"Ugly but interesting in Strasbourg
By Gideon Rachman
Published: June 8 2009 20:51 | Last updated: June 8 2009 20:51
Ever since the economic crisis broke I have been scanning the European horizon for signs of political turmoil: red flags being unfurled, jackboots polished. But on the evidence of the elections for the European parliament over the weekend, I should have directed my gaze closer to home. There is only one big country in the European Union that is having a national nervous breakdown – Britain.
The UK was the only one of the six biggest EU countries where the governing party did not come either first or a close second. Labour was forced into a humiliating third position with just over 15 per cent of the vote. Gordon Brown’s defeated army straggled in behind the United Kingdom Independence party (Ukip), which wants to pull Britain out of the EU. To compound the agony, the collapse in Labour’s vote meant that the openly racist British National party (BNP) has gained two seats in the parliament – and all the money and publicity that goes with it.
The picture in the five other largest EU countries is very different. Despite the fact that the German economy has shrunk by almost 7 per cent over the past year, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats will again be the largest German party in the European parliament. In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP trounced the Socialist opposition – and both the extreme left and the extreme right had a bad night. Poland’s centre-right Civic Platform won easily. The governing People of Freedom party came out ahead in Italy, despite a rash of humiliating scandals involving its leader Silvio Berlusconi. Even in Spain, where unemployment has soared, the ruling Socialists only lost narrowly to the centre-right.
So what has set Britain apart? Three things, I think. First, the fact that a scandal over expenses for members of the UK parliament has allowed the public to focus the anger generated by the economic crisis on to the “political class”. The second factor is the sheer tiredness of a Labour government that has been in power since 1997, allied to the anti-charismatic non-appeal of Mr Brown. Finally, there is a deep national well of British scepticism towards the European project.
Once you move beyond the EU’s big six, however, the British results look a little less eccentric. There are several European countries in which far-right parties, anti-immigration parties and eurosceptic groups (not, incidentally, one and the same thing) have made significant gains.
Perhaps the most striking results came in the Netherlands, where a Muslim-bashing, anti-immigration party led by Geert Wilders came second in the polls. In Hungary, Jobbik – a far-right party that is the spiritual cousin of the BNP – gained three seats. Nationalist and anti-immigration parties also made gains in Denmark, Finland, Austria, Greece and Romania. Back in Italy, Mr Berlusconi’s allies, the anti-immigration Northern League, doubled their share of the vote to 10 per cent. The French and Belgian far-right will also still have a presence in the parliament.
In total, extreme-right and extreme-left parties could now account for about 12 per cent of the new European parliament. Hardline eurosceptic parties such as Ukip will be another noisy and visible grouping. The British Conservatives aim to form another, milder eurosceptic bloc.
Oddly enough, the rise of the political extremes could achieve one of the long-held ambitions of ardent pro-Europeans – by generating some interest in the doings of the European parliament. Fans of the parliament have had two long-standing complaints. First, they lament the fact that mainstream political parties concentrate on national issues during the European election. Second, they worry that the parliament is ignored by the public.
Both complaints could be partially remedied by these elections – although not in a way that pro-Europeans will find particularly comforting. The success of Ukip rewarded a rare party that puts the EU at the centre of its campaigns – but which also despises the union and all its works.
Voter turnout fell to a new low of 43 per cent in these elections. Members of the parliament often blame the media for public indifference to their work. If only journalists could get across parliament’s crucial role in regulating chemicals, or “unbundling the local loop”, surely a fascinated public would flock to the polls?
The trouble is that the parliament’s doings – although important – are often numbingly consensual. The great mass of parliamentarians agree that theirs is a splendid institution doing valuable work. But self-congratulation, mixed in with a little committee work, does not make for compelling viewing.
The rare moments of drama in the Strasbourg hemicycle have come when genuinely famous national politicians have turned up – and blown a raspberry. Mr Berlusconi once suggested that a respected German member of parliament audition for a film role as a Nazi concentration camp guard. Vaclav Klaus, the Czech president, likened the EU to the Soviet Union.
Parliamentarians were outraged by both incidents. But at least it got them on television. Now, with the arrival of a larger group of eccentrics, extremists and thugs, the decorous and complacent proceedings of the European parliament could be disrupted on a more regular basis.
The new parliament threatens to be uglier, more uncouth and more representative of Europe – in all its unsettling diversity.