Peter Jones: EU interest isn’t flagging all over

It's time we all started paying attention to European elections. Picture: Getty
It's time we all started paying attention to European elections. Picture: Getty
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While Scottish political chatter is obsessed with our ‘year of destiny’, things are hotting up in Brussels, writes Peter Jones

This year – 2014 – is, as dramatically inclined political types like to say, a year of destiny. But maybe the Scottish destiny date scheduled for September is not the most important one. Perhaps there is a date earlier in the calendar – 25 May – which will affect a lot more people. That’s the date when the election results to the European parliament will be declared and which could profoundly alter the shape and direction of the European project.

These elections are customarily seen in Scotland, as in the rest of Britain, as the ones which matter least. They don’t affect the taxes we pay, have little impact on economic growth and don’t change local schools or bin collections. Consequently only a third of the electorate bothered going to the polls in the 2009 European elections.

This May’s election will have equally little impact on the things which most affect us, but could have a big effect on a macro political scale. Altogether, 751 MEPs will be elected in May and many of these will be Eurosceptic. Those who want European integration to be halted or reversed could well comprise a quarter of the European parliament, twice as large a proportion as in the current assembly.

The factors which are causing this are pretty obvious. The European economy has been through a severe recession which, in some parts of the continent, such as Spain and Greece, merits being described as a depression. The most important symbol and achievement of European integration – the euro currency – has been under severe strain. Keeping the euro show on the road has entailed an unprecedented degree of public sector austerity and shockingly high levels of unemployment.

So it is also obvious what the reaction to this was likely to be – the rise of political parties which reject the consensus across mainstream left and right parties that the route to a more prosperous future lies in keeping borders open, maintaining the single currency, and embracing globalisation.

Most analyses of this trend concentrate on the rise of right-wing parties, of which the most startling example is the National Front in France. Its leader, Marine le Pen, who took over from her brutish father Jean-Marie le Pen, has softened the party’s programme. But it remains opposed to immigration, to perceived control of France by Brussels and, in a poll last October, was backed by 24 per cent of French voters, ahead of the main centre-right party UMP’s 22 per cent and President Hollande’s socialists’ 19 per cent.

Ms le Pen still looks most likely to be the French party leader emerging with most votes and seats in May. In Britain, Ukip looks set to repeat its 2009 success, when it came second to the Conservatives, pushing Labour into third place in the popular vote.

The Netherlands’ Dutch Freedom Party (PVV), led by Geert Wilders, is running close to the top of opinion poll ratings, as is Austria’s Freedom Party, which gained a fifth of the vote in an Austrian general election last year. All over Europe, even in nice quiet countries like Sweden and Finland, extreme right-wing parties have been gaining strength.

But Euroscepticism isn’t the sole preserve of the anti-immigrant right. The Alternative for Germany party, only formed in February last year, got 4.7 per cent of the vote in last September’s German federal elections and is expected to do better this May. Its main demand is for the euro to be dismantled.

In Spain and Portugal, the eurosceptic cause has been taken up by radical left parties under an anti-globalisation branding. In Italy, it is associated with comedian Beppo Grillo’s anti-establishment five star movement at which mainstream parties stopped laughing when it took a quarter of the vote in elections last year. And there are regional nationalist parties too, such as Italy’s Northern League and Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, also espousing euroscepticism.

It is quite impossible to fit a single ideological suit to all these parties. Not only do they divide on right and left grounds, but they also split on attitudes to the environment, Islam, and social issues such as gay marriage. For this reason, they are unlikely to coalesce in a coherent grouping in the European parliament. And because the big right and left groups will still hold sway there, they are unlikely to have a direct impact on European politics.

But because it is possible to detect a common thread of nationalist euroscepticism, their impact is likely to be indirect, forcing the mainstream parties to change focus and direction to ward off further erosion by political extremes.

The most obvious interpretation is that a big surge in support for eurosceptic parties will make mainstream politicians wary of trying to implement anything which looks like further European integration and putting more power in the hands of Eurocrats.

And yet this is the prescription – a fiscal union with enforceable rules on deficits and debt plus a European banking union – which is generally thought to be required to cure the EU of its economic and sovereign debt ills. The euro crisis is not yet over, the heat has merely been taken out of it by European Central Bank actions.

The problems of excessive government debt and inadequate economic growth and the demands from the EU for austerity to fix these issues are still there, precisely the problems and measures which are causing the rise in euroscepticism.

Thus, a midsummer crisis of European political confidence looks inevitable. Only its scale, which depends on the extent of May’s eurosceptic vote, is unknowable. Is there a way out? Possibly.

Odd as it seems, David Cameron’s bid to renegotiate the terms of British EU membership, prior to staging and winning a referendum on Britain staying in the EU in 2017, may provide the solution. Leaders in Germany and the Netherlands, and to a lesser extent in Sweden, Poland, Finland, and Italy, have expressed sympathy for his wish to cut EU red tape. Under electoral nationalist eurosceptic pressure, that could harden into support for a repatriation of some EU powers.

All this is highly conjectural at this stage. But there do seem to be all the ingredients there for 2014 to turn out to be a pivotal year in European terms and our own quite understandable fascination for the independence referendum should not blind us to developments across the North Sea which may turn out to be profound.