If You Ask Me July 2014

Veering to the Right

EU election results shake up politics

Described as a “political earthquake”, the recent election results for the European Parliament across the Continent could indeed be viewed as alarming for any number of reasons. But was the outcome really all that unexpected?

Certainly not in the UK, where Prime Minister David Cameron has persistently called for reform of the European Union, and where the demand for a referendum on the country’s very membership in the collective body is at its peak.

The problem is, even for those who generally support Cameron, there is a persistent and growing doubt that he can actually renegotiate the kind of reforms he claims will allow the UK to remain in Europe.

Obviously, to those who have decided they want out in any event, he is something of a lost cause. But where else can they turn?

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg increasingly appears to be a spent shot and a spare part; one is reminded of the small boy in a crowd at a speech by former Prime Minister Clement Atlee, asking his mother: “But, Mummy what is that man for?”

The same might almost be said about the leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband.

When taken together, these three men prompt memories of Mark Twain’s aphorism: “Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it”.

This, of course, brings us to the party leader to whom the UK voters did turn in the European elections: Nigel Farage, who heads the Eurosceptic and anti-immigration UK Independence Party (UKIP). And these voters indeed turned up in large numbers.

Almost as soon as the results began to be announced, it was clear that the UKIP—once described by Cameron as a party of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”—was set to beat both the Conservative and Labour parties when it came to seats in the European Parliament.

In the end they did just that, making it the first time since 1910 that such an election in the UK had not been won by one of the mainstream parties.

Farage—who is calling for an immediate EU referendum, as opposed to the one promised by Cameron in 2017—also argues that immigration into the UK is putting too great a strain on the country’s social welfare and is changing the very identity of the country.

Buoyed by his party’s victory in the European elections, he has boldly predicted huge gains in the country’s next general election. Just how realistic an ambition that is remains to be seen.

Nevertheless, UKIP’s rising influence has to send a strong message to the leaders of the mainstream parties, especially seen in the light of similar upsets in other European countries.

In France, Marine Le Pen—daughter of the notorious and convicted fascist Jean-Marie—led the National Front to top the polls. This is especially significant because, for so long, France has been associated with the call for more integration; indeed to many, France has come to symbolise all that is Europe.

Now, however, the new deputies who will take their seats in Strasbourg will include a significant number who would like to see the return of both border controls and the franc as a currency.

Likewise, Germany has seen calls for a return to the deutsche mark, and across the EU—in Greece, the Netherlands and Spain—a clear message has also gone out to Brussels. That message seems to be “enough is enough”.

The people want to take back control at the national level. In virtually every state of the European Union there is a sense that Brussels, and by extension, Strasbourg, have overstepped their authority. The time to claim some of it back is at hand.

In this area, it may be said that Cameron has got the pulse right. He has almost singularly opposed (or at least questioned) the suitability of Jean-Claude Juncker, the former prime minister of Luxemburg, as president of the commission, arguing that he is too much of an insider to take seriously.