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Time to put Europe back on the map

Article by Foreign Policy Centre

July 23, 2009

Amid all the hoopla of cabinet resignations, alleged plots and general infighting that threatened to unseat Gordon Brown, the actual results of the European Elections somehow seemed something of an afterthought. The lowest share of the vote for the Labour Party since Keir Hardy was in short trousers was duly noted alongside real anger, though not surprise, at the election of BNP MEPs for the first time. What the result means for the UK’s relationship with Europe has been mostly overlooked in the commentary.

The election campaign by the main parties was perhaps most notable for its almost complete lack of European content with occasional Conservative attacks on the government’s decision not to hold a referendum on the Lisbon treaty the only issue gaining significant coverage. John Prescott, not the most devout of pro-Europeans, was stinging in his attack on the government’s ‘non-campaign’ saying it lacked a clear message. The retreat from making a positive case for Europe by the Labour Party, although perhaps for tactical reasons at this election, is part of a longer term trend that leaves the way open for a strategic defeat for pro-Europeans at the hands of Eurosceptic media and parties.

Even before the first vote was counted the Conservatives’ decision to leave the EPP-ED to create a new Eurosceptic group ‘European Conservatives and Reformists’ meant it was always likely that Britain’s delegation for the first time would have a clear majority of MEPs (43 MEPs) sitting in explicitly Eurosceptic groupings in the Parliament. The actual result gave the Eurosceptic camp 43 members and with 29 UK MEPs remaining in the main groupings or smaller pro-European coalitions. The Tories move from the EPP is likely to preclude them from gaining high ranking positions in the Parliament’s Committees, reducing their ability to directly influence legislation. When the poor result for Labour and the PES across Europe that reduced their bargaining power for committee posts is taken into account it is clear that the UK will have considerably less clout in the new Parliament than it has previously been able to exercise.

While the corrosive effect of the drip drip revelations on MPs expenses clearly helped to depress both the turnout and support for the main three parties, the scandal simply added to an anti-establishment sentiment seen in several European Countries. In Western Europe the hard right strengthened its position in some countries including the Freedom Party in the Netherlands led by recently banned from the UK Geert Wilders, the True Finns Party in Finland and the Freedom Party in Austria. On a more positive note the Front National fell back in France from 7 to 3 seats while the German far right failed to make a breakthrough.

The trend was perhaps most pronounced in Eastern Europe, where the economic crisis hit hardest, seeing a significant rise in support for anti-EU parties and large falls in turnout in many countries, amid complaints that the EU is not doing enough to assist them. Among them include the anti-Roma Hungarian nationalist JOBBIK party achieved 3 MEPs and 14.8 per cent of the vote, while the Greater Romanian Party whose pet hates include ethnic Hungarians will join them in Brussels after also gaining 3 seats.

While commentators have pointed out that the elections were a bad day for Europe’s Centre-Left, looking at the relative successes and failures it seems that the overall trend in the election may be seen as a setback for openness and internationalism rather than a post-crunch endorsement of free market values in the face of a socialist critique. The election saw call for greater economic nationalism, protectionism, restrictions on immigration and opposition to Turkish accession grow louder. However for the most part the parties of the right were able to respond to the economic crisis by co-opt the criticisms of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ capitalism, arguing that they had always preferred a more continental capitalism with an activist, regulating state.

The challenge across Europe is to reverse this nationalist, insular trend while holding a measured debate about the EU’s future economic direction. However here in the UK there is a pressing need for pro-Europeans to start making the case about why we benefit from EU membership and the damage a diminished relationship with other European partners or withdrawal would do to Britain.

The pro-European camp in the UK has been without a focus for several years lacking an issue such as Euro membership to unite behind and since the decline of the ‘Britain in Europe’ campaign. There is a clear need to re-establish a broad based coalition in favour of the European Union, not for any new grand projet, but to reassert the importance of the European Union for the UK’s long-term economic prosperity and its status as a key player on the world stage. Politicians of all parties, business, trade unions, NGOs and grass roots activists must unite to make the case that only by working together with our European partners can we effectively address the cross-border challenges we face such as climate change and repairing the global economy.

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