Beware the trumpeting of triumphalist Euroscepticism

Opinion: Turnout change is the key thing to watch

‘Spain, Portugal or Ireland don’t have parties like our neighbouring Ukip. It will have difficulty forging alliances with the National Front in France,  or with the Dutch Vlaams Bloc.’ Above,  National Front party leader Marine Le Pen at a campaign rally prior to the  European Parliament elections. Photograph: Jean-Paul Pelissier Reuters

‘Spain, Portugal or Ireland don’t have parties like our neighbouring Ukip. It will have difficulty forging alliances with the National Front in France, or with the Dutch Vlaams Bloc.’ Above, National Front party leader Marine Le Pen at a campaign rally prior to the European Parliament elections. Photograph: Jean-Paul Pelissier Reuters

Sat, May 24, 2014, 08:39

Beware conflation, misleading extrapolation and false generalisation about triumphant populist Euroscepticism this weekend as results from the European Parliament elections and associated local votes flow in from around the European Union. And keep a close eye on what is probably a more important metric: whether overall turnout is up, reversing a steady decline to 43 per cent in the seventh election five years ago compared to the first in 1979.

Yes, such parties will do well. But they are not all the same. Some scepticisms are softer, some harder; some left-wing, some right-wing, some fascist; some are better described as Eurocritical or Europhobe than Eurosceptic – or populist. And their performance is unevenly spread around the 28 states and 375 million voters involved.

Spain, Portugal or Ireland don’t have parties like our neighbouring Ukip. It will have difficulty forging alliances with the National Front in France, expected to do equally well, or with the Dutch Vlaams Bloc, whose support has slumped.

Even if we treat these parties as an undifferentiated whole, they are unlikely to gain more than one-third of the seats, up from one-quarter last time.

This is certainly a significant change and a real warning to the mainstream party groups. But the latter will still represent two-thirds of voters. They cannot be simply juxtaposed against the other, now stronger third; because they are differentiated as well into stronger centre right, centre left, liberal and Green groups.

Nevertheless, another key issue to watch is how these established parties react at national and European levels to the change.

If turnout is up, they may be better able to resist adapting their relatively open policies to the new competitors – on immigration, border controls and economic protectionism; but if it is down again, the newcomers will have a greater political and electoral incentive to make populist generalisations about elite solidarity.

Reaction of status quo The mainstream will respond with more closed policies and more reluctance about deeper integration of economic, social or foreign policies or treaty change. This will happen at both national and European political levels, but national electoral cycles dominate.

Ukip’s success exemplifies that trend, however distinctive it is otherwise. By taking so many local authority and European seats from both Conservatives and Labour outside London, it has become a fourth political force in England. It will have a commensurate influence in next year’s general elections.

It is certainly not a United Kingdom party, having minimal presence in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. It might better be described as a UK break-up party, in that recent polling shows a possible 5 per cent boost for Scottish independence in September’s referendum if Ukip’s rise anticipates a likely English majority vote to withdraw from the EU. Scotland’s vote is becoming nearly unpredictable now, as polling shows a steady convergence, despite shifts reflecting campaign arguments and much heavier pressure from the No side on heavy-duty issues such as sterling, pensions, welfare and taxation.

Bullying of Scots A lot of this is resented by Scots as bullying from a much too powerful London. On a recent visit to Edinburgh, I was struck by how deeply the independence debate has penetrated Scottish politics and everyday life. Everyone I met is touched by it, many astonished by the range and extent of popular engagement. This itself is a radical change, irrespective of how the referendum goes, prefiguring a much deeper devolution if independence is rejected.

The line between “independence-lite” and “devolution-max” is legally thin but symbolically enormous.

Many who will vote No prudentially on September 18th might switch if they thought devo-max would be refused; last weekend’s polling swing back towards the No side probably reflects Labour and Conservative promises to provide it. But there are limits to what either Labour or the Conservatives can deliver, imposed by existing London-centred political structures and by internal party dynamics.

In that setting, the Scottish question, just like the Irish Home Rule one in British politics from the 1870s to 1918, will not go away, whatever the result. In the event of a No, it would certainly be reopened in a UK referendum on whether to stay in the EU, as Ukip demands and now looks more likely, even if Labour wins power next year.

Governments in Ireland, Spain, Belgium and France look at the prospect of Scottish independence with trepidation in light of their own state structures.

The prospect of a UK withdrawal from the EU will equally exercise the new European Parliament and incoming EU executive over the next five years.

pegillespie@gmail.com

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