UKIP earthquake? More like a tremor
by Marcus How
A spectre is haunting the United Kingdom – the spectre of UKIP. Nigel Farage promised an earthquake that would shatter the British political landscape, and he delivered. The Westminster elite anxiously grope their puny necks, knowing their hour is up, the “People’s Army” sharpening their axes, just waiting to storm off to the Houses of Parliament next year. Feral patriots shudder with anticipation at the prospect of reclaiming their lost land. Angry readers of the Daily Telegraph and the Spectator – possibly badly dehydrated – warn anyone left of neo-Thatcherism that their hour is nearly up, their liberal arrogance irrevocably sealing their fate.
Actually the earthquake was more like a tiresome tremor. It’s worth bearing in mind that although UKIP secured 27.5% of the vote in the EU elections, this was on the back of a dismal turnout of 33.5%. What’s more, whoever hated the establishment was going to head to the polls to secure UKIP’s victory. But even then, the ‘Brexit’ camp didn’t top the polls in the elections. The three main parties – plus the Greens – all officially support continued British membership of the EU, despite differences on its future definition. In the event that the referendum planned for 2017 goes ahead, it looks likely that the majority of the electorate could be won over by the pro-EU case, so long as it is qualified.
However, amidst the noise, the EU elections have raised more profound questions about the sustainability of UK membership in the face of increasing Eurozone integration.
The British relationship with the EU has always been strange. Today, eurosceptics argue that the UK was tricked; it entered the EEC in 1973 on the understanding that it was essentially a free trade zone, only to discover that it was a slow-burn crawl towards political union. This is a myth. Successive governments spurned membership precisely because they knew that the 1957 Treaty of Rome envisaged such a union. The European Free Trade Association (EFTA) was formed along with six other states in 1960 to provide an alternative[i]. But in the EEC, integration was proving that it could yield economic fruit. Faced with diminishing global status due to the loss of its empire, the UK applied for EEC membership in 1961, but only succeeded on its third attempt in 1973, thanks to French vetoes.
A referendum was held on the terms of membership in 1975 prompted by splits in the Labour government, which was the traditionally eurosceptic party at the time. The public approved the terms of membership by 68% (albeit on a turnout of 64.5%, which was low by contemporary standards). Nowadays, the Tories – who harbour a large minority of MPs whose euroscepticism is obsessive – claim that that referendum is now invalid, since Europe has changed beyond recognition, and a whole generation have been excluded from having a say.
The underlying motive for Tory euroscepticism is that the European Union became about more than just the single market, of which Margaret Thatcher was a pioneering champion. Deny it as they might, further integration was an inevitability, having acquired particular urgency following the breakup of the Bretton Woods system (BWS) in 1971. The BWS had served as a de facto global currency given the US dollar peg – and the ensuing years saw national exchange rates in disarray, exacerbated further by severe inflation. Charting a path towards a European monetary union (EMU) was pragmatic more than anything else. But in the years running up to the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, the Tories hatched alternative plans for a single currency that were red herrings designed to stall EMU. Seeing through this, the other member states ploughed on, leaving the UK isolated, its only consolation an opt-out from joining. The chances of London hosting the European Central Bank (ECB) were scattered to the wind; or worse still, to Frankfurt[ii].
Maastricht was the beginning of the end of lasting British influence in the EU. It’s true that the UK recovered prestige during the leadership of Tony Blair, who was unashamedly pro-European – and a very unfashionable figure today. It also contributed to the integration of financial services markets across Europe, perhaps a negative contribution for some. In 2003, the country came reasonably close to joining, but Gordon Brown – then chancellor – was opposed. Since then, it’s been looking unlikely that the UK will ever join the euro, a reality compounded by the financial crisis. If I went into a pub and began extolling the benefits of Eurozone membership, I would probably be laughed out of the room, or possibly punched in the gut.
So if the UK isn’t going to join the euro, is there any point in remaining a member of the EU in the longer term? After all, even if the Tories weren’t bent on sabotaging British influence in the bloc, it’s likely that this will gradually happen anyway. As the Eurozone solidifies as the core of the bloc, British concerns and inputs will become increasingly redundant. In this scenario, it is reasonable to argue that the UK should leave, especially if the free trade deal between the US and the EU is successful. Despite its initial anger, the EU would probably end up cutting some sort of free trade deal with the UK, given its importance as a trading partner. The UK would be able to fully regulate migratory flows and everyone would be happy. Hooray.
Personally, although I begrudgingly accept that this argument is reasonable, I don’t think it’s a desirable outcome. A free trade deal would spare UK business various export costs but the government would not have any power to shape European regulations. A number of foreign companies would probably move to Europe for the efficiency gains of the single market and currency, if nothing else. The British north-south divide would probably sharpen as a result, the economic situation worsened further by the withdrawal of EU structural funds. Like Norway, the government would still have to contribute to the European budget. European workers losing their right to free movement would exacerbate the undersupply of labour in certain sectors, such as construction.
It would be better for the UK to focus on extinguishing the fires it set on its bridges, and repairing them – in addition to building some new ones. There are increasingly powerful economies hovering outside of the Eurozone, which, like foxes, are continually testing the temperature of the water before crossing, but finding it too cold. Poland, in particular, has qualified scepticism towards Eurozone membership, finding the zloty to be a comfortable old shoe. Its power is such that the axis of influence will likely realign itself to encompass Warsaw, which will represent the eastern member states. If the UK were to make a sustained effort to build a coalition of interest with such countries, it may be possible to prompt the treaty change that would establish a second tier of members.
But first the UK must get its act together, a prospect that is currently looking unlikely. If that is the case, then the UK is probably destined for decline.
Many thanks to those who have read my contributions to this blog over the last few months. I’ve enjoyed writing them almost as much as I’ve enjoyed reading the contributions of the other writers! See you in 2019 if the EU hasn’t collapsed, or perhaps more unlikely, if openDemocracy deign to have me back!
[i] Funnily enough, although it never took off, EFTA still exists today, being comprised of Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
[ii] For more information on the Maastricht negotiations from the UK perspective, I would recommend Prof. Simona Talini’s book, ‘Globalisation, Hegemony and the Future of the City of London’.
A reformed Europe is the way forward
We have all followed the MEP election campaign in our countries, and also in other European countries. Now the results are out, political scientists have been quick to analyse the shift our continent is making. To some, it is a result that could spell disaster, while for others it could mean hope and indicates that Europeans are voicing their concerns.
Personally, I am not too surprised with the results. Official polls before the election were showing that the National Front in France and UKIP in Britain would come first in their respective countries. The same polls indicated the same fate for Syriza in Greece.
Honestly, I am not the type to fall in the emotional trap and be worried and whine that Europe is turning into a ‘Neo-Nazi’ continent just because we saw some right wing parties being elected by a big margin. Neither do I think that Europe is going to resort to ‘Communism’ just because we experienced Left wing parties like Syriza taking the lead in polls, or the positive result for Podemos in Spain. The aforementioned extreme ideologies are too far gone, and I guess we should adapt to our times and face reality. People voting for these parties do not indicate that they want to take a journey back to the past. Neither do these voters represent the extremism that they are usually accused of. The message was to the political establishment.
Our continent is facing hard times with issues that affect the daily lives of our citizens. Unfortunately these issues are either being neglected or ignored by our political class.
There is no beating around the bush: immigration, the economy, and employment are major concerns for most European citizens and these concerns influence the MEPs elected. However, despite the fact that these results saw radical parties of both political spectrums being elected, or increasing their votes, I believe that it is an opportunity for us Europeans to think thoroughly about the future of our continent, and our children.
It is high time for our leaders, and the EU commission, to reflect on their sins of the past. They should start realizing that now they are reaping what they had sowed. Our politicians should cultivate self-criticism.
Let’s admit that the European Union, if anything, managed to build cooperation between its various member states without the need of going to war. It brought peace and stability over the years. However, in the last decades, the rush for further integration, without slowly assimilating new member states precipitated the start of the Union’s downfall, and lost touch with people’s reality. European citizens feel highly detached from the European centralized institutions, either by the lack of concrete action on immigration and employment, or becasue of the tough austerity measures applied to some nations. People also feel harassed with the political correctness in every corner of their lives.
We are still in time to revise, change and reform a United Europe. This however takes a collective effort in order to be done, and we should find what unites us, rather than what divides us. Last weekend’s result need not be repeated in elections to come, but only if we make this a team effort to take action on the concerns of European citizens. Obduracy and arrogance are not the routes our leaders should continue taking. Disaster is possible but only if this Euro election result goes disregarded, and instead, we continue steering our sinking ship.
European elections: Greek reactions, SYRIZA's victory
The results of the European election in Greece must be viewed through the lens of the ongoing harsh austerity measures imposed by the Troika and the Greek governments post-2009. Hence, the victory of the Left party - SYRIZA - was not particularly surprising, although undeniably historic.
In order to fully grasp the significance of this result, we need to factor in the successes of the left represented by SYRIZA in the municipal and provincial elections that took place on May 18 and 25. SYRIZA managed to secure a victory in the largest province of the country (Attica), where Rena Dourou marginally yet decisively beat the government-supported candidate, who has held the post for 12 years. Perhaps even more impressively, Gabriel Sakellaridis, a young economist supported by SYRIZA, secured an unprecedented 48.60% in the municipality of Athens, a traditionally conservative constituency. Furthermore, candidates supported by SYRIZA managed to come first in the second round of the municipal elections in a number of working-class neighborhoods.
Crucially, it is the first time in Greek political history that a left-wing party has clearly come first in the European elections. Given that the political debate prior to the elections was heated and polarized, it is fair to say that this was not specifically a protest vote. The result accurately reflects the domestic balance of political power and constitutes a vocal message of disapproval of the current government and its aggressive austerity policies. The victory of SYRIZA acquires added political and symbolic value given that it constitutes an anti-austerity vote with clearly left-wing characteristics, contrasting with a wider European trend of far-right success.
In any case, the victory of SYRIZA must be understood as a victory not simply against New Democracy, but a victory against a powerful nexus of pro-austerity, pro-establishment actors ranging from an implicit coalition between most political parties, to the mass media and corporate interests. SYRIZA managed to gain such extensive support despite the generalized sense of fear that was being cultivated by the media and the current government steadily playing the card of “destabilization” that they insist will occur after the rise of the left. Thus, we can reasonably assume that SYRIZA has developed deep roots in those parts of the Greek society most influenced by the crisis (the unemployed, traditional working-class neighbourhoods, the youth) - parts that also constitute the nucleus that is capable of bringing about political and social transformation.
Last but not least, in Greece there were not only positive results but negative ones too. It became evident that the far right vote, the neo-Nazi far right included, is stable at around 15%, exerting considerable influence upon traditional working-class areas. The neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn, is now the third biggest party in Greece (9.40%) electing three MEPs for the first time in modern Greek political history.
Addressing supporters as the results rolled in, Alexis Tsipras, SYRIZA’s leader, called for general elections to be held immediately, saying the outcome robbed the government of any “political or moral legitimacy” to continue enforcing policies that were overwhelming rejected.
Overall, I was really satisfied with the fact that SYRIZA won on an anti-austerity platform. It seems to me to be a progressive step forwards for Greek society. My experience in openDemocracy was magnificent! It was the first time that I participated in a project like this and I learnt so many things about Europe and European elections. It was an unforgettable experience!!! I would like to thank all of you who had this amazing idea about “Can Europe make it”. The results showed that Europe can make it!!!!
It's not the end of the world as we know it (yet)
I have trouble summing up these elections and everything that led to them. There was a boring campaign, skimming over important issues (which was to be expected, I think) and the lowest turnout ever. Once again, right-wing parties completely dominated the Polish elections, while left-wing parties hit rock bottom. Only one left-wing party won any seats, and less than last time, while another didn’t even cross the election threshold. It could always be worse; thankfully the far-right radicals didn’t win any seats.
But Kongres Nowej Prawicy (Congress of the New Right), led by Janusz Korwin-Mikke, won four. This party is libertarian and conservative, does not have a concise political programme and up to this point has existed in the margins of Polish politics: more a bit of political folklore than a real alternative for people disappointed with the mainstream. KNP was not very well known before the elections, I doubt most people could name two of its members (other than Janusz Korwin-Mikke, that is).
Everyone has heard about Janusz Korwin-Mikke, however. Among other things, he said that: Hitler didn’t know about the Holocaust, that women should not have voting rights because they are too stupid to have opinions and only copy their husbands’ or fathers’, and, during the campaign, when asked whether he thinks women want to be raped, he replied that women always resist and that’s normal.
This is a quote of his from a high school meeting: “Democracy means that if this man, you Miss, and I are trapped on an island, then if we have a majority of votes we can decide that you have to sleep with both of us. That's democracy. And with 2/3 votes we can even put that in the constitution.” As summed up by one right-wing publicist in a tweet: The essence of Korwinism consists of two sentences: “JKM didn’t say that” and “well yes, but he also says a lot of wise things”. One of the commentators on Facebook added to the last one: This is taken out of context. This is not a joke. This is how his supporters talk about his statements and opinions. Almost half of his voters were 18-25 years old, among them 25.8% were women. There is so much irony in a woman voting for someone who openly says that she shouldn’t have a right to vote.
Why did so many young people vote for him? There are at least a few theories, blaming low turnout (which is the case with every election in Poland), the lack of an alternative (another party that tried to pose as an alternative to the mainstream won seats in previous elections to European Parliament, but in this – they didn’t get even one) or the educational system.
As Antoni Michnik wrote, there might be a correlation between what is taught in schools and political choices reflected here. Polish schools don’t teach cooperation but individual work, every success is also individual, and cheating during tests is common and hardly punished. After all, it’s more important to get higher grades than to actually learn things. Students learn about free market and freedom in general as a very important value, but nothing about social responsibility and the importance of cooperation.
During twelve years of primary, middle and high school I didn’t learn how to work with a group. I too was sure that I could do everything on my own, better and possibly faster. At no point did the school discourage this idea. I learned how to play well with others only at university, when we were given bigger tasks for group work that I could never have comfortably handled on my own. Studying in general, and studying social sciences in particular, is not something that every young person does.
After school, a lot of people simply don’t have the need and/or an opportunity to learn how to participate in any kind of common effort. Which is not to say that my studies were the greatest when it came to learning the basics of functioning in a society: I had classes both about marketing and management - social responsibility didn’t make an appearance, not even once.
Sadly given that background, and added to the historical conservatism that runs through Polish society, it’s not that difficult to see where JKM’s voters are coming from. They are in a way symptomatic of a bigger problem. But, on the plus side, the average age of his voters has stayed the same for years, which suggest that people grow out of his ideas or at least his rhetoric. There is possibly a better future for us all.
With this, a little hope for tomorrow, I’m ending my blogging adventure here. It was great – I learned a lot and I looked at many things from a new perspective. Thanks for the ride!
Out-lying the outlier: election results in Bulgaria
The European Parliament elections were, as expected, a time when voters would tell their establishments that they did not like the way things were going. As expected, the Eurosceptics in France and the UK broke through and received significant national support – in France, Marine Le Pen’s National Front (which vows to ‘defend France’) won its first national election and is sending 24 MEPs to Brussels; in the UK, Nigel Farage’s anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) pulled off a similar triumph (in the words of Mr. Farage: ‘The UKIP fox is in the Westminster henhouse’) also getting 24 MEPs in.
In Spain and Greece, two of the most hard-hit European economies, the far-left (Eurosceptic) alternative, as well as growing support for nationalist far-right parties, were clearly reflected in the results. In Greece, the Syriza party won 26.6% of the vote, building on a hard-line criticism of the IMF/EU bailout in Greece, regarded as ‘catastrophic’. In Spain, the new radical left Podemos (‘We Can’) inaugurated by the 2011 indignatos protest movement also gained serious ground, surging to fourth place. Their founder’s (Pablo Iglesias, a thirty-something political science university teacher) key message: ‘We do not want to be a German colony’.
The rise of Euroscepticism was expected, from both the left and the right – it has been five years of economic suffering, badly managed policies, and even more poorly communicated messages to the public. It simply makes historical sense that there is a surge in the populist vote and that the European leaders are all talking about reforming the ‘big, bad, and bumbling’ EU. What must be noted, however, is that out of the 751 seats in the European parliament, a huge chunk – 467 seats – stayed with the 3 pillars of traditional politics - the centre-right European People’s Party, the (centre)left Socialists and the centrist Liberals. Not to mention the seats (53) won by the really pro-EU Green parties. This ‘political earthquake’ of scepticism is just from 25%.
In the new EU member states, election results showed a similar pattern – in Poland, which holds the largest number of seats among the new EU states, the results showed a balance between the Civic Platform and the more radical Law and Justice Party. Hungary’s conservative right-wing Fidesz won an overwhelming 51% as Jobbik’s far-right dropped its support to an unimpressive 15%. In Slovakia, election results aside, what is most visible is the negligible voter turn-out – 13%.
Down south, in Bulgaria, the elections had almost nothing to do with the state of the EU, austerity policies, the future of Europe, or any of the dominant debates and discourses from around the continent. In Bulgaria, plain and simple, it was about whether Bulgaria is going to look to the EU in the future or not. And more specifically, the election results were going to be a crucial ‘heads-up’ to the shockingly unpopular Socialist-led coalition in Bulgaria.
The political instability in Bulgaria is disheartening. On the surface, the election results showed a decisive victory for the centre-right opposition party GERB (30.5%), which resigned last year after street protests, and a humiliating defeat for the Bulgarian Socialist Party, which failed to reach 20%.
This was a huge blow to both Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski and the Socialist Party and Party of the European Socialists leader, Sergey Stanishev. With an increasingly defiant show of unaccountability, Stanishev did not acknowledge the results as a failure and refused to step down – on the contrary, he will become the Socialist Party’s second MEP in Brussels.
Oresharski took it upon himself to refuse the call for early elections, while popular support for his government shrunk to under 10%, street protests continue on a daily basis and will mark their one year anniversary on June 14, the National Assembly building already barricaded by a metal wall and a significant show of police force.
In Belgium, Spain, and Hungary, socialist leaders all resigned due to weak election results. In Bulgaria, the situation defies the mould. The newest development is that the European Commission has formally asked the Bulgarian government to suspend work on Gazprom’s South Stream gas-pipeline project, which is seen as non-compliant with EU law. The Socialist-led coalition government in their own right have vowed ‘to fight’ this decision and plan to continue with the project, which will bring Bulgaria’s dependence closer to Russia, despite potential EU sanctions.
In itself, the European parliament election process was marred by irregularities. A new populist movement, Bulgaria Without Censorship, led by former TV-anchor Nikolay Barekov, was the largest recipient of the ‘corporate pull’ spending a staggering one million Euros on its election campaign. His movement is criticised for having close links with the Tsvetan Vassilev, owner of the Corporate Commercial Bank (CCB), and Delyan Peevski, the controversial MP who sparked the street-protests twelve months ago.
During election day and the days that followed, a series of news reports showed the significant amount of schemes used to purchase votes which target the underprivileged and the Roma community. Individuals interviewed confessed to being offered up to 25 euros for their vote. On a much higher level, a scandal revolving around the Socialist party revealed how the directors of a mining company in the town of Bobov Dol tell their workers that they ‘might fall into debt’, should they fail to ‘vote the right way’.
The right-wing vote, traditionally captured by the party Ataka, has plummeted and they have been unable to pass the barrier in the EP elections. Their fall from grace is closely linked with their shift in rhetoric following the annexation of Crimea and the Russian involvement in Ukraine. Overnight, Ataka became profoundly pro-Russian and violently Eurosceptic. As a result, they got around 3% of the vote.
Effectively, what the results illustrate, is that Bulgaria’s political situation is dangerously unstable. Its place within the EU is significantly undermined by a government set on following a pro-Russian agenda. Civic dissatisfaction is on an all-time high, as an overwhelming majority of the electorate show a strong desire – both in the polls and on the streets – for new elections.
With no clear political casualties and no responsibility taken, Bulgaria is in a state of flux, its fragile democracy continuing to falter. Most worryingly, it seems that not only is democracy not ‘the only game in town’ any longer, but the European Union’s authority is increasingly disregarded. Unlike other European nations, where the election results clearly reflect the people’s desire for change, the Bulgarian case shows, if anything, that despite the results, despite the evident demands for change by the people, despite growing dissatisfaction and protests, political change seems highly unlikely ever to come from the bottom-up.
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