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IN A SOMBRE MOOD

- The European Union’s widespread unpopularity

Europe is going through one of its recurring periods of acute discomfort. Eurocrisis seems to have become the new normal, especially after the global recession of 2008 induced by the United States and the subsequent Euro-debt catastrophe across the ‘olive belt’ — the southern states using the common currency of the Union. Just when it was emerging to some extent from that Eurozone crisis, and economic growth, though minimal, was being forecast by the International Monetary Fund, the European Union has been hard hit by another disaster, causing one leader to claim, on May 26, that Europe has become inscrutable and incomprehensible even to governments. This was from no eurosceptic, but a person passionately devoted to the European Union, and no less a dignitary than President François Hollande of France himself.

The proximate reason for this soul-searching and breast-beating is the recently concluded elections for the European Parliament, which the Union wishes, as soon as possible, to make the legislative centre for all the 28 states of the Union. The fact that 63 per cent turned out to vote in 1979, when the first parliamentary elections were held, against only 43 per cent on May 25 this year was bad enough. But, in some countries, the electorate was astonishingly apathetic — for example, in Slovakia, only 13 per cent of the electorate voted. Even worse, the voting trend in many countries was completely dismissive of the European Union. Both the political extreme Right and the extreme Left, comprising anti-EU, anti-immigration and anti-austerity parties made unprecedented gains.

In France, the extreme Right National Front took 25 per cent of the vote; in Britain, the UK Independence Party held over 27 per cent; in Denmark, a similar party took 27 per cent, in Austria 20 per cent, in Italy 21 per cent, in Hungary 15 per cent and in Holland 13 per cent. At the other end of the spectrum, in Greece the far Left, the Syriza party, won 26 per cent and the far Right 10 per cent. Of the big countries, only Germany and Poland resisted this trend, and even there, the extreme Right scored 7 per cent each. But the overall message is loud and clear: that there is a huge, bubbling, popular dissatisfaction with the European Union. The heads of government have met at Brussels to discuss this problem, all agreeing that something should be done and the voting underlined the need for reform. But, in the end, it was, predictably, business as usual. Germany and France see the problem as being not too-much Europe but not enough, and they will continue to press for even stronger political and economic integration.

Domestically, the impact has been even greater. Hollande’s popularity has been in a downward spiral ever since he was elected and it is hard to see that being reversed without a substantial economic recovery, which is most unlikely. British politicians from the ‘legacy parties’ have all been under fire; the prime minister, David Cameron, has been urged by his back-benchers to get off the fence and pronounce that Britain was ready to exit the Union, and to strike an alliance with UKIP before the next general election scheduled next year. Ed Miliband of the Labour Party has been asked to promise an ‘in or out’ referendum on Europe, and the Liberal leader, Nick Clegg, has been subject to a mini-revolt from his own party, incensed by the loss of 72 per cent of Liberal municipal seats and 91 per cent of its members of the European Parliament. The leaders’ reactions have also been predictable: the Conservatives say that they will not ally with any other party, Miliband is ambiguous but pro-Europe, and Clegg, who is openly pro-Europe, will not resign.

The battle lines in Europe are likely to be clearly drawn over the election of the successor to take over at the end of this year from José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, the civil service organization based in Brussels. Of the four contenders seeking election from the European Parliament, the front-runner is Jean-Claude Juncker, a former prime minister of Luxembourg. Juncker belongs to the Centre-Right, and is therefore backed by Germany and by a majority of MEPs. Since he is a person dedicated to increasing the powers of the EU, he will certainly be challenged not only in the European Parliament, where the Eurosceptics will now hold a third of the seats, but also by leaders like the British prime minister, who has declared his intention to renegotiate the terms of British membership to reduce the powers of the Union and enhance London’s opt-out of nearly all the edicts handed down from Brussels. That he is given scant chance of success is ruefully acknowledged in Britain, but he has to show his electorate that he is bravely standing up to the Union, because that is the flavour of politics in Britain at this time. Theoretically, Barroso’s successor is to be elected by the European Parliament, but in practice will need the consensus approval of the EU’s heads of government.

It is difficult to discern the true rationale for the European Union’s widespread unpopularity. It is correct that the stringent austerity measures to reduce the national debt and rein in the fiscal deficit have hit certain countries hard. The public in the better-off economies, like Germany and the Netherlands, do not want their taxes to be used to bail out countries that they regard as spendthrift, and certainly do not desire any decrease in their standards of living. It is also true that Barroso has been in office for ten years, and the president of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy, for five, and that few have any good word for the mandarins in Brussels. The Union is nearly everyone’s favoured whipping boy, and anti-democratic, elitist and corrupt are some of the epithets commonly used against the European Union. This ignores the benefits of the common market, welfare schemes and personal mobility across borders that have now come to be regarded by every European as an entitlement, and to which some, as in Western Ukraine, aspire.

One problem for Europe is that the most skilful and charismatic politicians on the continent belong to the anti-EU camp. Whether it is Marine Le Pen in France, Nigel Farage in Britain or Alexis Tsipras in Greece, they obviously articulate the hopes and fears of the common people and connect better with the public than any of the leaders in power. The maverick Conservative mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who rarely fails to sense the popular mood, has weighed in with his characteristic hyperbole; he assesses the anti-Europe parties as “united by a visceral dislike of the EU bureaucracy; its arrogance, its remoteness, its expense, its endless condescension, and its manic and messianic belief in its right to legislate for all the 500 million people in the European Union”. There are few across the 28-nation conglomerate who are ready to stand up and speak in its favour. But in Europe as elsewhere, the answer is not greater or lesser Europe, but in peace, economic growth, employment, containment of inflation, and the resurgence of aggressive nationalism.