The cardinal error would be for left, centre and right to defend ‘our Europe right or wrong’ and everything done in Europe’s name, against the Europhobe hordes
Go anywhere inside the Brussels bubble now, and you will find that election fever has broken out; no dinner table chat is complete without speculation about the 2014 elections and the name game- who succeeds Barroso? Who gets the Ashton job? Will the European Socialists or the European People’s Party get most seats?
Things are slightly different in ‘The Dog and Duck’ or on the top deck of the Dusseldorf omnibus. And that’s the problem. Despite the steady increase in its powers, the Parliament’s elections have yet to generate any perceptible excitement beyond the notoriously congested Brussels ring. Apathy which has long dogged these EP elections coincides with general public anger about the way that the economic and social crisis has been handled at all levels. This toxic mixture- apathy and anger- topped up with general ignorance about what is at stake in the elections- could lead to some startlingly alarming results.
For in practically every region of the EU, old populist forces are gaining strength, and new ones emerging. Just to take the larger member states; in France it is not inconceivable that Marine LePen’s Front National and the radical left under Jean-Luc Melanchon will take the honours, with a progressively more right-wing UMP – tainted increasingly with euroscepticism – in third place, and the Socialists limping home fourth. In the UK, many speculate that UKIP could top the European poll, despite the summer slump in its standing. In Germany the new conservative eurosceptic party (Alternativ für Deutschland) hovers around the threshold needed to win seats. In Italy, who can forecast what will happen next month, let alone next year? Only in Spain, paradoxically, has a new truly populist movement yet to emerge although mainstream politicians generate widespread sullen hostility. This pattern of the traditional standard bearers being discredited, and new nationalistic, anti-European forces gaining is now the general picture, not the exception.
This populist advance has two dangers. 2014 won’t be the first EP elections which have seen populists get elected; but the damage they do has thus far been limited because they have been so diverse, so disorganised and so uninterested in the day-to-day work of Parliament that they have not been in a position to sabotage core-business; legislating, controlling the budget, electing the Commission and overseeing the activities of the executive. But if their numbers (currently around 100 MEPs) were to double and if they were to use their extra resources to organise effectively, their ability to wreck the work programme of the EU – not just the Parliament- should not be underestimated.
The second danger is more insidious; it is the debilitating effect a populist breakthrough would have on mainstream politicians. Safety first, creeping euroscepticism, the confidence to launch strong initiatives lacking, and a slide into masterful inactivity in the absence of public support for anything ‘coming out of Brussels’ would ratchet up support for nationalistic anti-establishment forces until some kind of tipping point is reached.
This gruesome scenario is not inevitable.
First the Parliament itself is using new media intelligently to stimulate interest among young voters – the category most pro-European but also the least likely to vote.
Secondly, the novelty of the ‘presidentialisation’ of the campaign, with each European party putting forward its candidate for the Commission top job to lead the campaign may add European content to a campaign which in the past has remained stubbornly parochial, with national parties until now shying away from talking about Europe.
Thirdly, Europe has intruded itself into national politics; even in national election campaigns, European austerity versus European growth, free trade versus fair trade, and Schengen have become hot national political topics.
The main political forces now have some choices to make. If they allow themselves to be pushed into a consensus corner by the rising tide of Euroscepticism they will place themselves on the defensive. The cardinal error would be for Left, centre and right to defend ‘our Europe right or wrong’ and everything done in Europe’s name, against the Europhobe hordes.
For the left the message is clear. In the book that I have recently written with some Labour MEPs and Brussels insiders, “Our Europe, Not Theirs”, the Left must launch a ferocious onslaught on the right’s ten year long domination of the EU institutions which has made blinkered austerity the reigning ideology, contributed to mass unemployment, denied half of our young people of a decent future, brought back inequality and poverty with a vengeance and connived in the dismantling of our cherished social protections.
That’s the easy part. The trick will be to draw up a radical programme for change, based on job creation, harnessing all resources for competitiveness, infrastructure, social investment and research, and fairer trade combined with a regulatory assault on corporate abuse and a priority offensive against tax avoidance by the wealthiest companies. And then to campaign not just go through the motions.
It is by heightening the contrast with the centre right that the real and relevant choices can take centre-stage and thus show-up the essential frivolity and hollowness of the populist offer. A passionate European debate about policy could also give new life to social democrats as the bulwark against destructive and extremist forces which constitute the biggest threat in the 2014 race.
Julian Priestley is a former Secretary General of the European Parliament. He has authored several books about European politics; his latest book, “Our Europe, Not Theirs” co-written with Glyn Ford, David Martin MEP, Linda McAvan MEP, Patrick Costello, Derek Reed and Nick Costello, is published by Lawrence and Wishart.