Can Europe Make It?

The travails of a European political risk analyst; or, how to vote without any information

Marcus How
23 May 2014

I work as a political risk analyst and part of my role is to trawl the media of most European countries on a daily basis, a venture made possible by Google translate. I flag risk-relevant developments – such as votes or policy proposals – and transcribe them. During national elections, there will always be proposed policies to flag up; such as a centre-left party advocating a wealth tax, or a centre-right party proposing deeper spending cuts.

During these European elections, there has been nothing. The approach of national governments to the European elections has largely been to pretend they’re not happening; or at least not happening as anything other than an inconvenient referendum on their popularity of their respective administrations.

Nowhere is this more extreme than in the UK, where UKIP have dominated proceedings, reducing a debate that was already infantile to something analogous to a gaggle of babies wailing.

Granted, the European commissioners and parliamentary groupings haven’t helped. Few know who Martin Schulz and Jean-Claude Juncker are (that may actually be a good thing). Policies on the European level simply aren’t discussed, not least because it would get populist backs up.

Neither Schulz nor Juncker nor anyone else has said anything that gives any idea of what will be happening in the upcoming parliamentary term. Eurosceptic parties dominate proceedings despite the fact that they will win no more than 30% of seats, and say next to nothing that is clear, words muffled by frothing at the mouth. Perhaps this is down to the media; perhaps it is down to woeful communication on the part of EU politicians; perhaps national governments don’t want debate – or perhaps it is a combination of all three factors. I have written in more depth on the difficulty of ‘selling’ the EU to voters here.

So for Europhiles, the elections have been an entirely predictable  farce, a lost opportunity. In the UK, parties have been cowering beneath the bedcovers hoping that the electorate – and especially UKIP – don’t hear their whimpering. I’m going to try and avoid mentioning UKIP from now on because I’m tired of being defiant, a bit like a child that has been crying for hours but has worn itself out, and sits there with a sour expression of its face, eyelids heavy, mouth agape, letting out an occasional hiccup of despair.

My European constituency is the East of England. I have received leaflets from all four parties in the last weeks. The UKIP leaflet met its demise in a tragic accident when a sudden gust of wind lifted it from my hand and blew it down the road before I had even read it.

In fairness to UKIP, at least they are providing information about the EU, even if their dramatic claims and stats fall apart upon even the most cursory internet search. The other parties have somehow managed to release leaflets that say absolutely nothing about the European Parliament itself, or what their MEPs will be doing there.

Tories attempt to talk of the in-out referendum they have offered on UK membership of the EU. In the meantime, David Cameron will campaign to repatriate powers from Brussels, to redefine the UK’s membership. Since the powers in question (which have something vaguely to do with policing, justice and fisheries policy) are ephemeral to membership, it’s difficult to see how the hard line eurosceptics (or ‘Europhobes’, as they are called) in the Tory party are going to be appeased by Cameron’s policy. In the meantime, Cameron sends out mixed signals to Europe, playing what Nick Clegg memorably described as the “hokey cokey” with UK membership.

In their leaflet, there was an eight-point list that appeared to resemble a manifesto of some sort. On closer inspection, their stated aims of what they want to achieve in Europe refer either to issues already resolved, or ones irrelevant to the operations of the European Parliament. “No UK contribution to any further EU bailouts!” they holler, thumping the tub triumphantly, forgetting in their patriotic euphoria that the UK doesn’t contribute any more anyway, other than through the IMF.

Elsewhere, the Liberal Democrats prove why even Europhiles won’t bother to vote for them on 22 May. Their East England campaign literature trumpeted their star candidate, the incumbent Andrew Duff, who admittedly has a very good reputation. The leaflet highlighted why the European Arrest Warrant (EWA) is great even though it seems to have little bearing on what they would campaign for in the European Parliament. They highlight how 375,000 jobs are at risk in the region because on Europe the Tories are too weak, Labour too silent, and UKIP feral. The two policies they do highlight are utterly bizarre: apparently they’ll be campaigning to ban mega-trucks from the UK and clamp down on illegal bird trapping. My mind is blown.

Eventually, a Labour leaflet apologetically pawed its way through the letterbox before shrieking about the evils of the Tories. A Labour government, the leaflet told me, would freeze my energy bills, make rent increases predictable, and seize unused land hoarded by private developers, all in an effort to take on predatory capitalists and knock the “cost-of-living crisis” on the head. Afterwards, there is some vague talk about how some of their MEPs helped win some investment in East England once.

I filed the leaflet away, supposing it would keep for the general election next year, in case I forget their policy proposals. I went on their website in search of a European manifesto and found none. I typed ‘Labour European election manifesto’ into Google – and found nothing, other than the Tory and Lib Dem manifestos, both of which were light on detail.

Befuddled, I emailed both the Lib Dems and Labour asking for clarification on their manifestos. What will their MEPs be campaigning for, I asked. The Lib Dems reply was official and swift, albeit turgid and patchy. The Labour reply was an unofficial one from a candidate who realised no one had bothered to respond after a week. Finally, he outlined the party’s full manifesto. I felt as though I had been granted access to a forgotten chamber behind the party’s filing cabinets.

In both cases – especially with regard to Labour – I thought it ridiculous that I needed to contact the parties directly to get any information. In both cases, I was told that detail was lacking from the leaflets because leaflets are only so large, with only so much space. They also admitted that party manifestos were not particularly interesting to most voters, with the debate about EU membership more generally taking precedence – even though it doesn’t factor into the European parliamentary affairs on which people are voting unwittingly.

Such is the pithy state of the European elections in the UK. My experience has reinforced my view that national governments and parties are largely responsible for muddling how the electorate see the EU generally, and the elections specifically.

Well, I have taken up the noble task of providing some clarity in the meantime, for voters across the EU. This questionnaire gives a detailed breakdown of which party/grouping you should vote for, if you are undecided. Apparently, I share most of my beliefs about Europe with Lithuanian and Romanian social democrats. At least I know there are some kindred spirits out there. 

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