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Resentment is growing within the EU ranks

Europeans who see the EU as more problem than answer are surging in number and influence
Anti-EU parties are poised to make big inroads
France's anti-immigrant, anti-EU National Front party recently made its strongest showing in years

Fringe groups in Germany have a harrowing history. But the latest one, says Hugh Bronson, has the right idea.

Founded last year, the protest party Alternative for Germany has made a splash with its ominous warnings of Germany being held back by the euro, of absurd bailouts for spendthrift neighbors and of unwanted immigrants. The message of a centralized European Union run amok struck a chord with Bronson, so much so that the normally apolitical Berlin resident not only signed up as a party member but is now one of its candidates for public office.

"I've changed my mind," the 53-year-old teacher and events organizer said, calling his former attitude toward politics a "mixture of interest and disgust."

"I saw people who I finally thought were telling the truth — the unpleasant truth."

His newfound passion is an inconvenient truth for defenders of the EU, those who believe that an integrated Europe holds the key to a brighter, more secure future. Just as Europe tries to regain its economic footing after a debilitating debt crisis, and as it confronts a newly assertive Russia, people like Bronson, who see the EU as more problem than answer, are surging in number and influence in nations across the continent.

From both the political left and right, they criticize the 28-nation club, railing at the shared euro currency for weakening their economies, at immigrants for diluting their cultures, and at EU headquarters in Brussels for emasculating their national governments.

And they're poised to make big inroads at the ballot box. Polls show that populist anti-EU parties could capture up to 30% of the seats in the EU's top lawmaking body, the European Parliament, in elections this month. That would set them up to become a kind of fifth column, infiltrators working from inside the EU to cripple it, or at least give it a drastic makeover.

"The EU is in trouble," said Simon Hix, an expert on European politics and integration at the London School of Economics. "You cannot continue the project with such growing opposition."

Anti-EU sentiment has been fueled by Europe's economic downturn and its so-far anemic recovery.

Because of the euro debt crisis that began in 2009, EU leaders agreed on belt-tightening measures that have depressed demand and helped push unemployment to an all-time high. Northern European nations, including Germany and Austria, resent having to rescue southern neighbors such as Greece and Portugal, which in turn link harsh bailout terms to deepening poverty.

Many in Europe feel that the EU has primarily benefited the political, commercial and social elites who flit between London, Paris and Berlin, making deals and sipping cocktails while ordinary folks get the shaft through shrinking wages and widespread layoffs.

Countries that just a few years ago boasted strong majorities in favor of the EU, such as Spain, now face the opposite phenomenon: rising distrust and disenchantment.

"There's a deep crisis of confidence of people toward their democratic institutions, at the national level and the supra-national level," said Nathalie Brack, a researcher with the Brussels-based Wiener-Anspach Foundation.

"It's an anti-establishment vote, that's for sure," she said of the burgeoning support for so-called Euroskeptic groups.

Though mainstream parties are likely to keep control of the 751-member European Parliament, Euroskeptics could present obstacles on significant issues, such as the free-trade pact under negotiation between the EU and the U.S. Left-wing anti-capitalists and right-wing protectionists both oppose the deal.

Several far-right parties that are expected to make gains at the polls also want to use the European Parliament as a bully pulpit against immigration policies they blame for letting in too many Muslims from the Middle East and North Africa and too many they say are welfare spongers from poorer EU nations, such as Romania.

In France, the anti-immigrant, anti-EU National Front made its strongest showing in years in recent municipal elections. The party's leader, Marine Le Pen, hopes to ride that wave to a first-place finish in the European Parliament elections.

Last year, Le Pen agreed to an alliance in the European Parliament with another fiery anti-Islam politician, Geert Wilders of the Netherlands, who has called for the mass deportation of Muslims from Europe and says he wants to free his country from the control of the "monster of Brussels."

Le Pen and Wilders have refused to join forces in the European Parliament with Greece's Golden Dawn and Hungary's Jobbik parties, groups seen by many as neo-fascist. Still other Euroskeptic parties have shunned Le Pen and Wilders as too far to the right for their taste, including Alternative for Germany and Britain's UK Independence Party, or UKIP.

Such divisions suggest that even if Euroskeptic parties perform well at the ballot box this month, they won't necessarily find it easy to make common cause in the Parliament.

For example, Bronson, the candidate from Alternative for Germany, wants to pare down the EU's powers but thinks Germany should remain a member, while UKIP wants Britain to pull out altogether.

"It would be foolish for us to leave," Bronson said over coffee in a Berlin cafe. "If there's anything we learned from our very bloody history, [it's that] we have to talk with our neighbors, we have to trade, we have to travel."

But as for the EU's growing bureaucracy, he said, "we just want to slim it down … to make it more transparent, to bring it closer to people."

Despite coming into existence only a few months before national elections last September, Alternative for Germany nearly crossed the 5% vote threshold required to land a seat in the Bundestag. There is no such minimum threshold in Germany for entering the European Parliament, which means that the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party could also win a place.

UKIP is hoping to improve on the nine seats it already holds in the European Parliament. Some polls show that it could win the most seats out of Britain's 73 slots in the legislative body, beating out the two big mainstream parties, the Conservatives and Labor.

UKIP co-founder Gerard Batten has been a member of the European Parliament since 2004, though he does not recognize its legitimacy to make laws applicable to Britain. His sole mission in the chamber — and his use of British taxpayer funds to sit in it — is "to undermine Britain's membership of the European Union."

"It's an odd sensation, because you go there and you're watching your country being salami-sliced and your democracy and your national independence destroyed bit by bit by bit," said Batten, who either abstains or votes no on every single piece of legislation that comes before the Parliament.

He's certain that increasing disillusionment with the EU isn't just a blip that will fade once national economies pick back up.

"As the European Union gets more power and impinges on people's lives to their detriment, you're going to see dissatisfaction growing," Batten said. "The whole tenor of the Parliament is going to change ... because you're going to see more and more people elected who don't think the solution is more EU power."

henry.chu@latimes.com

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