by Brendan Donnelly
First published on the European Movement Blog
Predictably, many commentaries in the British mass media have gloatingly presented the European Elections as a continent-wide reject ion of the process of European integration, as the long-ignored peoples of Europe rising up in democratic wrath against their oppressors in Brussels. The results of the European Elections are however much more ambiguous and mixed than that. It is true that just over a quarter of the French and British electorates voted respectively for the Front National and UKIP and extremist parties of right and left did well in Greece, while Denmark saw success for the anti-immigrant party of Mr. Messerschmidt. But against this must be set the 93% of the German electorate who voted for pro-EU parties, the victories for pro-EU governing parties in Italy, Spain, Poland and the Czech Republic and the poor result of the Eurosceptic Mr. Wilders in the Netherlands. The European Elections certainly demonstrate that there are deep-rooted economic problems within a number of European countries. But these problems are essentially national rather than European problems. France and the United Kingdom well illustrate this point.
There is at the moment an enormously unpopular Socialist government in France, which has made only spasmodic attempts to reform the still productive, but nevertheless inflexible French economy. The Opposition is divided and public opinion is deeply sceptical about the capacity of the current French political system to produce the economic and social reforms necessary to guarantee future French prosperity. The preceding government of Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Fillon did little better than Mr. Hollande in attempting to solve these systemic problems. The simplistic claim of the Front National that these fundamental problems of French political society are the responsibility of outsiders, in particular the European Union, is populist, attractive and dangerously incorrect. The great majority of French voters recognize this. That there is a significant minority which does not can hardly be laid at the door of the European Union. Pseudo-democrats in France and elsewhere will no doubt claim that French politicians should now at least pretend to share the intellectual and moral confusions of the Front National. Genuine democrats will understand that democratic political leaders only discredit themselves and democracy when they adopt such tactics.
Similar considerations to those in France apply also to the United Kingdom. There is widespread distrust and disdain for the established political classes and great pessimism about the economic future of the country in the medium and long term. Living standards have at best stagnated for the past seven years and what improvement there has been has been concentrated in London and the South East. Britain’s economy has for many years been constructed on a dangerous mixture of public debt, private debt, oil revenue and the earnings of the City of London. Successive British governments have done little or nothing to stabilize this volatile mixture. In particular, they have acquiesced in perpetuating an under-qualified and under-motivated general British workforce, which has indeed all too often proved vulnerable to immigrant workers from elsewhere in the European Union. The populist success of UKIP, with its almost exclusive focus on the topic of immigration, has been to convince a significant minority of the British electorate that this vulnerability is the fault of the European Union and not of the British themselves. It would be a self-defeating error bringing great potential damage to our country if politicians from the larger British parties appeared to embrace the underlying misconceptions of UKIP’s approach to the world and Britain’s place in it.
It is no coincidence that in Germany by contrast Euroscepticism is confined to one small party, the Alternative for Germany, which is not against Germany’s membership of the European Union, but only of the euro. The current German economic model is an altogether more sustainable one in our epoch of irreversible globalisation than that of France and the United Kingdom. The German workforce is highly-qualified, highly motivated and highly productive, while levels of private debt are low and public debt is falling. There are certainly criticisms to be made of the German government’s handling of the euro-crisis, not least in its initial stages. But none of them should detract from our recognition that Germany’s underlying economic model is a sound one that we would do well to ponder and imitate. It used to be widely accepted that the ability to learn from our European neighbours was a definite advantage of membership in the European Union. That generous insight has been replaced in some quarters by a desire to isolate ourselves from Europe for fear of having our own deficiencies exposed. The underlying economic message of UKIP and the Front National (which are in many other respects dissimilar) is the same, namely that the United Kingdom and France must be sheltered from international competition, because they can never succeed in such competition. Leading politicians in France and the United Kingdom should beware of regarding such lazy pessimism as any kind of patriotism, even if dresses itself up in the tricoleur and the Union Jack.