Bill Jamieson: Referendum day marks a beginning

THE vote on 23 June will not end a debate that is only going to gather pace, argues Bill Jamieson

Eurosceptics like Nigel Farage were once seen as fringe players  now they are mainstream across Europe. Picture: Getty

Can’t wait for 24 June and the EU referendum battle to be over? Join the masses bored to tears with it all – the dodgy statistics, the apocalyptic warnings and the slogan-swapping.

Is there any shroud left to wave? Any scary siren not sounded at full volume? An Armageddon not luridly portrayed? This week’s much-hyped “head-on TV debate clash” (really?) with Nigel Farage and David Cameron yielded nothing that we have not already heard a hundred times – and then duly repeated in post-match analysis by a legion of analysts, pundits and soothsayers.

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But will it be all over on 24 June? Across the continent there is an evident and growing disenchantment with the institutions of the EU, their reach and ambitions.

Analysis by the respected American think-tank the Pew Research Centre records a marked drop in support for the EU across seven major European countries.

Over 60 per cent of French voters now have an unfavourable view of the EU, while almost half the electorate in Germany, Spain and the Netherlands have also become Eurosceptic.

In 2004, 69 per cent of French voters and 58 per cent of German voters backed the EU – while not a single country reported a net negative rating. But today opposition to the EU now runs at 60 per cent in France, 71 per cent in Greece, both higher than the 48 per cent opposition in the UK.

Says Professor Jeffry Frieden of Harvard University’s department of government: “Back ten years ago, trust in national governments and the EU institutions was 60 per cent, 65 per cent, 70 per cent. Now it’s 10-15 per cent who have any faith.”

Eurosceptic sentiment has been fuelled by the region’s struggle to stage a credible recovery from the global financial crash and subsequent recession and by persistently high unemployment (running at 10 per cent across the EU, with jobless totals in Greece at 25 per cent and in Spain at 20 per cent).

Now mass immigration from the Middle East and North Africa has further soured the mood. And across member states there is an evident concern over the growing dominance of Germany.

The Pew study highlights the huge task faced by Brussels in restoring confidence in the EU. All this may seem to favour the Leave camp – that it is in tune with the mood across the continent. But it may also provide some assurance that, for all the EU’s declarations for “ever closer union”, that is just not going to happen: an ambition set to be thwarted by national parliaments under growing political pressure from populist parties.

The Pew research also reveals that not a single European country wants more powers to be handed to the EU while a growing number of voters want powers repatriated.

Roughly two-thirds of Greeks (68 per cent) and British (65 per cent) want some EU power returned to Athens and London. Pluralities in Sweden (47 per cent), the Netherlands (44 per cent), Germany (43 per cent) and Italy (39 per cent) also want to curtail EU power.

While voters in most other European countries do not want Britain to vote for Brexit, some 32 per cent of French voters believe a British departure would be a good thing for the EU.

How real is the challenge posed by populist Eurosceptic parties and how likely is this to dominate news coverage in the period ahead?

Spain is ranked the second most distrustful of the EU, making it one of the three most Eurosceptic countries in the EU. Poll findings suggest that some 72 per cent of the Spanish people do not trust it.

In Austria, Norbert Hofer, candidate of the Eurosceptic Freedom Party, came within a whisker of winning last month’s presidential election run-off. The EU establishment heaved a sigh of relief. But looking at the in-tide of Eurosceptic opinion elsewhere, this may be short-lived.

In France, a founding member of the EU, Marine Le Pen’s Front National party won European Parliament elections two years ago and a recent poll had 80 per cent of respondents saying they think she’ll make it to the second round of France’s 2017 presidential election. Says Hubert Vedrine, a former French foreign minister: “I am a firm believer in the EU, but I think that the elites’ traditional sermons no longer work. They even infuriate people and are counter-productive.”

Across Scandinavia populist parties advocating national interests over EU authority are either in power or strongly represented in parliament.

Germany’s AfD party, whose views clash with key EU principles, recently scored strongly in three state parliament elections.

In the Netherlands – another founding member of the EU – Geert Wilders, whose Freedom party has held a commanding lead in national polls for months, said last month: “The beginning of the end of the EU has already started. And it can be an enormous incentive for other countries if the UK would leave.”

Hungary and Poland are already governed by Eurosceptic parties. Warsaw has been pressing for more devolution of power to national parliaments, while Hungary’s president Victor Orban has been a vehement critic of the EU.

In Denmark, which voted last December against adopting EU justice and home affairs policies, leaders of the Danish People’s Party, according to an authoritative Financial Times report earlier this week, now talk openly about their own ambitions to renegotiate the country’s terms of membership.

The party came top of the poll in the country’s 2014 EU elections. Danish MEP Morten Messerschmidt insists he does not favour withdrawal “but we want to have a new deal with the EU. We are happy that a big country such as Britain is talking about taking back sovereignty and is willing to make the final sacrifice.” Denmark is the EU country which most closely mirrors the UK in its attitudes to the EU and is the only other EU country with an opt-out of the EU requirement to join the euro.

Given all this, little wonder that Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, recently admitted he was “really afraid” the UK referendum would prove “a very attractive model for some politicians in Europe to achieve some internal, very egotistical goals”.

And José Manuel Barroso, the former European Commission president, warns that Brexit could lead to an EU unravelling. In the event of a UK Brexit vote, he posits a Franco-German led group of “core countries” announcing an immediate initiative for deeper integration.

This would be intended to signal to signal to the world — and to wavering EU countries — that Britain was an outlier and that remaining EU members were committed to pulling together at an even faster pace. But there is no certainty whatever that national parliaments, with their hold on power threatened by populist Eurosceptic parties, would go along with this.

So: all over on 24 June, an end to the rammy over the benefits of the EU and all peace and reconciliation in Brussels? Hardly. Across the continent, this is a project fighting for its life.