The real center of gravity after the European elections

by Ira Straus

Chair, Centre for War-Peace Studies

5th June 2019

1. In Europe

The center of gravity in the new European Parliament (EP) is, overall, in the same center-right and pro-EU space it inhabited before. However, it has significantly changed its emphasis in two specific areas: an enlarged cohort seeking stronger policies and security measures against migration, and an enlarged cohort for more environmentalism. It has also shifted somewhat from Christian Democrats (EPP) to Liberals.

The pro-EU outlook remains a supermajority position, despite the growth of Euroskeptic parties. For the EP’s work, the Euroskepticism within the populist parties may be less relevant than their preference for increasing the security elements in European integration. This is a matter of strengthening the EU in a direction in which others in the EP could agree.[1]

An increase in the security side of integration would rebalance the political culture of the Union. Security integration requires a security culture, very different from the soft culture formed in the course of the long decades of focusing on economic and humanitarian integration. It is something the need for which has long been recognized by leading European Federalists, odd though it sound be to hear this today. The leading European Federalist theoretician in Italy, Mario Albertini, wrote that decades of soft integration had left European elites all fox no lion, a kind of decadence of elites that necessitated a rebuilding of hard elements in the EU political culture and its national subcultures alike.

The refocus urged by the populists comes together with an increased emphasis on European and Western identity rather than a more undifferentiated global human identity. This comports with the policy goal of more solid structures and commitments for restricting migration.

Somewhat contradictorily, many of the populists would like to emphasize national identity over European identity even while strengthening the European security identity. However, none of their parties seek to leave the EU or eliminate the European level of identity and organization. It is in any event on security integration and on a harder, more balanced European identity, not on a reversion to national identity-primacy, that they have a prospect for finding support in the EP.

2. In the UK

The strictly anti-Brexit parties (LibDems, Greens, SNP, and others) got more votes (40.5%) than the Brexit and UKIP parties combined (35%). This is a reversal compared to the previous Brexit Referendum. It gives additional reason why a Referendum 2 is requisite.

It is likely that the majority against Brexit was even larger than this 5% margin.

This is because there is strong reason to believe that, of the 21% who voted Labour or Conservative in this election, more were Remainers than Brexiters. Tory and Labour Brexiteers mostly voted for the Brexit Party. That left the Remainers plus those in-between to vote Tory and Labour.

Voting for the Brexit Party was easy for Tory and Labour supporters of Brexit. It didn’t interfere with feeling themselves Tory and Labour. Brexit isn’t a real party, just a single issue grouping, voting for which was akin to a referendum vote. It was the right issue for this election – the only real issue in this election. It was ridiculed for not having a platform manifesto beyond Brexit, but it was right in this. The other side would have respected the nature of the vote better by doing the same. 

The other side didn’t do it. That made it a lot harder for Tory and Labour Remainers to vote for, say, the Lib Dems. That’s a real party, one that has always been fighting against their own parties decade after decade in elections, pitting its ideological stances against theirs on a multitude of issues. It felt disloyal to vote for it. And as we are seeing, people can get punished for that disloyalty.

Voting Lib Dem had to be advertised – openly advocated and argued – as the best way for Tory and Labour remainers to vote this time. It wasn’t obvious – as was voting Brexit Party for Brexiteers of every party – as something that could go without saying, the sort of thing that could be done without need for public advocacy and rumination, wouldn’t get loyalties questioned, and from which one could revert to the other parties as a matter of course.

The Remain parties would almost certainly have done still better than their 5% combined victory margin, had they organized jointly under the heading of the Anti-Brexit Party for this vote. That in turn would have made this a true surrogate 2nd referendum, vote Brexit Party or vote Anti-Brexit Party. And would have made the case for an explicit 2nd referendum almost irresistible, given how sharply its results would have contrasted with the 1st.[2]

Indeed, for the vote to have been true to its nature, such an Anti-Brexit party would have had to have been put forward, and those parties without clear positions on Brexit – Labour and Conservative – would have had to abstain from the election, or else form a “half-Brexit” party bloc. But this did not happen.

How to estimate the actual margin, in face of the failure to do this, and distribute with some accuracy the votes of Labour and Conservatives on the actual question which was Brexit? One could wish for more complete information on this from exit polls. However, other figures help here. Labour, a majority of whose voters are anti-Brexit, had 14% of the vote, and performed much better than norm in anti-Brexit constituencies; Conservatives, with their smaller 9% vote and despite their Brexit voting tendency, performed only somewhat better than norm in pro-Brexit constituencies. This indicates that the overall distribution of the 23% should be substantially to the anti-Brexit side, by a margin of greater than 14% to 9%.

That makes for a total of at least 54% against Brexit, 44% for Brexit: a margin of at least 10% against Brexit. It is a robust margin. Even without distributing the ambiguous votes, the difference remains the recorded 5%, a margin greater than the margin in the original Brexit referendum.

This indicates something verging on a moral imperative at this time to hold a second referendum on Brexit. It is the only way to ascertain authoritatively a will of the people on the matter.

If a majority were to confirm explicitly in a referendum its indicated majority position in the recent EP election against Brexit, it is vital that the Government should have this result, in order that it at least fulfill the will of the people when it acts in the name of popular democracy, not traduce it as it appears to have come to be doing in trying to push through Brexit in the name of the people. It is also vital for the Government to have the authority of a second referendum in hand, in order to be capable of taking actions such as canceling Article 50 if this is in fact what the popular majority prefers; and in any case, to be able to take its actions in a manner that will sustain such legitimacy and consensus as can still be had in the body politic after the last two years.


Footnotes

[1] For this, the EPP and others will need to change their policy of excluding the populist Right and overcome their aversion to working with it where feasible. Were they to stick to a policy of excluding the anti-immigrant parties from constructive parliamentary participation, they would leave the populists with little to pursue but Euroskepticism, turning the widely expressed fears of such an obstructionist emphasis into a self-fulfilling prophecy. They would also ensure a further growth of the populist vote in public elections. Both are outcomes that the EPP would, when consulting its true interests, wish to avoid.

[2] Many have already commented on the unwisdom of those individual small parties in failing to join forces: the lack of PR sense, and the short-sighted nature of their separate ambition. They could have done something historic had they joined forces; and could have won more votes under a clear banner for single issue voters that doesn’t threaten their party loyalty, an Anti-Brexit Party that plainly is not a permanent party just a today’s-great-issue coalition. They would have come out much stronger that way, as historic achievers, individually and collectively, and an achievement that would be mostly appreciated for saving Britain. Instead they went for immediate selfish gratification for their own party labels. They sowed what they reaped. The laurels in the media went overwhelmingly, and misleadingly, to the Brexit Party and Farage, with an occasional secondary nod to the Lib Dems for their gains.