Una Mullally: EU voter apathy could leave far right in pole position

The thousands of young Irish voters who voted in the referendums of 2015 and 2018 now need to turn up for Europe

It seems inevitable that the far right will make further gains in coming elections, leaving the European Parliament in the strange position of including more and more people who are opposed to the EU ideologically. Photograph: Getty Images

It seems inevitable that the far right will make further gains in coming elections, leaving the European Parliament in the strange position of including more and more people who are opposed to the EU ideologically. Photograph: Getty Images

 

With so much talk about whether or not Britain will end up contesting the European Parliament elections, another ludicrous pitstop on its scenic Brexit drive off a cliff, it’s easy to forget about the importance of the elections beyond Britain and beyond Brexit. But these elections are potentially the most important the EU has ever faced.

The number of MEPs will reduce from 751 to 705. Ireland will increase its number from 11 to 13, and unless Britain’s self-harming departure from the EU is reversed, which is highly unlikely, Ireland will be the only English-speaking country in the EU.

The fabric of the EU isn’t just being creased by Britain, it’s changing across so many of the member states. Voters hold the power here, and people need to turn up to claim a stake in what kind of union they want.  

Let’s look at what we currently have in parliament. There is the conservative European People’s Party group, where most MEPs (218) currently reside; the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (186); the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (68); and then the Eurosceptic group European Conservatives and Reformists (74); the Greens-European Free Alliance (52); the European United Left-Nordic Green Left (52); the Eurosceptic group Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (41) – which includes AfD, the Five Star Movement and Brexiteers – the far-right Europe of Nations and Freedom group (37); and, finally, 22 members who are not part of political groupings in parliament. 

Even though the youth turnout across the EU is so poor, in Ireland we have an opportunity in May to buck that trend

Right now the pollofpolls.eu site has the EPP at 178, S&D at 137, ALDE at 94, the ECR at 63, the ENF at 59, GUE/NGL at 48, the Greens/EFA at 44, EFDD at 32, new unaffiliated group candidates at 42 plus eight non-inscrits (also unattached to groups.)

While the EPP and S&D will probably remain the largest parties, they are falling significantly in numbers. The drop in projected EFDD numbers probably relates to the ongoing understanding that Britain will not participate in the elections, although that assumption is changing all the time.

Right-wing candidates

In 2014, turnout for the elections across the EU was the lowest ever, a pathetic 42.54 per cent. Populist and right-wing candidates excelled in those elections. The turnout gap between young and older voters is pronounced – 51 per cent of people aged 55+ voted; 28 per cent aged between 18 and 24 voted. The Irish youth turnout fell below even that paltry average, a grim 21 per cent. 

Even though the youth turnout across the EU is so poor, in Ireland we have an opportunity in May to buck that trend. Tens of thousands of new young voters took to the polls in the referendums in 2015 and 2018 here, and were the key architects at a grassroots level for that remarkable social change. Those young Irish people now need to turn up for Europe.

While it can often feel as though European politics is a very distant, detached thing, the activities of technocrats and bureaucrats doing “stuff” over there, changing tides affect everyone.

Brexit, which combines Euroscepticism, far-right politics, destructive nationalism, racism and anti-immigration sentiment and right-wing populism is lapping at our shores. Waves made of similar stuff are things Europeans have a chance to calm in these elections.

Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Salvini, is being investigated by Sicilian prosecutors over his blocking a coastguard vessel from entering Italy in August last year with 177 migrants on board. Photograph: Remo Casilli/Reuters
Matteo Salvini, Italian deputy prime minister, will this week host a forum for far-right parties. File photograph: Remo Casilli/Reuters

In many countries far-right candidates are polling well ahead of the elections. Matteo Salvini, the far-right Italian deputy prime minister, will this week host a forum in Milan for far-right parties.

The main hope is that the far right is simply too disorganised to whip itself into a formidable bloc in parliament

It seems inevitable that the far right will make further gains, leaving the European Parliament in the strange position of including more and more people who are opposed to the EU ideologically.

Lega Nord, Salvini’s party, stands to increase the number of its MEPs more than any other party, followed by Five Star Movement, the National Rally/Rassemblent National as the French National Front is now calling itself, the right-wing populists Fidesz of Hungary, and then AfD of Germany.

Main hope 

While Salvini may want to position himself as a pan-European leader of Eurosceptics, which is quite ironic, right now amongst centrists, liberals, the left – whatever, if anything, those terms mean anymore – the main hope is that the far right is simply too disorganised to whip itself into a formidable bloc in parliament.

That hope hardly feels like a sturdy opposition. The centre will not hold, and it is its own fault. Devastating austerity policies, disorganisation, a lack of decent candidates, corruption, poorly communicated immigration policies, a failure to combat extreme voices, blustering and bumbling media, the perception that corporate interests count more than people’s desires to live secure and relatively non-stressful lives, ropey leadership, uninspiring politicians, poor social mobility, and a younger generation who believe (fairly) that they’ve been sold a pup by their elders has all contributed to people turning towards populist and anti-establishment forces.

As seductive, energetic and disruptive far-right politics is, the people of the EU leaning into it as a solution is a terrifying prospect given the continent’s recent history.

But if people don’t agree with what the far-right voices across Europe are shouting about, and still don’t participate in the elections, then they can’t complain about what happens next.

It’s often not someone else’s nefarious intention that gets you in the end – it’s your own apathy.

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