There are those who say that the disintegration of the European Union would be a tragedy. I agree with them but I would remind them that in tragedy the tragic hero contributes towards his own downfall; that is what tragedy means.
Across the European Union the turnout in last month’s elections was 43%. Of that 43%, the largest party grouping- the EPP, took under 28%. Consequently we may assume that under 12% of the European electorate gave their support to EPP candidates. In the UK there is no single MEP from the EPP group. In Poland the reformist ECR candidates pushed the EPP-affiliated governing party into second place.
Nevertheless, on the EPP Facebook page the Group announced that it had “won” the elections. In a reply to a query of mine about its mandate, it replied “The EPP again came on top.” In fact the EPP came on top in only 12 countries out of the 27. It benefited too from some dubious alliances such as that with Orban’s Fidesz, which in any case notably opposes the EPP candidate for European Commission President. The EPP group spokesman went on: “The voters entrusted us with another mandate and that is the message they have sent.” EPP President Joseph Daul wrote: “The EPP Group remains the strongest political force in the European Parliament. Voters have once again put their confidence in us.”. In Daul’s France his party took only 20% of the vote, 4% behind the National Front.
The EPP bragging over such results is unhelpful. It is also dangerous for the future of Europe and one wonders whom this is intended to impress. It is certainly very poor PR and even the most basic political adviser would surely suggest: a little sign of modesty and humility might be more appropriate. But such qualities are alien to the minds of a certain generation of European bureaucrats. By now we ought to be able to speak of “leaders”, but they are not leaders in any normal sense of the word.
The stupendous arrogance of the EPP position is combined by an inability or an unwillingness to face the facts. Dissatisfaction with “Europe” combined with apathy about the elections, are matters of fact. To analyse the reasons for this and to develop strategies to restore confidence requires judgement. There are no simple answers.
However, we can refine the questions and draw attention to the real challenges. The EPP arrogance is not part of the solution; it is part of the problem. I have no special dislike for the EPP; I suspect the socialists would have taken the same view had they been in a majority and their candidate did not even manage to command the support of all their own constituent parties.
There is no single simple reason for protest. In the Mediterranean countries with economies destroyed by the recession in combination with the fixed exchange rate imposed on them by Euro-membership, there is an anti-austerity protest and a protest at destroyed jobs, homes, businesses and lives. France is unusual in that it not only suffers from the vicious circle of decline we have seen in Spain, Italy, Greece and Cyprus, but also it is still a major destination for migration both from the EU and beyond. This combination of issues may well explain why the National Front gained so much appeal. As we have seen, notwithstanding the EPP’s claim of a mandate, in France it polled behind the National Front. It is notable that the French “solution” to the vast illegal and disorganised refugee camps around Calais, is to try to destroy the camps over and over again without any plan on where the refugees should go. This issue is a perfect example of where a European strategy has to be put in place. It is an example of abject political failure and one of the reasons why immigration has become such an issue.
In the economies less damaged by recession the issue of migration has been a strong one and this has clearly been a factor for UKIP. But UKIP has also tapped into many areas of unpopularity. At this stage in UK one would expect to see a protest vote and it would normally be picked up by the Opposition or the Liberals – or the nationalists in the provinces. The Liberals of course are in coalition and therefore cannot benefit from a protest vote and Labour has blundered twice in electing the wrong candidates for leadership. The rise of Gordon Brown is seen largely by the electorate as a commentary on the judgement of Labour MPs. They put him there, they knew his weaknesses, and they take responsibility for their failure in the subsequent election. If David Miliband had led them into that election instead of Gordon Brown, then they may well have won it. Not content with appointing Brown, the Labour Party then mishandled what followed to appoint the wrong brother! UKIP is not only picking up votes from disillusioned Tories, it is also taking votes which might otherwise have gone to Labour, had the party elected a credible potential Prime Minister.
In Austria we are told there has been a similar rise in Euro-scepticism and extremism. But there was no FPÖ breakthrough; it is still behind the two major parties and what is quite different from UK, we also saw the effectiveness of the new Austrian Liberal movement in the “Neos” who came from nowhere to gain their first MEP.
Europe is not only moving Right, it is moving right, left and centre. Notice has been serviced on the political establishment – but it is not – as UKIP would have us believe – a notice to quit so much as a notice demanding improvement. By far the majority of voters voted for pro-European parties.
This is not the place to suggest what these improvements should be. It needs a clear programme of review and it needs exceptional leadership and no one could claim that any of the current candidates for the Presidency offer that “exceptional leadership”.
If Europe’s supporters can find a strategy for reform, then this election will be no more than a flash in the pan and the project will survive. But if it cannot find the will or the humility to seek reform – and the signs from EPP are not good – then future national and European elections may well see the election of stronger opponents overall. It will only take one member state successfully to extricate itself to bring the whole game of cards tumbling down. At a time when Europe faces the biggest threat to liberal democracy since the last war in a reanimated Russia, this is not the time for European nation states to go their separate ways. One can only hope that the EPP’s national and parent parties will talk sense into their European cousins. They need to be responsive to the electorate. The EPP’s messages have not been responsive; they have been voices of defiance – they appear to cry “we defy you ignorant and prejudiced voters.”
It is ironic that at a time when there is such little confidence in the European Parliament, it should try to seize for itself the power to appoint the Commission President!
Yet there have been signs of understanding. Herman Van Rompuy has said some sensible things about the need for reflection and review. Radosław Sikorski has been tipped for the Commission, a man of extraordinary intellect and sound judgement and the kind of person we really need to see in the leadership. There are voices of good sense and judgement but they will have to overcome the immense reactionary block at the centre of the European Parliament. Let us wish luck to Mr Rumpoy and Mr Sikorski – both will need it.