Populist politics has had its day in the sun, but the German bloc continues to control EU economy, writes George Kerevan
The people have spoken – the bastards. But who actually won the European elections? If you watched the BBC, the answer was Ukip. But the reality is very different. A closer look at the actual electoral maths shows the centre-right (ie the German bloc) has won out over the centre-left. Angela Merkel’s victory is the real political result of these European elections.
Not only has she seen off the opposition at home, with 35 per cent of the domestic vote. Her support also allowed the mainstream Italian centre-left Democratic Party of Matteo Renzi to defeat the nutcases of comic Beppe Grillo’s 5-Star Movement, bringing a semblance of sanity to Italy. I’m not a fan of Italian austerity, but at least with Renzi the lunatics are not in charge of the asylum. We can now expect Merkel, not Nigel Farage, to put her political stamp on Europe.
That’s not to say Ukip’s topping of the poll in England is not something to worry about. But first and foremost, Ukip’s victory is not a British phenomenon. It is a distinctly pan-European one. Roughly a quarter of voters in many European Union countries used these elections to register profound disenchantment with immigration, remorseless social change, economic uncertainty and the entire political class. Whatever Farage claims, there is not so much as a cigarette paper between Ukip and the Front National in France in terms of its typical voter.
However, once the sound and media fury dies down, the reality is that the populist, anti-European right is in a distinct minority – one vastly exaggerated by the small turnout. The mainstream Christian Democrat, Socialist and Liberal groups in the European Parliament have won 57 per cent of the popular vote and a massive 467 of the 751 seats. Add in the (sensible) Greens and the Tory group – who, let me remind you, favour EU membership – and you have 89 per cent of the new European Parliament. That’s not to say the populists won’t have an indirect impact in Europe. But it could take the form of forcing the mainstream centre-right and the socialists to co-operate – perhaps even to form a grand coalition in order to set the membership of the new European Commission.
As a quid pro quo, some socialists want Merkel’s candidate for EC president, Jean-Claude Juncker, to stand down in favour of someone more acceptable to the left. The two names in the frame are both French: IMF boss Christine Lagarde and Pascal Lamy, former head of the World Trade Organisation.
What then for the ragbag of populist, racist and downright fascist parties now trooping to the European Parliament to collect their fat pay cheques? These mini Mussolinis are unlikely to co-operate in any practical manner.
Most likely, they will fail to organise a united parliamentary group. In which case, they lose out on the extra cash, technical support and official debating time given to formal parliamentary groups. Which means they will be unable to impose any direction on the commission, or threaten German hegemony over economic policy. At best, the anti-EU tide has nuisance value. Expect these new “Europeans” to spend their time plotting at home, which is their real concern.
If this comes to pass, Angela Merkel not only remains in charge of Europe, but with increased power. This is hardly good news. Much of Europe’s problems stem from Germany’s attempt to protect its own economic security by imposing austerity on southern Europe – till the pips squeak. Lately, Merkel’s ambivalent attitude to Vladimir Putin – also born of German economic self-interest – has added to Europe’s woes.
Nevertheless, anyone who finds comfort in the dangerous populism, reaction and racism (low-key or overt) that has boiled over in these European elections is playing with matches. The most dangerous development in the rise of Ukip is the inroads being driven into traditional Labour support. Ed Miliband fought the European elections by trying to ignore Ukip, Europe and Ukip’s low-key racism. This was an ominous portent because it suggests that Miliband was frightened of confronting working-class racism head on.
Meanwhile, the one thing the new European populist right-wing will comprehensively fail to do is curb Angela Merkel’s austerity policies and their disastrous impact on Europe.
Economic growth stalled across the eurozone in the first quarter: output contracted by 1.4 per cent in the Netherlands, 0.7 per cent in Portugal and 0.1 per cent in Italy. Only the German economy is booming – surprise, surprise.
True, the populists do agree on scrapping the euro, which would let Europe escape the perils of deflation and mass unemployment. But they offset this by being economic protectionists, covert or overt. Ukip claims a respect for free trade, but Farage has been moving rapidly away from the party’s earlier “libertarian” phase, the better to tempt working-class voters from Labour.
Recent polling evidence shows Ukip supporters favour higher public spending and nationalisation of the energy companies. The French Front National has tacked to the left as well. Whatever you do, don’t mention National Socialism.
Is there a safe passage between Merkel’s ruthless austerity and the populist backlash it is provoking? Till the mid-1990s the EU had a project for a “Europe of the Regions” through which greater autonomy and co-operation at the level of small nations would counter-balance power in Brussels.
This sensible model was subverted by the big member states over the past 20 years. The time has now come to reboot the notion of a Europe of the Regions, as an alternative to Berlin’s fixation with austerity and to Nigel Farage’s glib populism.
The European elections brought democratic creativity as well as populist ranting, especially in the smaller countries. There was the success of Austria’s liberals and Green party, the victory of D66 in the Netherlands, and of the environmental and women’s parties in Sweden. In Scotland, despite Ukip winning a seat, populism was in a distinct minority. Perhaps though despite our very diversity, we can also secure a common European home.