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Dr Alex Balch is a Senior Lecturer in the University of Liverpool’s Department of Politics
“The success of parties labelled as ‘far-right’ across the EU in this week’s elections to the European Parliament (EP) will inevitably re-ignite concerns about a return to Europe’s bleak past, when fascism and authoritarianism gripped the continent.
But while the politics of fear in the context of high unemployment and falling living standards has echoes of the 1930s, there are a number of reasons why the political landscape emerging after these European elections is unique and distinct.
First of all, many of the parties that achieved success in the Euro-election of May 2014 defy simple categorisation as ‘far-right’, and often have rather little in common with one another.
Some of the newly successful parties are defined by their Euroscepticism, or are simply oppositional rather than far-right, while others come from the other extreme end of the spectrum.What many do have in common is that they built their campaigns on a potent mixture of several political currents: Euroscepticism of course, but also concerns about immigration and discontent with the usual ‘parties of government’.
Anti-immigration sentiment, for example, is widely present but complex and uneven across Europe. Every Member State has its own narratives around deserving and undeserving newcomers, ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ migration. Each faces its own set of historical and contemporary circumstances when it comes to dealing with this issue. But there are as many states sending migrants as there are receiving them in the EU so the ‘problems’ around freedom of movement are very different depending on where you stand and which way you are looking.
Second, it is worth remembering that this whole show is the result of continent-wide elections to a regional parliament. The very idea of such an institution would have seemed nothing short of fantastical from the perspective of the 1930s.
However, it is somewhat ironic that following the recent elections, this relatively novel parliamentary institution will be providing employment (plus decent benefits) to a number of politicians elected with a mandate to dismantle the European Union. Look at it another way and perhaps the EP is finally fulfilling its function and providing a forum for democratic deliberation.
Nearly 40 years after the switch to directly elected representatives, can the EP move away from its historical role as a rubber-stamping device, flex some muscles, and inject real conflict and debate over the future direction of the EU?
Gravy train or ship of fools?
Certainly since the Treaty of Lisbon the European Parliament has a more concrete role among the other European institutions. But the main lesson, it seems, from this round of Euro-elections is that we can no longer dismiss the surge in Eurosceptic feeling that is sweeping across the Union – even if it is on a fairly low turn-out.
It should be no surprise that this is damaging precisely those political parties which are seen by voters as the architects of European integration, or those who are its protectors. Expect a strong fight-back from those big beasts of the European political scene.
As for the new mixed club of Eurosceptic MEPs – if they all turn up for work – they are still facing a dominant centre-left and centre-right majority in the EP, so to some extent it will be business as usual. But the centrist majority is now facing an ever more bewildering mixture of political opponents from all edges of the political spectrum. One real danger is that the EP, long dismissed as a ‘gravy train’ for European politicians will start to gain even more unwelcome attention: as a ship of fools taking us we know not where.”
Your article, whilst ostensibly balanced and investigative, has a subtext of ‘pro-European Union’ sentiment or, rather, ‘anti-Euroscepticism’. For instance, you round off the article by declaiming that “[o]ne real danger is that the EP, long dismissed as a ‘gravy train’ for European politicians will start to gain even more unwelcome attention: as a ship of fools taking us we know not where.” The crucial word here is “danger”. Why would it be a “danger” if the EU were to be perceived in a negative light by the populace?
There’s an uncomfortably multitudinous array of arguments that oppose further EU integration, the EU in its current state and, indeed, the very concept of the EU itself. You rightly note that Euroscepticism is not intrinsically ‘far-right’, that it is stance that transcends the left-right political paradigm; but still, it seems Euroscepticism has been connoted with the ‘far-right’, indeed with racism and xenophobia and, in cases, Fascism itself. This is unfortunate as I believe that anyone who is willing to squarely look at the EU, sans idealism and prejudicial conception, will see a flawed design resulting in an even more flawed outcome.
The EU operates in what I will somewhat pretentiously and provisionally term ‘quasi-democracy’. An unelected commission (which Tony Blair hoped to retire into the ranks of) draws up all legislation, and the elected MEPs who constitute the parliament have the ability to only veto, amend or accept bills. What this means is that policy is being dictated and controlled by a small self-contained body of commissioners, and that MEPs are relatively powerless. To reform the EU would be a hopeless enterprise as the commissioners have a monopoly of power over the governing body and would be incredibly reluctant to cede control.
One should not, as your article so obliquely does, observe this rise in Euroscepticism with concern and foreboding, and one should not launch into a knee-jerk defense of the EU against an illusory army of foaming-at-the-mouth neo-Fascists. We should explore more deeply the foundations and formations of the European Union and, as academics, we have a duty to impartially report the effects of the institution on society and government in Britain and the rest of Europe.
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