The hustings are over and the results are in! Across the European Union, millions of citizens have cast their votes in the widely-anticipated elections of 2014. There will be some new faces in the European parliament, new voices and a lot of uncomfortable truths to be considered. For this particular election has been characterised by the rise of radicals and Eurosceptics, of disillusionment and frustration with the Establishment. We have experienced what French prime minister Manuel Valls quite rightly termed a ‘political earthquake’.
In France, Marine le Pen’s Front National came top with 24 seats (25% of the vote), beating the centre-right UMP (21%). In Denmark, Morten Messerschmidt’s Danish People’s Party scored a victory with 27% of the vote. In Greece, the far-right Golden Dawn party scored 9% and will return MEPs to Brussels for the first time, while left-wing Syriza did very well with 26%. Hans Christian Strache’s Freedom Party came in third with 20% of Austrian votes, while Hungary’s Jobbik party also did well. In Britain, the UK Independence Party, just as leader Nigel Farage predicted, cruised into first place with 27%, beating Labour (25%) and the Conservatives (24%). In Italy, however, the centrists prevailed with Mario Renzi’s democratic party receiving 40.8% of the votes. Germany also remains strongly pro-EU (unsurprisingly).
Over all, the Eurosceptics in Brussels remain a minority and, as you can see, their political leanings vary a great deal. The anti-EU element in Britain is generally right-wing, while the Front National and DPP espouse many ideas in their manifestos which one might consider socialist. Consequently, it seems unlikely that these disparate groups could ever form a single bloc over anything other than a collective desire to undermine the centrist policymakers. Moreover, there are different brands of Euroscepticism among them, from a desire for constitutional and systemic change (DPP) to outright abandonment of the whole project (UKIP, FN). The radical groups that have surged in popularity in recent times are a motley crew, it is true, but the Establishment has good reason to fear them.
Why are they enjoying so much support now? Support for radical groups, whether right or left-wing, during times of economic hardship is nothing new. Europe has witnessed its longest recession in history. While some nations (particularly Germany) suffered only slightly and recovered quickly, others in the EU are still feeling the effects of the 2007 credit crunch. The crisis exposed glaring inadequacies in a number of economies, particularly Greece, which has had to endure eye-watering cuts to expenditure and a significant decline in quality of life. Unemployment in Southern Europe, particularly youth unemployment, remains high. Although growth has returned to the North at long last, few people here are better off as a result. The UK, for example, is forecast by the IMF to see 2.9% growth this year (the fastest among the G7) but the average man in the street is worse off, thanks to rising living costs and virtually no increase in wages – once the salaries of the highest earners have been factored out, of course. The implementation of austerity measures across Europe (except Germany, which had already been through it in the 2000’s), while necessary, have had a devastating impact on jobs, services and living standards.
Just when the pain was beginning to subside, trouble erupted in the East. The Russian annexation of Crimea and eastern Ukraine was in part a reaction to the pro-European stance of the new government in Kiev which had ousted Viktor Yanukovych. Vladimir Putin, an insecure man at the best of times, was not going to stand for a pro-Western power right on his doorstep, so he flexed his muscles and sent in the tanks. The result is that we now have a nation split in two. Where was the EU amid this chaos? Had Brussels not been keen to add another member to the family not so long ago? The member states could not agree on how to deal with the Russian bear, so in the end, nothing was done save a few mild sanctions on a handful of Putin’s lackeys. It was Angela Merkel, the real power in Europe, who decided against any meaningful action, and she was not prepared to gamble on her country’s future, given that Germany receives 38% of her gas, 35% of her oil and 25% of her coal from the Russian Federation. The result of this dithering was a Ukraine left out in the cold and at the mercy of Russian aggression, while the European Union appeared very weak indeed.
The economic crisis of recent times highlighted the extent of mismanagement in the Union. The ‘one-size-fits-all’ aspect of currency union, with vastly different fiscal structures tied to a central, inflexible, bank, has exacerbated the economic woes of the Eurozone, as reflected in high unemployment of Mediterranean countries. The stringent austerity measures imposed on bailout nations left in their wake a very disgruntled electorate who felt that they were being punished for the follies of others and left out of the decision-making process. The ECB may be multinational in nature but it is far from multilateral in its policies.
Europe is facing some serious issues at the moment but the EU legislators have been painfully slow to react and adapt. When the European Parliament does nothing to trim down it gargantuan budget while those on low incomes buckle under the strain of higher living costs and reduced services, it is hardly surprising that there is so much resentment directed towards the EU as an institution, or at least to the status quo. If the politicians in Brussels are not prepared to be more efficient and creative with their finances, why should anyone else? Increasing numbers of the electorate feel disenfranchised and ignored by those who claim to represent their interests. The Eurosceptic lobby has seized upon this discontent and enjoyed a surge in popularity. They give voice to these concerns and offer enticing solutions (whether they can implement them is another matter). I hasten to add that voter turnouts for European elections have been low for many years; this time around, 43.1% of the European electorate cast their vote. That leaves a large number of people who did not consider the elections worth their time. Many of those were simply lazy but it is safe to assume that many of these people did not feel that any of the parties, whether traditional or radical, represented their interests.
Here in Britain, 2014 has become the year of UKIP. Their leader, Nigel Farage, is seldom out of the limelight, a pint of IPA in hand and a throng of supporters in tow. This is the man who, along with SNP leader Alex Salmond, has come to dominate British politics in recent years. Although the two men differ greatly in political leaning, they are two sides of the same coin. They are both canny politicians, they are gifted orators, they bang the nationalist drum, they are viewed by many as the underdog and neither has a lot of time for the small print. Farage has run rings around the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. I’ve noticed people speak of him, through overheard conversations and internet forum discussions, in such reverential terms as they would never do for any other British MP, alive or dead. Many ordinary citizens see him as a deliverer, a man of the people, a plucky patriot taking on the heartless Goliaths in Brussels and Westminster. In a recent BBC debate about Europe, Farage wiped the floor with sparring partner Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister. With his verbal dexterity, grandstanding and almost pantomime gestures, this is a man that no politician can afford to ignore. He and his party have their fair share of detractors, however. Accusations of racism, homophobia and misogyny are hurled their way on an almost daily basis. More than a few UKIP councillors have been suspended or sacked over one gaffe or another. The left-leaning metropolitan élite have leapt upon these incidents with relish, denouncing the Ukippers as extremists or even Nazi sympathisers. Has this dented their appeal in any shape or form? Consider this: not only will UKIP return twenty-four MEPs, but they also secured 161 seats in the local elections last Thursday, coming second only to Labour. True, they have no overall control of any borough, but they have established themselves on councils up and down the country, much as the Liberal Democrats had done in years past. Are they truly a party of the far right, as the Islington set would have us believe? Well, while they have poached a great deal of support from the Conservatives, they have also made inroads into traditional Labour heartlands in the North of England. They have established a foothold in Scotland, much to the astonishment and horror of the SNP, winning 10.4% of the vote there and returning a Scottish MEP to Brussels. Large sections of the Media, not least among them the BBC, have tried to undermine and discredit UKIP time after time in the run-up to the elections. The Coalition and Labour have also attempted to present Farage and his party as racist Neanderthals. Their jibes and smear campaigns left me truly disgusted. Here was their opportunity to illuminate the benefits of staying within the EU, but instead the mainstream parties resorted to ad hominem attacks, using political correctness as a weapon. The tactic backfired, for it only reinforced the belief in the mindset of many ordinary voters, particularly the white working class, that most politicians are out of touch with the folk who pay their wages.
Nigel Farage has been grinning like the Cheshire Cat all weekend, even – rather hubristically – thanking a defeated Nick Clegg for giving him the chance to have a televised referendum debate (and in doing so, humiliate the Liberal Democrats). UKIP has made giant strides but can their success last? Much of that depends on the details of UKIP policy. So far, they have focused on immigration and Europe, but soon they will have to set out a clear strategy on a wide range of issues, such as fiscal administration, healthcare, education and energy. They will have to come up with a credible manifesto if they want to have a serious impact in the much greater challenge that is the UK General Election in May 2015. They have their work cut out but David Cameron and Ed Miliband are faced with an even more arduous task. Faced with a new, fourth, party on the political scene and a disgruntled electorate, they must now convince voters that there is a better alternative. That the European Union is in desperate need of reform is no longer in doubt. This political earthquake has roused the traditional parties in the EU from their hebetude and all national governments here must now consider very carefully how to deal with the changing times, to look at the root causes of the discontent. I sincerely hope that those with less to lose from these protest votes, such as Angela Merkel and Herman van Rompuy, also take the issue seriously. In the United Kingdom, meanwhile, the case for Europe must be made more intelligently and without resorting to playing the race card or dismissing UKIP supporters as crackpots. I am gravely concerned we are going through a polarisation effect in politics in which debates become mud-slinging contests between the Alf Garnetts on one side and the Lefty Vegan Feminists on the other. Many of us are more complex than that, so where do we fit in?