Peter Jones: Right turn threatens existence of EU

Salmond says only a Yes vote guarantees EU membership, but what sort of state might be left to join, asks Peter Jones

Marine Le Pens Front National party made major gains in France as Europe lurched to the right. Picture: AFP/Getty

According to Alex Salmond, the Ukip thunderbolt that voters have blasted at the established political parties means that Scots have to vote Yes to independence in September as the only way of ensuring they can stay inside the European Union. If there still is an EU to be part of, that is.

I say that only semi-facetiously. It is clear from the election results across the 28 member states that the EU is faced with a bigger crisis than the recent sovereign debt one which threatened to blow up the euro. Even in thoroughly EU-committed Germany, the Alternative for Germany party, which wants to scrap the euro, managed to get 7 per cent of the vote.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

But that pales in comparison to the 25 per cent garnered by France’s Front National, pushing the mainstream parties to the side as Ukip did in Britain. Altogether, it seems that about a fifth of Europe’s voters have rejected the central ideology of the EU, which is always to drive towards an ever closer union.

Arguments that the vote also means that four-fifths of the European electorate have accepted that there should be greater integration, advanced by Jean-Claude Juncker, leader of the centre-right EPP in the European Parliament and a leading candidate to be the European Commission’s next president, are superficially attractive but deeply flawed on closer inspection.

The sovereign debt crisis, brought on by the financial crisis and recession and in which governments borrowed beyond their means to repay to finance public spending and tested the EU’s willingness and ability to support those governments, has undoubtedly abated. Financial markets no longer believe that any of the eurozone member states will be forced out of the euro.

The EU’s response has essentially been that the crisis was brought on in part because of lack of national budgetary discipline and poor financial industry supervision. To fix this, it is working towards greater integration of budgets and banking regulation. Now EU member governments, especially those in the eurozone states, have to submit their plans for taxes and spending to the European Commission for its approval.

What penalties might be applied if the commission thinks these national plans are flawed is not entirely clear. An implicit contradiction and risk is that if the commission denounces a national budget as wrong, financial markets will start penalising that state, causing a sovereign debt crisis, which in turn does damage to the EU.

But now voters have produced a greater explicit risk. What if, reacting against austerity measures agreed by a national government and the EU, voters turf out that government in favour of a party that has promised to scrap the austerity? Can it be seriously imagined that commission bureaucrats would tell that new government it has no choice but to adopt the policies of the old one?

If that were to happen, then Eurosceptic demonology that long-cherished national democracy and sovereignty is being obliterated by faceless Eurocrats would suddenly look extremely real.

There are, for European integrationists, much worse nightmares. What if voters elect a government committed to getting out of the euro? Even the distant threat of such a thing happening would be enough to spook financial markets and cause havoc with sovereign debts and the euro. And on the basis of these results, such a threat does not look all that distant.

So, as national leaders gather in Brussels today to discuss what the people have said, any attempt by European elites to dismiss these election results as a just a bump in the road and not a warning of potential chasms ahead would be ridiculous. The people want significant reform and the task is to deliver it.

Top of the list on the reform agenda has to be immigration. That, too, poses a significant challenge to integrationists because the free movement of people inside the EU is an essential part of what the union means.

But while there are impeccable liberal intellectual and economic arguments for unrestricted movement of people, rather a lot of people view it differently – as a threat to their jobs, incomes, liberties, way of life, and even as a criminal threat as Ukip leader Nigel Farage disgracefully implied in his remarks about Romanians.

Even in nice liberal Denmark, the far-right People’s Party, standing for strict border controls and an end to welfare payments to non-Danish citizens, came top of the poll with 27 per cent of the Danish vote. And since France, right at the heart of the Schengen no-borders zone, now has a quarter of its voters willing to back the anti-immigrant Front National, it is questionable whether the Schengen agreement can survive.

That’s why I was only being semi-facetious in questioning the survival of the EU, for it seems abundantly clear that, at the very least, a rolling back of European integration has to happen. The EU of today is not going to be the EU of tomorrow.

This plays straight into David Cameron’s hands. A few weeks ago, he had few allies for his agenda of renegotiating Britain’s terms of membership. All of a sudden, everybody round the EU’s top table is interested in doing exactly the same to placate their own angry voters.

In France, president François Hollande’s initial reaction was to demand that the EU re-orientate its policies away from austerity towards growth. But that won’t be enough to appease Marine Le Pen, the victorious Front National leader, who declared the result to be a demand for “politics for the French, made by the French” and no more “outsider” rule. Analyst Dominique Moisi of the French Institute of International Relations, said that France was “moving the way of Britain in its relationship with Europe”. And what does this mean for Alex Salmond? It could be an opportunity. The developments imply a possible renegotiation of the EU treaty into which the terms of an independent Scotland’s membership could fit, providing the fast-track route into entry he desperately needs.

But it could also be a threat. The commission and the member states look to have their hands more than full with re-configuring the EU to stave off what, in European terms, is a nationalist threat to the union. In that context, welcoming and rewarding nationalists who have succeeded in splitting a member state is the last thing other member states look likely to do.