They may not have claimed ultimate victory, but the biggest winners of the elections in France and Greece were the parties of the extreme right.
Fringe parties, some of them routinely labelled "neo-fascist" until recently, have made stunning inroads into mainstream European politics, to the point that in France, Norway, Finland, Hungary and Austria they either hold or threaten to hold the balance of power. Governments are increasingly faced with the choice of either giving ground on hot-button issues such as immigration and Islam, or ceding power.
In Greece - its disastrous economy in the hands of European moneymen, its political establishment rotten with corruption and unemployment among the under-25s cresting 50 per cent - this general election has seen a host of extremist parties emerge.
The leader of Chrysi Avgi ("Golden Dawn"), Nikos Michaloliakos, would not have been given the time of day in most EU countries only a short while ago. An open admirer of Hitler (he has called him "a great personality of history"), Michaloliakos has adopted the Nazi salute and a version of the swastika as his party's emblem. One of his candidates in this election remarked laconically: "Most of the money is in the hands of the Jews."
At the last election Golden Dawn polled a derisory 0.29 per cent; this time they are expected to crash through the 3 per cent threshold to end up with 7 per cent and a dozen MPs in Parliament. That will still put them a long way from holding power. But in Greece, as in many other countries, the danger is not a far-right takeover but ideological contamination of the parties in power.
Last week, attempting to steal the far right's thunder, the technocratic Government of Lucas Papademos set up a camp for illegal immigrants and promises to establish dozens more.
In the Netherlands the power of the far right was demonstrated last week when Geert Wilders' Freedom Party, anti-Muslim and anti-EU, brought down the Government, wrecking a long-standing financial pact with Germany which had been one of the pillars of EU stability.
In France, when the National Front polled 17.9 per cent in the first round two weeks ago, President Nicolas Sarkozy immediately toughened his rhetoric.
Across Europe, from Britain, where UKIP averaged 14 per cent in last Friday's local elections, to Finland, where the extreme nationalist True Finns party has increased its share of the vote from 4 per cent to 19 per cent in four years, to Hungary, where the anti-Roma, anti-Semitic Jobbik party holds the balance of power, the far right is seizing the initiative provided by recession and the threat of a eurozone meltdown.
The only crumb of comfort is that so far none of these rapidly growing parties has succeeded in forging a meaningful alliance with any of the others across national borders.
Nicolas Lebourg, an authority on the far right at the University of Perpignan, was yesterday quoted as saying: "Europe is a dry prairie waiting for someone to light amatch."
But given the nationalistic obsessions of all these far-right parties - Golden Dawn says "the nation comes first, democracy after" - the EU's national borders would seem to be unbreachable firebreaks.
It's about the only consolation there is.IndependentBy Peter Popham