The European elections are often derided, and definitely often ignored… after all just a third of us in the UK bothered to go to vote.
Can you name your MEP?
For the next couple of hours, I can. Bill Newton-Dunn. Former Tory, now Lib-Dem. But my best guess would be that I’ll have to learn a new name as the Lib-Dems are quite likely to have no MEPs by the time we get to tomorrow morning.
Newly empowered by the Lisbon Treaty, the European Parliament is in the slightly strange position (soon to be very strange) of having considerable Treaty-based powers, a democratic vote and yet very low levels of connectivity with the people it serves. This will transition to the weirder position of having a considerable number of its Members devotedly campaigning to see their Parliament scrapped. Indeed, taking its money to argue it should shut. Nice gig if you can get it.
For those negotiating the TTIP with the US, they’ll now be faced with a European Parliament in which there will likely be a natural majority against the negotiations. Whilst the strategic pivot means that the US has the focus of its eye elsewhere, the cementing of the Atlantic bridge is important. The current failure in the EU-Canadian CETA has a similar quality to it. And the TTIP will stand or fall in the European Parliament, not just in a vote of the whole Parliament but in the crucial work of the highly professionalised committees structure. The flavour of these is, of course, colored by the Members who sit on them.
But this is not an attempt to convince you of the importance of the EP…I have only finite optimism.
There is a lot of talk of ‘protest votes’, a kick in the teeth to mainstream governments. Semantic point: there is no such thing as a ‘protest vote’, there’s a vote. Which is equal to any other vote, counted in any other way. The hallucinogenic joy of our system of democracy is that Farage could, one day, be Prime Minister. It is of course also possible that Newton was wrong about gravity.
But there is a lot of talk of protests that imply that there are normal votes, and strange votes. And this election will be considered strange, because how could a party of government (albeit the smaller party in a governing coalition) lose every single one of their MEPs? Well, they probably have… because less people voted for them than voted for other parties. The bigger problem is the assumption that the public will continue voting for the same sort of consensus building middle-of-the-road parties when all the evidence from 2008 onwards is that the good old voting public feel like there is a very stark them and us dimension to the relationship between them and the political classes. Populist parties have always been very good at reflecting back the concerns of the public, and doing so in a way that makes them sound human. On Radio4 the other day, Eddie Mair asked the four parties’ contributors to have a go at being human.. not a high proportion of them over-achieved in trying to meet this request.
So, whilst I expect the UK and France to have voted for anti-EU parties in their droves, the populist or anti-those-in-power motif has (according to controversial exit polls reported in the US etc) caused the Dutch to vote for one of the strongest Europhile parties in Europe. So, the political bent of the beneficiaries is not universal, but the underlying pattern is. It’s easy to say these results will be a flash in the pan, or over-read, but equally it would be a mistake for those parties who think of themselves as established to ignore the fact that publics across a large swath of western Europe have come out to not vote for them (in their frame of reference) but to vote for someone else.
For students of foreign policy or transatlantic power politics, such developments offer the potential of four years of choppy European relations on a number of issues that will touch upon the core business of the Atlantic area…And for the UK it’ll provide a serious test for two of the party’s leaders and endless speculation about the beginnings of four party politics..hint: Farage will need to find some talented people to join him at the top of his party for this speculation to be anything other than hot air, the nabbing of the 1990s LibDem strategy of bridgehead constituencies is very astute though.