Since the last European elections were held in 2009, five EU countries - Greece, Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Cyprus - have required bailouts, and unemployment across the continent has remained persistently high, particularly among young people.
The results of the European Parliament elections this year, which have seen anti-EU parties from both the left and the right gain a significant number of MEPs, are a loud and clear sign of the European electorate's disillusion with the current state of the European Union. The turnout is estimated at 43.1%, up slightly from the last elections.
From our point of view as an international peacebuilding organisation, we recognise it is important to view these elections as a symptom, rather than an outcome. A symptom that the contract between European citizens and their states has come under stress.
Up until the current financial crisis, the EU as a peacebuilding model was largely uncontested and widely seen as a success. Two years ago, the European Union was awarded the Nobel peace prize in recognition of six decades of work promoting "peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights".
But recent developments and changes have given rise to a number of complex and arguably new forms of conflict and violence, from England's riots to anti-immigrant sentiments in Greece. The threshold of violence and peace has changed and the extent to which Europe can be considered peaceful today needs to be revisited. Evidence of regional tensions is manifest in national, local and rural communities. Illustrative of these stresses is the impact of the movement of large numbers of migrant workers on some local communities where jobs are scarce and economic livelihoods threatened. This in turn has led to a more heated debate on migration.
In the lead-up to the elections, International Alert has worked with partners in Greece, the Netherlands and Italy, and identified issues that were common to all four countries, despite the different contexts in which they arose. In every country, we witnessed the steady rise of anti-immigration sentiments, with different, vulnerable communities being targeted and blamed for the country's problems.
In the Netherlands, the anti-immigration discourse is closely associated with an anti-Islam sentiment. The far-right Freedom Party (PVV), led by the controversial Geert Wilders, hasn't failed to make headlines during this election campaign. In one of his speeches, Wilders asked his supporters whether they wanted "more or fewer Moroccans in the country", prompting the Dutch Moroccan Alliance (SNM, a group representing Moroccans living in the Netherlands) to file a complaint of discrimination against the politician. In a surprise failure, the PVV fell from second place to fourth, gaining 12.2% of the vote and just three seats, compared with 17% in 2009.
In Greece, it was the rise of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party that worried our partners and observers. The party has been dubbed "the most vicious far-right party on the continent, with a third of its leadership in prison on charges of running a criminal organisation". Members have been known for attacks on migrants and left-wing activists - the murder of rapper Pavlos Fyssas marked a turning point in Greece's anti-fascist movement. The party came third with 9.4% of the vote, gaining its first three seats in the European Parliament - where however, even other far-right groups are unlikely to want to be associated with it. The anti-austerity Syriza came first with 26.6% (six seats) while the ruling conservative New Democracy party took 22.8% (five seats).
Similarly in Italy, it is the lack of a common European asylum policy that makes migrants particularly vulnerable to scapegoating by politicians intent on winning votes by pitting the marginalised against one another. This is facilitated by mainstream media's use of sensationalist language when it comes to covering immigration issues. In Italy, the debate tends to be particularly heated around immigrants to the island of Lampedusa, often described with words such as 'invasion' or 'biblical exodus'.
Another common feature of the immigration discourse is the stereotype that all migrants are 'irregular', and one important discussion that has polarised the electorate is the granting of Italian citizenship to children of migrants who are born in Italy. The country delivered a surprise result in these elections, where the centre-left Democratic Party of Matteo Renzi won a strong 40%, almost twice as many votes as the highly tipped Eurosceptic Five Star Movement.
In the UK, the immigration debate had been heating up around the lifting of restrictions for Romanians and Bulgarians to work in Britain, which came to effect last January. For months, some sections of the media had been featuring daily scare stories on these so-called A2 nationals, prompting some Romanian professionals to form a group called the Alliance Against Romanians' and Bulgarians' Discrimination.
A pipe bomb attack against Romanian families in Londonderry and other discriminatory incidents raised concerns, whilst the predicted 'invasion' failed to materialise. Freedom of movement within the EU became the most debated and controversial topic in these elections. Promising to stem the influx of migrants from poorer EU countries and pull the UK out of the European Union, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) secured its victory with 27.5% of the vote and 25 MEPs. For the first time in 100 years, a party other than Labour or the Conservatives has won a nation-wide election.
We need more conversations in communities about such issues, to act as a counter to the rhetoric and scapegoating played out on the national stage. In all four countries and beyond, there is a need to help people explore the reality of migration and its impact, often concealed behind rhetoric and inflated statistics. There is also a need to help people address tensions and concerns on all sides. However, enabling the conversations to happen takes skill and expertise. In the UK, where International Alert is based, community organisations have been experiencing cuts, which means we are losing the experts who can bring people together.
Electorates across the EU have exercised their right to express their views via the ballot box. But if tensions are not managed carefully, the biggest losers in the elections could be the society and diverse communities we live in.