What the EU Elections Tell Us
A moment of discomfort, perhaps. Right-wing parties trumpeting, fuming, fulminating their way into an institution they don’t particularly like – the virus coming in and taking hold of the frail, and at times oblivious body. This is more than a suggestion that the status quo is rotten, that parliaments aren’t working and the European Union is crumbling. Make of that what you will.
The reality remains that the various parties of the right in Europe have done rather well for themselves in the EU elections. Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party was thrilled with the 27.5 per cent vote for his party, the first time in over 100 years a party other than the Tories or Labour have won a nation-wide poll. Farage hopes to leapfrog with this result into the UK elections when the time comes, placing Britain’s relations with the EU on the chopping block.
France, Austria and Denmark have seen a showing by various parties who have managed to gain 25 per cent of the vote. Other established parties – such as the Liberal Democrats in the UK – have suffered an electoral erasure, though the results are by no means obvious. British Labour, for instance, recorded the highest number of votes in the election in 20 years, a notably underreported result. The ultra-nationalist BNP Party lost 5.1 per cent of the vote, and their MEP, leader Nick Griffin. (Griffin’s feeling was that UKIP has stolen his racist thunder.)
The Tories, left reeling in the wake of the results, felt the need to surf the euro-sceptic wave. Prime Minister David Cameron came out after the elections calling Brussels “too big, too bossy, too interfering.” The term “Europe” should only be used where necessary.
There has been much in the way of disturbing the status quo in Brussels. But the question here is how far this goes. Is it, as Walter Benjamin said of fascism, a case of expression, and therefore aesthetics in politics? Or will it result in something more concrete, a structural re-ordering of Europe’s policies in such areas as immigration and economic reform? After all, much of this indignation would be absent if the EU bloc was rolling in cash more than debt.
While categorisation remains the misguided prerogative of the political scientist, the parties are certainly not the same. Farage swills beer, speaks to a particular brand of British voter, and is only gaining votes because of a peculiar distortion between British domestic politics and its association with Brussels. The great paradox for Farage is that he may only be able to do well in an anti-European setting. Remove Europe, and he ceases to be relevant.
The other parties, such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National, or Italy’s Northern League, are more complex, showing strong domestic performances and a determined stance to reform, not so much Europe as their own countries. Beating Europe is one way of promoting other issues. Indeed, Le Pen can’t be entirely discounted for the next election of the French Presidency. While such groups, along with UKIP, are grouped under the “Europe of Freedom and Democracy” banner, their association is more likely to be a fractious one in due course. It is unlikely, for instance, that Greece’s left Syriza party will have much in common with Le Pen.
The outgoing President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, was not as negative as the pundits. The pro-EU side had, in fact, come through in the end. Indeed, Barroso suggested that the “political forces that led and supported the essential steps in the Union’s joint crisis response, notably the political forces represented in the European Commission, have overall won once again.” While Barroso is putting on a brave face, he risks getting some egg on it if no account is taken of the forces of the right, and the overall thrust of it.
The Socialists and Democrat bloc in the European Parliament, typified by Martin Schultz, has offered an alternative to the austerity medicine offered by Barroso and company, insisting that a pan-European wage is appropriate, along with policies to fight youth unemployment.
One of the main contenders as Barroso’s replacement is former prime minister of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Juncker, whose European People’s Party won 212 of 751 seats. It always goes without saying that the German favourite is bound to be disliked by other powers. Farage has termed Juncker “fanatical about building the United States of Europe”. Sweden and Britain have come out against him, while the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, is certain that Juncker will “definitely not” get the job. Things are already off to a merry start.
Far from the European idea being dead, it has merely been given a jolt. The response from Brussels will prove vital, lest the project unravels from within. The European experiment has been moving away from transparency into increasingly opaque forms of governance. The populists have capitalised. Bad bureaucrats have become the excuse for poor race relations and local decline. Everyone needs their excuse for bad behaviour, and the EU’s institutions should stop providing the basis of one.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org