Listening to Europe’s voters in a new age of anti-politics
The people of Europe have spoken. And we must listen, establishment politicians across the continent are echoing like a bankrupt Greek chorus. We must make jobs a priority. Make Europe a friendlier, less remote, place. Rebrand. Reinvigorate. Repatriate powers. Listen harder. All worthy aspirations, but don’t they sound a bit familiar? That’s because they are. François Hollande, David Cameron, Angela Merkel. and Taoiseach Enda Kenny are all rehearsing the same old mantras we have heard before every time there’s a bump in the European road. And just as unconvincingly.
But what did the people of Europe actually say? It takes some deciphering. Clearly voters across the continent are angry. Large numbers of them are alienated to the point of not voting – 57 per cent abstained. They dislike what their own governments are doing to them – incumbent governing parties, whether of left or right, for the most part, took a hammering. Although – the exception that proves the rule – that of Italy’s Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party got a strong pat on the back, registering its biggest ever win.
Because the reality, even on the protest side, is that it was not the one clear message. Voters produced both a nationalist eurosceptic surge in France, the UK and Denmark, and a swing to the hard left in Spain and Greece. Different countries, different challenges. For many it was about austerity and/or immigration, but the message in Germany was “steady as she goes”. In the countries of eastern and central Europe it was less about austerity politics – governing parties did quite well – and more about a general malaise about politics itself. In Slovakia only 13 per cent turned out to vote, and most of its “new Europe” neighbours were scarcely better.
In all this a sense of rising anti-Europeanism is real enough, as the polls show, but it also largely a cipher for the other problems for which Europe is blamed like the other great scapegoats of history: immigrants, British occupation, , idle welfare scroungers, Jews, Roma ... To say that Europe may be ill-equipped to solve all our problems, is not to say it is entirely to blame for them. And it was remarkable how little the EU actually featured in the debates.
Ireland’s euro-election result reflected a similar blend of mixed messages from voters: Sinn Fein’s stunning vote, a direct riposte to the Government’s economic strategy; the rise and rise of the Independents, an expression of an anti-politics climate. Even Fine Gael’s four seats were a message that we must acknowledge - that, however unpalatable, this government’s medicine has widespread support.
Here too we have to maintain perspective – the majority of our new MEPs , like some 465 or so of the 751 members of the new parliament, support parties that broadly back the EU project. The centre does hold.