Games for May

by Andrew Stuttaford

It’s becoming something of a cliché that the May elections to the EU’s unlovely (but these days somewhat powerful) parliament could well develop into something of a triumph for some of Europe’s more extreme parties. Given the ruin that the euro has brought to so many lives and, for that matter, the EU’s corrosive effect on national democracy, that may indeed turn out to be the case. At the same time, it’s important to be aware of two things. The first is that the fact that the current overreach by Brussels is opposed by some genuinely unsavory parties does not mean that opposition to the current EU regime is by definition extreme. The second is that the EU establishment will try to deny that fact.

In a characteristically sharp piece for the Spectator, Dan Hannan provides some essential background. Please read the whole thing (really!), but here are some excerpts:

The most hysterical language is coming, not from the insurgent parties, but from the Eurocrats. The EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, fears that the whole European structure will be blown away by the ‘winds of populism’. (Populism is a favourite Eurocrat word, meaning ‘when politicians do what their constituents want’ — or, as we call it in English, ‘democracy’.) The president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, seeks to make our flesh creep with his vision of ‘political extremes and populism tearing apart the social fabric’. Jean-Claude Juncker, the ultimate Brussels insider, who recently stepped down after 18 years as prime minister of Luxembourg, is so alarmed that he foresees another Great War: ‘I am chilled by the realisation of how similar the crisis of 2013 is to that of 100 years ago.’

Ah yes, playing the Verdun card, again.

Back to Hannan:

What is prompting this panic? Has an archduke been shot? Are mobilisation orders secretly being sent out from the palaces and chanceries of Europe? Hardly. What all these lurid warnings are about is the fact that public support for the EU is collapsing. According to the Commission’s own polling agency, 60 per cent of European citizens ‘tend not to trust the EU’ — up from 32 per cent five years ago.

Naturally enough, some of these citizens will vote accordingly in May’s elections to the European Parliament. What we might call anti-systemic or ‘pirate’ parties are polling at record levels. Some of these parties are indeed distasteful, but others are almost boringly respectable: Alternative for Germany (AfD), for example, is essentially a Eurosceptic offshoot from the liberal FDP, and its upper ranks are disproportionately filled by economists and academics. It alone espouses what, in most countries, would be regarded as a mainstream view, namely that there is no point in asking taxpayers to keep funding euro bailouts that are doing more harm than good.

. . . What links all these ‘pirate parties’? What links Marine le Pen, Geert Wilders, Beppe Grillo, Nigel Farage, Alexis Tspiras, the firebrand leader of the far-left Syriza movement in Greece, and Berndt Lucke, the clever and mild-mannered professor of macro-economics who leads AfD? Beyond the fact that they expect to do well in May’s elections, only one thing: they all dislike the euro. As far as Eurocrats are concerned, this makes them more or less interchangeable. Barroso frames this year’s election as a choice between ‘pro-European forces’ and ‘extremist forces’.

So great is the degree of self-delusion within the EU’s cheerleader squad that some of them actually believe these parties are quite genuinely interchangeable. Others, like the thuggish and cynical Barroso, merely see it as a useful political tactic to pretend to believe that this is the case.

Hannan:

[This] idea is reinforced by countless bien-pensant journalists, who apply the blanket term ‘far right’ to anyone they disapprove of. Here, to pluck an example more or less at random, is an article from last month’s Washington Post: ‘With the FN at 24 per cent, the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV) at 15 per cent, and the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) at 10 per cent, the total of far-right seats [in the European Parliament] would go up to 50.’

What do these three parties have in common? The FN has positioned itself to the left even of François Hollande on economics, favouring protectionism, nationalisation, high taxes and increased welfare spending. Wilders’s PVV, which is overwhelmingly focused on Islamisation, seeks common cause with LGBT organisations, feminists and left-wing secularists. Ukip, unlike most continental Eurosceptics, is unequivocally libertarian, pro-capitalist and pro-City, and has ruled out collaborating with either the FN or the PVV.

. . . To lump together fascist parties (Golden Dawn in Greece, Ataka in Bulgaria, Jobbik in Hungary, the BNP) with bellicose but essentially constitutional anti-immigration movements (FN in France, PVV in the Netherlands, Freedom Party in Austria) is clumsy. To add in eurosceptic parties of the democratic right (AfD in Germany, Mouvement pour la France, Danish People’s Party, Ukip) is deliberately tendentious.

When someone groups all these parties together under the label ‘extreme right’, he is telling you more about himself than about them. Parties like Golden Dawn are not right-wing in any recognisable sense. They favour workers’ councils, higher spending, state-controlled industries; they march on May Day under red flags. They could just as easily sit at either end of the European Parliament’s hemicycle (our closest equivalent, in its combination of mystical nationalism and loathing for capitalism, is Sinn Féin). Calling such parties right-wing isn’t intended to make anyone think less of them; it’s intended to damage mainstream conservatives by implying that the difference between them and the Nazis is one of degree.

. . . If anyone in this debate can be fairly lumped together, it’s not the disparate insurgent parties, but the paleo-federalists of the EPP (European People’s Party), the Liberals and the Socialists. . . . I genuinely struggle to see any great ideological divide between them. Both want a United States of Europe . . . 

My guess is that May’s elections will see big losses for the EPP and the Liberals. The Socialists may pick up a few seats, benefiting from anti-incumbency votes against centre-right governments at national level. But the big gains will be made by euro-critical parties. Paradoxically, the result will be to drive the EPP and the Socialists even closer together, propping each other up like two exhausted boxers at the end of ten rounds.

We can be certain that they will cling to their demands for ‘more Europe’, whatever the economic reality and whatever the wishes of their constituents. For five years, their policies have caused unemployment, deflation and emigration across southern Europe, while the IOUs pile up in northern Europe. Nothing makes them question their faith. No amount of suffering, no amount of debt moves them to admit that the single currency might have been a mistake. They are, literally, beyond argument. Which raises the question — who are the real extremists here?

Indeed it does.

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