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European Elections 2019

The best way of describing what just happened in the European Union elections is to say that the choices are getting clearer – and a lot of people are realising which side they are on.

The elections to the EU Parliament held last week in 28 European countries – including the United Kingdom, since three years after the Brexit referendum it still hasn’t managed to leave– was the second-biggest democratic exercise in the world. Only India’s elections are bigger. 400 million Europeans were eligible to vote, and half of them actually did.

The choice before them, in most member countries, was ‘less EU’ or ‘more EU’. Should the European Union become the semi-detached ‘Europe of the Fatherlands’ that the nationalists and the populists demand, or continue to work on creating joint institutions (like the euro common currency) that bring the members closer together?

There will never be a single answer to that question, but the two sides are sorting themselves out and you can now get a feel for the way things are going.

The hard-line nationalists took 30% of the vote in Italy (the Lega), 32% in the UK (the Brexit Party), 45% in Poland (the Law and Justice Party), and 52% of the votes in Viktor Orban’s ‘illiberal democracy’ in Hungary. Yet, apart from the Brexit Party, they are no longer trying to leave the EU.

Populist demagogues in other EU countries – who five years ago were advocating a ‘Frexit’ in France, a ‘Nexit’ in the Netherlands, and so on – have watched the tragicomic mega-shambles of Britain’s attempted Brexit and decided that the wiser course is to stay in the EU and try to dominate it from within.

They made some headway in this election, but they still control only 112 of the European Parliament’s 750 seats. It’s not even certain that they can all come together as a single bloc: France’s National Rally, for example, is seen by some other far-right parties in the EU as too pro-Russian and encumbered by a history of anti-Semitism. If this is a tidal wave, it’s a fairly small one.

There was another, slightly bigger tsunami on the ‘more EU’ side of the argument, mainly because the Greens did so well, coming second in Germany and third in France. Strongly pro-EU liberal parties did well too – notably the Liberal Democrats in the UK, who came second there – and together they have added more seats on that side of the argument than the nationalists did on the other extreme.

The real value of this election is that it offers a reality check on the burning question of the day: is Trumpism really going to sweep Europe like it swept America? The answer is no – or at least, not so much.
Nationalist parties that strike authoritarian postures and flirt with racist, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim themes did well in some eastern European countries (although they have few immigrants and almost no Muslims). But in western Europe only one populist party, Italy’s Lega, improved on its last showing.

In France the National Rally got only 24% of the vote, whereas its predecessor, the National Front, won 34 % in the 2017 presidential election.

The Brexit Party in the United Kingdom got 32% of the vote, which sounds impressive, since its predecessor, the United Kingdom Independence Party, got only 26 % in the last EU election in 2014. But if you add the Conservative vote (which is mostly pro-Brexit) to the Brexit Party vote in this election and compare it with the UKIP+Conservative votes last time, the pro-Brexit share of the vote is down from 49% in 2014 to 41% now.

This suggests that the Trump virus is less virulent in Europe, and raises the further question: will the UK really crash out of the EU by October 31 (the current deadline), or will there be a second referendum that calls off the whole quixotic enterprise? It’s starting to feel like Brexit never happening is around a 50-50 proposition.

One symptom of the fear the Brexiters now feel is their increasingly shrill insistence that there must be no new referendum. Never mind that Nigel Farage, founder of both UKIP and the Brexit Party, talked about a second referendum when it looked like ‘Remain’ was going to score a narrow win early on the evening of the first referendum in 2016. (It ended up 52% Leave, 48% Remain.)

Never mind, either, that the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has just announced that she will publish draft legislation on a second referendum on Scottish independence from the UK later this week. (The first one, in 2014, rejected independence by 55%-45%.) Nobody complained about that.

The Brexit referendum is sacred, Brexiters say, and nobody is allowed to change their mind about it. However, the EU election was treated by almost all British voters as an informal referendum on Brexit, and it’s now pretty clear what would happen in a real one. It’s going to be a very hectic five months in British politics.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 14 and 15. (“One…that”)

Merkel’s Counter-Strike

“What we have today is a story based on speculation about what (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel might have said about something (British Prime Minster) David Cameron might say in the future,” said David Davis, a prominent Conservative member of parliament, in London on Sunday. So no big deal, then?

It’s a very big deal: Merkel is pulling the rug out from under Cameron. For all his tough talk about renegotiating the terms of Britain’s membership in the European Union, she is saying, he has no cards in his hand.

At the EU summit on 25 October, Cameron said that changing the existing rules that guarantee freedom of movement for workers within the EU would be “at the very heart of my renegotiation strategy for Europe.” No, said Angela Merkel, it won’t work: “We have the basic principle of free movement. We won’t meddle with that.”

In other words, if Cameron doesn’t like the membership rules, tough. He can hold a referendum if he wants, and leave the EU if he wins. But there’s no way he can get the other 27 members to change the basic rules of the organisation just to solve his little political problem at home.

In fact, Merkel will even try to ensure that Cameron loses next year’s British election so that there is no referendum on Britain’s EU membership. Being an experienced politician, however, Merkel delivered that part of her message in a deniable way.

It was officials from Merkel’s own office and the German foreign ministry who briefed the newsmagazine Der Spiegel on her plans in that regard. They were not to be quoted by name – and it was left to the rest of us to figure out what her words would do to Cameron’s re-election chances.

Cameron has recently been talking about imposing “quotas” on low-skilled people from other EU countries moving to Britain, in a desperate attempt to get around the EU rules. “Should Cameron persist (in this quota plan), Chancellor Angela Merkel would abandon her efforts to keep Britain in the EU,” Merkel’s officials told Der Spiegel. “With that a point of no return would be reached.” Shape up or ship out.

Merkel has launched a counter-strike that may well bring Cameron down. By making it crystal clear that his “renegotiation” strategy cannot work, she is effectively telling British voters that if they re-elect Cameron’s Conservatives in  the election that is due next May, they will be voting to leave the EU. The election itself becomes a referendum on EU membership – a referendum which she obviously thinks Cameron will lose.

She is probably right. For all the fulmination in the British right-wing press about the country being overrun by immigrants from poorer EU countries, public support for EU membership in Britain is higher than it has been since 1991. It is still only a modest 56 percent, but that is a lot higher than the 44 percent support that the same Ipsos MORI polling organisation found only two years ago.

The truth is that only 13 percent of Britain’s population is “foreign-born”, exactly the same as the immigrant share in the population of the United States or Germany. The immigrants are not taking British jobs: the UK has one of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe. The problem is perceptions – and particularly the perceptions of those who normally vote Conservative.

The right-wing media in Britain, as in most countries, pander to the nationalism and the fear of foreigners that is rampant among the older and the poorer sections of the population. Too many foreigners coming in, living off our taxes and stealing our jobs is a simple (though rarely an accurate) explanation for why this section of the population feels marginalised, so this narrative works well with them.

Britain is pulling in more EU workers than usual because its economy is doing relatively better than Germany, France, Spain, etc. The numbers are not overwhelming, but under EU rules Britain has no right to bar them, so anti-EU nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment have grown into a stronger force than usual – but only on the right.

This would normally be to the advantage of the Conservative Party, whose own right-wing “backwoodsmen” share these views. In normal times, when the grown-ups are in charge, the party harvests these votes each election while never intending to do anything so foolish economically as to actually quit the EU.

Cameron belongs to the grown-up majority in the Conservative Party, and is not personally anti-EU. But the emergence and explosive growth of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), specifically tailored to appeal to the anti-immigrant-and-EU vote, has panicked the right wing of the Conservative Party.

Cameron has had to move further and further right to placate them and compete with UKIP, so he can no longer afford to be sensible about the EU. Merkel has understood this, and has effectively written him off even though she is a conservative herself. Her strategy now is to force Cameron into an openly anti-EU stance, split the right-wing vote in Britain evenly between the Conservatives and UKIP, and open the way for Labour to win the election.

Because that’s the only way she can see to keep Britain in the European Union.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10, 11 and 13. (“The truth…everywhere”; and “This would…EU”)