greece’s Golden Dawn, right-wing parties are benefiting from fundamental dissatisfaction with traditional politicians. Their newfound popularity suggests the consensus that has reigned over the continent for many years may be starting to unravel.

It would be an exaggeration to speak of far-right parties advancing in droves across the continent. For decades, one-dimensional protest parties have achieved success in certain elections, but their popularity ebbs and flows. Rather than posing a serious political threat, they are seen as a kind of wake-up call. They let the traditional parties know that something is rotten in their own back yard.

When a National Front candidate won a recent election in the Var area in southeastern France, it had less to do with the National Front’s policies and much more to do with problems within the two main political parties. The Socialists were finding life tough in government, and the conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) had descended into disorder after former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s defeat. The National Front’s victory was one of negation. There is nothing expressly positive about it.

A European Parliament full of right-wingers

But it does seem that the far-right third parties are bubbling beneath the surface, and their eruption could have serious consequences for the politics of the European Union and its member states. This threat is suddenly concrete: The National Front could well become the strongest party in France during May’s European elections.

The same is true of activist Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy. Although Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s government is very pro-European, the Italian parliament is dominated by parties who regard the European project with distaste, if not outright hatred.

Something is brewing in Europe, and paradoxically the catalyst for this change could be the EU itself. It is quite possible that the right-wing euro skeptics will gain far more seats in the next European Parliament and form an anti-European Union alliance for the first time.

The supporters of the European Union will have no choice but to explain the institution to their citizens far more effectively and, above all, reform it so that it meets with the approval of the European people.