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Goldmark: Europe endures the stresses of democracy

German Chancellor Angela Merkel stands behind a window

German Chancellor Angela Merkel stands behind a window with the reflection of a European flag as she waits for the arrival of Georgia's Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili for talks at the chancellery in Berlin, Monday, June 2, 2014. Credit: AP

Europe is America's principal partner in the world -- politically, economically, and in terms of democratic values.

And the results of the European parliamentary elections last month suggest that our biggest partner may be going through a rough patch.

Europe is mired in a prolonged economic slowdown, with unemployment remaining above 10 percent. Anemic growth is exacerbated by the absence of a region-wide stimulus program.

Simultaneously, there has been a visible increase in both legal migration from new European Union member states such as Romania and illegal migration from a dozen countries in northern and central Africa. For struggling European working-class families, the immigrants have become targets of resentment.

There is also widespread disillusionment with the performance of the European Union government itself. A senior German editor warned me last year that there was a growing anti-EU groundswell from younger Germans.

The backlash against the EU is driven by two partially contradictory themes: criticism that the EU is not doing enough on big issues, such as the economy, and resistance to suffocating micromanagement emanating from Brussels (the seat of the EU government). The French had a field day last year ridiculing the EU after it issued a regulation telling restaurants how to serve olive oil. And the right-wing National Front party that came in first in the recent French elections for the European Parliament -- the party's first national win -- proposes withdrawing from the euro and returning to a national currency.

Sharply increased protest votes in favor of extremist parties in the European elections are not surprising. The votes are followed economic stagnation, increased immigration of people of color, faiths or languages different from those of the majority population, and exasperation with their regional government.

In many cases what these once-fringe parties say gives amplified expression to some of the worst prejudices and most dangerous resentments that smolder in any electorate. For instance:

The National Democratic Party of Germany said it would stop immigration because Europe is "a continent of white people."

The leader of the Netherlands Party for Freedom (which did not do well in the recent election) said: "I don't hate Muslims. I hate Islam."

The spokesman for the right-wing Golden Dawn party in Greece wears a swastika tattoo, and the party pledges to "rid this land of filth."

In Hungary the deputy parliamentary leader of the right-wing Jobbik party said, "People of Jewish ancestry who live here . . . pose a national security risk."

Some will dismiss the statements as nothing more than bizarre local European politics to be caricatured in a Woody Allen movie. But it's infinitely more serious than that: If not countered with coherent programs for growth nationally and regionally, these currents may threaten to unravel the fragile European unity and democracy.

There are two other arenas worth noting where many of the same currents are at play.

In Ukraine, which also held a national election last month, economic frustration, political corruption, and language and ethnic differences inflamed partly by Russia have produced violence and chaos.

The other case is a democracy with more than twice as many voters as Europe and whose population embraces, sometimes uneasily, a variety of religions and more than 800 different languages. Despite some gloomy predictions, the elections in India last month went smoothly and the victory by the Bharatiya Janata Party and new Prime Minister Narendra Modi was interpreted as a popular call for reform and economic progress.

Life in the world's democracies is never simple.

Peter Goldmark, a former budget director of New York State and former publisher of the International Herald Tribune, headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.