WASHINGTON—The European parliamentary elections have dealt a devastating blow to the left. Even if many of the victorious right-wing parties have been responding like socialists to the economic recession, the election results express mistrust in the ability of Europe’s true socialists to address the so-called failures of free enterprise.

In those countries where socialist parties are in power—such as Spain, Portugal, Austria, Britain or Hungary—they were resoundingly defeated. In conservative-controlled countries such as France, Italy, Germany, Poland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland or the Flemish part of Belgium, the socialists also took a severe beating. Only in two countries, Slovakia and Greece, did the left beat the right—in the case of Greece because of an ethical scandal. The right-wing parties will control roughly 40 percent of the European Parliament against the socialists’ 22 percent.

The right’s triumph is primarily explained by the insecurity that Europeans feel in the face of the economic meltdown. The people’s response has not been to seek protection against the “fall of capitalism” and the “collapse of the American model” in socialism, as one would have expected in Europe, but to seek reassurance among those parties perceived, rightly or wrongly, as safe stewards and guarantors of the free-market system.

Even before the crisis, the European Union was registering the slowest rate of economic growth in the developed world. Now a catastrophe is taking place: The mighty German economy will shrink by more than 6 percent this year, and Spain, one of the success stories of the modern era, is nearing 20 percent unemployment. Not to speak of central and eastern Europe, where extremism has been on the rise since the first manifestations of the crisis. Exacerbating an already bleak socioeconomic environment, the brutal recession has instilled more fear among Europeans than at any time since the worst days of the Cold War.

Despite their faults and excesses, Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi are perceived as better managers of the free enterprise system than their foes. The electorate is much more fearful of left-leaning leaders and their parties who seem to be questioning the free-market model and pushing for a substitute.

That this should be the attitude of Europeans at a time when their governments are applying fiscal and monetary stimulus remedies to the moribund economy would appear contradictory. After all, the Europe in which the state has committed $2.5 trillion to bank rescues, about three times the package approved by the U.S. Congress last year, is one in which right-wing governments already outnumber those of the left. But Europeans seem to be saying: If we are going to have socialism, we would rather have it applied by leaders who don’t have much faith in it and deep down are not aiming to reverse the system.

Particularly noteworthy is the result in Germany, where the free-market liberals, known by the initials FDP, won 11 percent of the vote, almost doubling their performance in 2004. Their advance means that after the general election scheduled for September, the current coalition between the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats will likely be replaced by a new coalition between the Christian Democrats and the FDP.

The implications could be momentous. Partly because of the pressure from the Social Democrats and partly because her own party (and its Bavarian Social Christian cousin) has a legacy of statism, Chancellor Angela Merkel has had to make concessions to government interventionism. The authorities have incurred much new debt and come to the rescue of companies such as Opel, Arcandor, and Schaeffler. With the FDP in a government coalition, Germany could begin to lead the developed world away from the interventionist mania gripping its leaders.

One should not pass over the other important headline of the hour—the gains made by extremist, xenophobic parties in the Netherlands, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Finland and, to a lesser extent, Britain, where the British National Party obtained a seat.

Herein lies a major challenge for the victorious right-wing parties. They are the ones in a position to marginalize the right-wing extremists. The danger is that the democratic right will absorb part of the extremist agenda, thereby legitimizing it. Should it be tempted to do so, it would render Europe a grave disservice and resuscitate the catatonic socialists.