Flickr/ Giampaolo Squarcina
For the past few weeks, the papers in Britain have reported that the UK Independence Party (UKIP) is likely to win the largest share of the vote in this month’s European Parliamentary elections. Despite knowing that EP elections are often an occasion for beating up the mainstream political parties, it strikes me as insane that we are sleep-walking towards a break-up of both the UK and EU, and dishing our chances of getting a climate change deal. As someone deeply involved in international development and environment, it forces me to ask – if a third of those people who bother to vote plan to cast their ballot in favour of Nigel Farage and his party, what will this mean for Britain’s future role in Europe, and the wider world? And what does the rise in nationalist sentiment across the world, of which UKIP’s current vigour is a representative, augur for events both at home, such as the referendum on Scottish Independence on September 18, and the UN Secretary General’s climate summit the following week in New York?
UKIP was described by David Cameron some years ago as made up of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”. Today, those on the right wing of the Tory party lambast Cameron, as they want to appease the rising number of voters who respond to UKIP’s “little England” philosophy. It is worrying to see the number of people who respond to the nationalist surge, providing support to a party made up largely of one man, with an endearing cheeky-chappie image. Whenever any of the other UKIP party members open their mouths, they put their foot in it. But UKIP’s pitch clearly finds fertile ground amongst people damaged by more than 5 years of economic wreckage – often wrongly blamed on Europe, rather than on the madcap financial greed machine in the City, and the continued rise in inequality. Neither of the two main parties offer any contest to the half-truths of Farage’s pitch on the benefits of EU membership - the Labour party since they presided over the financial crisis and the Tories because the City is full of their friends, and they are quite happy with inequality. In a shocking abdication of leadership by Tories and Labour, it is only Nick Clegg, the leader of Westminster’s third party, the Liberal Democrats, who has the guts to stand up to Farage. Neither Tories nor Labour are able to articulate the case for Britain working closely with like-minded member states to lead Europe to more sustainable prosperity as the progressive force in global affairs, ever-more needed at this time of growing uncertainty and threat.
But the allergic relationship between some Britons and Europe fortunately does not hold amongst younger folk, for whom the relationship is taken as a given with which they have grown up. For those of my children’s generation now in their 20s, it is unthinkable that we might detach ourselves from Europe. Getting young people out to vote on May 22 is especially urgent. And in contrast to little Englanders, Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond has been making the case for Scotland’s accelerated entry into the EU, in the event of a Yes vote in September. This highlights a fundamental difference in culture between the nationalists of North Britain and those of its larger southern neighbour. If Westminster insists Scotland cannot keep the pound, then the Euro will be trading on the streets of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and foreign exchange kiosks will jostle with the newly-weds at Gretna.
Most days on my train home from London, in carriage F you can meet an array of Farage look-alikes, squashed into the tiny bar area. It’s shortly after we leave London one man asks - “So what do you do then? Ah you’re an environmentalist! I suppose that means you believe in global warming and climate change, ho ho! Well no, I can’t say I do myself. Climate has always been changing – it’s the wonderful English weather. Anyway, I’d like a bit more sunshine, so bring it on I say. We certainly don’t want to build anymore of those wind turbines – can’t afford them. My electricity bill is horrendous. Fracking! Now that’s something that could make a difference.” By the time we pull out of Slough, I might have got despondent if it were not for us moving onto two other topics where they have arguments aplenty – let’s cut the UK aid budget, and get us out of the EU. Luckily they all get off by Reading, so the second half of my journey gives me time to get back to the latest IPCC report.
UKIP’s likely triumph in the EP polls in May would be an unfortunate but temporary blip in political life were it not for the referendum on Scottish Independence in September. UKIP’s popularity is pulling the main Westminster parties to the nationalist right at a time when UK politics is particularly unstable and facing a major potential change of state. Scottish politics and social values are distinctly different from those in the south of England, and are currently much more overtly pro-European and internationalist. Scottish nationalism has allied itself with a Nordic approach, recognising the huge challenge of climate change and desiring to play an active role in addressing issues of social justice locally and globally. Its counter-weight in the form of the “Better Together” No campaign has, so far, been flat-footed and lacklustre.
You might almost believe UKIP to be in unholy alliance with the Scottish Nationalists, to do First Minister Salmond’s bidding – a strong UKIP showing in May will stretch to breaking the fabric which has cloaked the nations of the UK for so long. The rightward swing on the EU, climate and international development will pull apart the remaining strands of consensus between Westminster and Holyrood. And we may find on September 19 that the Union has broken up for reasons of short term expediency and cowardice in the face of Farage. The following week in New York, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon holds his climate summit as a key staging post to getting agreement in Paris late 2015 on limits to greenhouse gas emissions. World leaders need to make their intentions clear this year if the process of churning out legal text is to be ready for December next year. Yet the current UK government seems to be turning its back on “green crap”, under the combined pressure from UKIP, elderly sceptical peers, and big energy companies.
Why does Europe matter to me? It’s our neighbourhood and we need it ever more in a world where UK power continues to diminish. The EU has been key in getting European countries to take climate change seriously, and to invest in renewable energy. It’s the European parliament that has pushed all member states to do more waste recycling, and the EC that has insisted on clean beaches and control of chemical fertiliser use to curb nitrate pollution. We are more European than anything else and we should seek to re-build bridges with our European neighbours. Far from spurning the EU, we have some fences to mend for the arrogance we’ve shown, alongside some fairly appalling behaviour, such as helping big brother spy on Angela Merkel, the EU Trade Commissioner and others. Britain’s demands for exceptional treatment have never gone down well, and have lost us friends and influence. Some people argue that the UK can go it alone, because we have a special friend in the US – but this misreads US interests and intentions. Time has moved on. Obama has made clear his impatience with Britain’s havering about on the EU front and we can expect more of the same from his successors. In moving forward, we must also recognise as brought out clearly in Marko Bucik’s piece, that the European project has been patchy in its benefits, with many of the poor and unemployed seeing few returns, especially with the decline in structural funds to countries like France and the UK.
2014 is a curiously poignant moment to have to argue for the value and relevance of the EU. As earlier generations disappear, it’s as though that direct experience of war and appalling loss and suffering from two bitter, bloody conflicts have erased the memory of what we have achieved over 60 years. As Russia rattles its sabre and China flexes its muscles in arm-wrestling with Japan, we should remember our allies and friends.
And we should think ahead - one thing leads to another. If Scotland leaves the Union, the Tory party acquires renewed dominance in the Westminster parliament. So can we please get the Europhiles out to vote on May 22?
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