Back in November last year, the EU’s Chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, warned of the existential crisis facing the European Union. ‘There is a Farage in every country’ he proclaimed, effectively declaring war on populism which he said would ‘destroy’ Europe. Six months on, one cannot argue with him, as last week’s European election results indicated that the duopoly held by the centre-left and centre-right since the Second World War is indeed, coming to an end.
It was the highest turnout for an EU election in 20 years. And voters were not shy in sending a resounding message to European governments; that they want a change to the status quo, and that centrist, pro-EU parties, from Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche to Merkel’s CDU are no longer serving the interests of the European public. Euro-sceptic parties which already dominate the political scene in Hungary, Poland and Italy, only consolidated their positions with record-breaking results. And despite the chaos of Brexit negotiations in the UK, the Brexit party, led by Nigel Farage, was endorsed once again by British voters, taking a decisive 32 percent of the vote.
The establishment, and its corporate media has however not been ready for this. Dismissed as ‘populism’, responsible for ‘fragmenting’ Europe, the message is that what amounts to democracy in action is something which cannot be tolerated. Populism expert, Salvatore Balbones, explained this phenomenon in an interview I did with him last year. Referring to the European establishment as the ‘expert class’ he describes European elites as people out of touch with reality, distant from ordinary voters, effectively sitting in their ivory towers propagating their globalist point of view which doesn’t reflect that of the majority of the population. He described how such individuals are educated in similar institutions which promote identical political perspectives on how society ought to be run, and that many of these people continue to advocate such opinions when they go on to work in mainstream media and academia.
Often European euro-sceptic parties are labelled as far-right by the media, in a bid to discredit them. But to say that Europe is simply shifting to the right does not fully explain the complexities of what is happening, and I would argue that one has to question whether the labels of right and left are still applicable and helpful in understanding what is happening in European politics today. For far from the appeal of a return to fascist days of the 1930s and 40s, it’s hard to believe that Europeans have missed the strong hand of dictatorship. Arguably, what is happening now is that voters are rebelling against an increasingly authoritarian European Union. Ironically, the very institution formed to preserve freedom and democracy on the European continent is now being accused itself of being undemocratic. Veteran UK politician Tony Benn highlighted this issue years before Britain’s Brexit referendum, even warning that the current EU system would eventually lead to its break-up, as he compared it to what happened with Yugoslavia.
Undoubtedly the 2015 migrant crisis was the last straw to break the camel’s back. Not only had western foreign policy decision-making itself contributed to much of the instability and bloodshed in the Middle East, leading to mass waves of immigration into Europe, but now the public had to foot the bill for this. Angela Merkel’s ‘open doors’ policy towards migrants is largely what has led to her party’s downfall in Germany. Indeed the response of the EU to these crises, demonstrated to Europeans the extent to which policy-making was out of not only their hands, but their country’s hands. Any nation which did not agree to EU policy on accepting migrants - such as Hungary – was immediately lambasted and ostracised by others in the bloc.
Even prior to the migrant crisis we had the fallout from the 2008 economic crash, which showed the Greeks and Spanish that when it came to being a member of the EU capitalist club, it worked better for some than for others. This of course led to the rise of so-called ‘populist’ parties Syriza and Podemos, neither of which it can be said are right-wing, it should be noted.
But European elites are in denial. Far from accepting the results of the ballot box, and the signals that the European public is sending, Merkel and Macron have continued to promote further integration, even suggesting there should be an EU army . Instead of coming to terms with the fact that euro-scepticism is on the rise amongst voters, it seems they believe that by dismissing it through labels of ‘far-right’ and ‘fascist’ they can dissuade voters. Russia has also provided a very useful scapegoat for EU politicians and mainstream media, in a desperate attempt to blame someone else for what it undeniably democracy in action. It is unconscionable to them that EU voters could reject the European project in this way; as they try to persuade the public that it is Russian media that has hypnotized them into voting for parties that are promoting the national interest. Even that deflection tactic, unconvincing as it always was, has past its best.
So it’s now crunch time for the EU. Voters have sent an emphatic message in this last European election, that they are not happy with the current political system. The choice could not be clearer: if the EU is to survive, it will have to seriously reform and adapt, which means less integration, not more. Otherwise, we will see its dissolution. Instead of waging a blame-game, it’s time for centrist parties to wake up and smell the coffee. Or it will be too late.