Inside the knacker’s yard
Why should we care about the European Union’s elections? The most famous thing about the European parliament is its epic extravagance. Each year it spends €114 million for the monthly move of its 751 members (MEPs) and their 7,500 staff between its two vast headquarters in Brussels and Strasbourg. Even for the noisily environmentalist and ostensibly fiscally dry Emmanuel Macron, national pride requires that the parliament convene regularly on French soil whatever the cost, carbon impact and inconvenience.
The European Parliament’s largesse with taxpayers’ money doesn’t end there. Even more than the United Nations, it is a bonanza for translators – there are 5,100 of them. MEPs can use any of the 24 official EU languages – which now include Irish Gaelic, representing its 60,000 native speakers – and be translated into all the others.
But the parliament isn’t as important as its cost (€1.95 billion in 2018) suggests. It can amend or block legislation, but can’t initiate it. And its ability to scrutinise the Commission – the EU government – is pathetic compared to the Australian parliament. EU figures who visit Australia are amazed by our ministers being required to respond on the spot to parliamentary grilling. MEPs can submit questions to the Commissioners, the EU’s unelected ministers – famously described by Nigel Farage as a knacker’s yard of failed politicians. They receive a written reply in the fullness of time from an official.
Still, the European parliament is rigorous about priorities. When Australia’s House of Representatives Speaker visited the parliament in 2014 to discuss the planned EU-Australia free trade agreement, her counterparts had understandably given priority to hosting a big welcome for Conchita Wurst, Austria’s drag queen who had won that year’s Eurovision Song Contest.
As to the European elections, held 23-26 May, they were never going to upset the EU apple cart. In the previous parliament, elected in 2014, 597 of its 751 members represented pro-EU parties. There were some forecasts that the number of troublemakers in the parliament – the 154 members representing nationalist parties critical of the EU – could surge to a third of MEPs. But even that result obviously wouldn’t have threatened the parliament’s pro-EU establishment majority.
The elections saw the number of right-wing nationalist MEPs increase to about 171. Europe’s left-liberal establishment has taken comfort from these relatively modest gains as well as from the fact that the elections saw the pro-EU Greens improve their position. In Germany they doubled their vote from the last election to 20 per cent, while in France they scored 13.5 per cent, up from 9 per cent – albeit in both cases apparently at the socialists’ expense.
But the elections show that Europe’s political drift to the anti-immigration right continues. This has been the consistent pattern since German Chancellor Merkel’s decision in 2015 to welcome up to two million Third World migrants. Right-wing nationalists won the vote in France, the UK, Italy, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovenia. They also improved on their result at the 2014 elections in Sweden, Belgium, Spain, Finland and Germany. Austria and the Netherlands produced roughly status quo results.
The only places where they went backwards were Slovakia, where the right-wing ruling party has been rocked by scandal, and Denmark, where the governing centre-right Liberal party has stolen many of the policies of the anti-immigration People’s party.
Much of the increase in the nationalists’ seats tally was accounted for by Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini’s Lega party, which doubled its previous vote to 34 per cent after stopping the boats over the past year. The anti-immigration Sweden Democrats and Belgium’s Vlaams Belang also enjoyed big gains. Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, with 10.6 per cent of the vote, improved on its 2014 performance (7.1 per cent), but received a lower vote than at the 2017 general elections (12.6 per cent). That probably reflects the cessation of massive inflows of illegal migrants into Germany since early 2016, even if lack of integration and crime associated with the newcomers remain issues for many voters.
Thanks largely to the efforts of the EU’s latest bogeyman Salvini, major flows of illegal migrants into Europe have slowed down for the moment. Yet the anti-immigration right still makes gains. Voters across Europe want better border protection. The lesson of the latest elections is that if the establishment refuses to comply, voters will continue to punish it.
The European elections have also had a major impact on British politics, largely because the UK is still in the EU even though Brexit was promised on 29 March. Ironically, Farage’s Brexit party won the top tally of MEPs for any party along with Germany’s Christian Democrats, one of the driving forces behind the EU project – whereas the 70-day old Brexit party’s aim is to get Britain out of EU institutions. Theresa May’s announcement of her resignation was clearly timed to take place before the scale of Farage’s humilation of the Tories – who lost 19 of their previous 23 MEPs – was revealed. The Conservatives’ task now must be to select a leader as clearly committed to Brexit as Farage and so who stands a chance of bringing back disenchanted supporters. But Britain’s pro-Remain and EU-friendly parliament will stay determined to thwart any effort to leave the EU without a deal. If it prevails, Britain could stagger on indefinitely in an EU twilight zone, committed to leaving but unable to secure a parliamentary majority for any way of doing so.
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