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European elections and the Brexit effect

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Election results showed a reflection of the changing face of Europe over the last few years (Screenshot via YouTube)

The European Parliament elections on the weekend saw a lot of disappointment for all those looking for drama, though voter turnout got a healthy lift, writes Dr Lee Duffield.

AN EXPECTED PUTSCH by the extreme Right wing (the Salvini group in Italy, Le Pen in France, Farage in England, the Orban Government of Hungary) came to nothing in the 751-seat house. Despite capturing the lead in respective countries they ended up increasing their EP delegation only from 106 to 112.

Among the large bloc of “mainstream” centre-Right parties, conservatives such as the British Tories took hits at home and altogether came down from 291 to 241.

In an image of events in Australia, the centre-Left parties such as British Labour were also hard hit. Despite some gains as in the Netherlands or Spain, they came down from 191 to 147.

The Greens further Left had their strong successes – in France, Germany and Ireland especially – but one grouping, called Nordic green Left, suffered losses, so the overall Green total grew from 98 to just 107.

Main gainers to soak up the large losses here and there were the pro-business human rights-orientated European liberals like the British “Lib-Dems” and German FDP (a breed scarcely known in Australia where the “liberal” name is used by conservatives). They are “pro-Europe” and their delegation expanded from 67 to 109.

Quick arithmetic indicates there must still be a small shadow army of seats looking for members and those have gone to the categories of “non-aligned” and “others”. They include the British Independents (defectors from Labour and Conservatives who support EU membership) and at the other end fragments split off from the extreme-Right. Overall, this is a pro-Europe grouping.

WHAT SORT OF PARLIAMENT?

What sort of parliament?

  • Pro-Europe, approximately 630 seats versus 121 anti-EU. Neo-fascists have hardly laid a glove on the EU — not this time.
  • In ideological terms, while it does not divide Left–Right like a Westminster Parliament, it will be continuing as a Right-of-Centre house. The Centre-Right parties have 241 votes and could hope for another 109 from the Lib-Dems; the Left and Centre-Left (Greens and social democrats) have together 254; the extreme Right (nobody wants to dance with them) have their 112 and there are the 35 independents.

Various compilations including one from The Guardian give the provisional but accurate results with helpful explanations.

Two stories can be taken from this event, the first being the war for Europe, dealing with efforts to destroy the European project and the second is the related United Kingdom story about the pain of “leaving”.

THE WAR FOR EUROPE

The radical nationalist parties in several countries running long-term anti-immigrant campaigns and slowly building support got a shot in the arm with the immigration crisis four years ago. Thousands of border crossers escaping war in the Middle East alarmed more voters and helped the parties build support, some breaking beyond the usual 15% mark and getting into government coalitions, as in Austria where their Freedom Party has just had to quit over a corruption scandal.

Successes incited a ratcheting-up of campaigns against a new target — membership of the European Union, once again identifying an enemy to “national” or racial cultures and identity.

More success in the European Parliament elections this year would have injected a rowdy element with power to denigrate its procedures and bring it down. Self-described “authoritarian” and nationalist parties – cold on the rule of law, that in most cases have roots in pre-war fascism – running disruption campaigns against state institutions, set off alarm bells.

The attacks on the German Reichstag on the way to destroying democratic government in the 1930s are burned into historical memory. Then, a rabble of elected National Socialist deputies, crims and cranks of various kinds, turned up in uniform, disturbing debates, joshing, jabbering, laughing and saluting one another. The parliament in a short time became a rubber stamp for the authoritarian government under its unbalanced “strong leader”, Adolf Hitler.

Concerns in 2019 are lit up by the goings on in America, where “strong leader” President Donald Trump has been systematically working to bust the power of institutions other than his presidency, for example dismantling state regulatory agencies including environmental protection, stacking the Supreme Court, or defying Congress. A pocket-sized operation on the same lines being run by Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary, has gone further down the road, muzzling media, forcing the closure of a university and the like.

DAMPENING ANTI-EUROPE AMBITIONS

The European elections should put something of a dampener on such ambitions. The turnout at 51% was the strongest for two decades and did not signify angry new voters out to do in the EU. It is possible that with the expansion of the European Union, along with the powers of the directly-elected joint parliament, it has been getting more citizen interest — not so much to trash a united Europe as to take part in it. The EU has over 400 million electors in its 28 countries.

The project, as always, does have a long way to run with many enemies out to stop it. As a Western European club up to 1992, it was prosperous, strongly performing on human rights and justice and also united. It then took in the Eastern European states after the fall of the Soviet bloc, which remain behind on economic and democratic key performance indicators: struggling economies, organised crime and corruption, weak politics, authoritarian big men in command. Impacts of the Global Financial Crisis also continue to slow down growth and make the future pathway of the EU uncertain.  

MORE TROUBLE IN BRITAIN

In Britain, the confusion over seceding from the European Union has alienated supporters of “leave” and supporters of “remain” alike, from the two main parties — both divided on the issue.

On the provisional figures, voters against Europe clustered around Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, which topped the poll with over 30% of votes cast and 29 seats won (his UKIP party got 27% and 24 seats in 2014). Voters in favour of “Europe” went to the Lib-Dems who improved from one seat to 16 and the Greens who went from three to seven. Labour lost seven out of 17 seats. The Conservatives did worst, slipping from 23% in 2014 to 10% and ending with four seats, down from 20.

STOPPING “BREXIT”?

The result in the United Kingdom denotes anger over the botched efforts to negotiate an exit with the European Union and failure of the British Parliament to work out answers. The European Parliament results in Britain were about the secession issue; a general election would be different with more issues in play.

British analysts adding up votes for parties that were for or against “Brexit” gave the “remainers” a lead of 2–9.5%.

The Liberal Democrats Leader, Sir Vince Cable, said the “remain” side had got a majority and there should be a fresh vote, such as a new referendum on “Brexit”:

"We've had a brilliant result, we've got a lot now to build on… The only way now to resolve the issue is to go back to the public."

How the fight might go cannot yet be construed. Members of a split Conservative Party holding onto minority government have been lining up to replace the hapless Prime Minister, Theresa May, who finally resigned last Friday. They look prepared to choose a rigid supporter of secession, even going to a “hard” exit without an EU contract, generally seen as a prescription for bitter recession. In any event, the situation is a prescription for trouble that the voting for the European Parliament has done nothing to settle.

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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