25 May 2014

What price the EU, including fascists?

Imagine you went to sleep in 1994 and woke up, 20 years later, as the Euro election results were coming in.

In France, the Front National (FN), which had been stuck on 11 per cent 20 years ago, has won. The anti-immigration, nationalist right looks to have won in Hungary, Denmark and the UK. Meanwhile the Greek Marxist left, which in 1994 was just a few thousand strong, has also won, and Sinn Fein are storming various cities in Ireland.

As you rub your eyes, you wonder: what could have caused this? Has there been a 1930s style Depression? You check all available sources: in Greece, Spain and Portugal there’s been Depression-like unemployment but in France and Austria and Denmark? No. The big picture is that a global Depression has been averted.

So what’s happened?

Piecing together the evidence, this is what I think you would conclude.

First, that for about a fifth to a quarter of Europeans, consent for mass immigration has broken. And now – you struggle to get your 1994 head around this – many people are more worried about white, Christian people coming from eastern Europe than they are Africans scrambling over the fences at Europe’s borders (though they are worried about this too). For some, it’s about the erosion of traditional cultures, for others it’s about wages, others still it’s overt hostility to Islam. Either way it’s a fact.

Second, there is a gross breakdown of trust in European institutions, its bureaucracy and the mainstream parties. Even people who still vote for the centrist socialists or conservatives feel like they are struggling to hold the line. In national elections turnouts are down; corruption scandals are the meat and drink of press coverage from Valencia to Budapest and Nicosia.

Third, and specifically in France, Denmark, Hungary and Austria – there is a hunger for economic policies that protect their own country’s industries and welfare systems against the impact of globalisation. If you read the FN’s manifesto, for example, it is heavily about protecting domestic industry and the welfare system.

Finally, liberalism and social democracy look more devastated than the conservative European People’s Party (EPP).

Now, fascinating though it is to see Hitler-apologist fruitcakes elected in Poland, and goose-stepping fascists doing well in both Hungary and Greece, you turn your gaze at Britain.

What you conclude is that, for the first time in modern British politics the established party system is facing a legitimacy crisis.

It’s been amusing to see the pundits try and interpret the local and Euro election results as “four party politics”. We are at the very least in a period of seven party politics – with the SNP, Plaid, Ukip and Greens. But in reality the situation here is better described as beyond-party politics.

As I wrote on Friday, there is a culture war going on, driven by extreme discontent among a minority of people whose lifestyles do not conform to, nor their economic prospects improve under, globalised capitalism and social liberalism.

We can now see the UK situation as a very specific expression of a wider discontent across Europe. Liberalism, freemarket conservatism and social democracy are all in crisis, but to different extents.

The liberal problem in a nutshell is that, across Europe, liberals have tried simultaneously to identify with the old project of free markets and free movement – and at the same time to represent the discontented lower-middle classes. But the discontent of the lower-middle class has now moved in the direction of economic nationalism, opposition to immigration and opposition to elite politics.

Britain is a microcosm of this: the old Lib Dems always contained a minority prepared to play to white anti-immigration voters – for example in Tower Hamlets in the 1990s. Now those voters are gone to Ukip, while the progressives, students and eco-warriors – the famous Mosaic Group E that electoral strategists used to obsess about – are scattered between Labour, the Greens and active refusal to vote.

Next, Labour. As the Euro results show, social democracy is in crisis across Europe. The political reasons are fairly clear: no social democratic party has been able to break with the old globalisation agenda – but they have in addition been required to sign up to austerity, removing their ability to deliver, or even promise, a better welfare system or higher wages to offset the impacts of globalisation. In Spain, a left-social democratic party, Podemos, was created from scratch and got 8 per cent.

Meanwhile, the mass base of social-democracy is being politically and economically transformed. What we loosely call the “white working class” in western Europe always had the advantage of high social capital: the pub, the kafeneion, the piazza. In these spaces, people have not worked out their response to being abandoned in a fragmented or atomised way: it’s been discussed, debated, a new “common sense” has emerged. And what it comes down to is a large minority of them have had enough of globalisation if there are no upsides to it, for them or their children.

In a situation where social-democracy’s main mission becomes impossible – to deliver social justice within the European Union of Maastricht and Lisbon – you then get the complication of a leadership lottery. In Greece, Pasok’s leaders managed to destroy their party by ineptitude. In Denmark, a strong-character party leader – Helle Thorning-Schmidt – managed to hold the line. In Britain, you get Ed Miliband, in France Monsieur Hollande. Apart from flat leading personalities, many social democratic parties also have the problem that they are machine-administrative organisations that breed uncharismatic leaders.

On the BBC’s Have I Got News for You last month they played a cruel trick on Nigel Farage, making him classify various Ukip candidates as either “fruitcake or loon?”. If you played an equally cruel game on the European social-democrats it might be called “boring, chinless or discredited?”

Britain’s Labour Party is not finished because of what’s happened this weekend.  Indeed it is pressing many of the right buttons – on the evidence – among the Mosaic social group E – while clawing back its support in the working class heartlands of the north.

But the Scottish referendum and the conference season will be critical to its ability to look like a potential government come May 2015.

And the Euros are a reminder that, although there has been no Syriza-style left breakthrough, the Green Party vote is solidifying to the left of Labour, at 8 per cent in the UK exit poll as I write this.

Now for the Conservatives. As Conservative peer Michael Ashcroft pointed out on Saturday, the default position is quite good for Labour and quite discouraging for the Conservatives. The polling results from Thursday translate into Labour winning its key marginals and getting a small majority in 2015.

Why this is bad for Cameron is obvious if you consider his advantages: an economic recovery, some competent ministers; no major crisis (yet) in the NHS despite a massive reform programme; strong support from most major newspapers; and the aura of incumbency.

But the Tories’ poor showing in the Euro elections – when incumbent centre-right parties in Europe have done well – goes to the heart of the challenge: the natural base of the Conservative party has, for 200 years, been people who espouse patriotism, church, a big military and constrained immigration. The win predicted for Ukip in the UK Euro elections shows where many of those people voted.

Where does it go next? The most frightening prospect for the entire British centre is the attitude of the centre in Europe. It is likely that they will press on with the Euro project faster and deeper, regardless. There is no message of mollification coming from the panjandrums of the old commission, nor from the German CDU.

If the centre holds its nerve, and pushes forward to a banking union and deeper fiscal union, then whatever the policy outcome, the outcome at a level of emotional narrative will only accelerate the detachment of the discontented.

The choice for European centrist politics is clear: either tweak or jerk the Euro project in the direction that it delivers for the workers and the young or see populist parties of the left and right go on growing.

More from Channel 4 News: European elections – Everything you need to know

One final point: at some point one of these non-centrist parties is going to win an election. You can easily see the next French presidential poll being a run off between Le Pen and a centrist candidate; Syriza could well win in Greece in 2015, it’s no longer crazy to imaging Sinn Fein one day running the Irish Republic.

If a far left or right party ever gets to run an EU member state, the mere fact of it will affect how people in other states view the project as a whole. It will pose the question: do you want to be part of a Europe where swastika-waving Golden Dawn get into the parliament; where Marine Le Pen could sit in the Elysee? The Euro project was supposed to make sure the continent could never again go fascist. If European legislatures are now crawling with fascists, what was the point of that?

So pinch yourself: you have not been asleep since 1994 but like the famous boiling frog you have been slowly experiencing the withdrawal of consent for the European project by a vocal fifth or quarter of the population.

This is the night (or by now morning) the mainstream actually realised the water was getting uncomfortably hot.

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