The UK and Europe
The relevance test of the European Parliament elections
Julian Priestley / Sep 2013
Ed Miliband, the leader of the British Labour Pary. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
If the main event in the next elections to the European Parliament is a slugfest between, in one camp, different tribes of eurosceptics and Europhobes competing to see which can make the most outrageous and misleading attacks on the EU and, in the other, those who support the European Union, it will have been an occasion which somehow misses its own point.
First, and obviously, the EP is not some debating club holding a non-stop 5 year discussion on whether there should be more, less or no Europe. It’s a Parliament which does the things parliaments do; it legislates, it authorises and controls the budget, it elects the President of the Commission, and the Commission as a whole. It provides some oversight of the ECB, and supervises EU foreign and security policy.
So to be meaningful the elections must revolve around which policies Europe should pursue, how they should be financed and which person should lead the Commission in the next 5 years. If eurosceptics and some sections of the press manage to drown out the policy choices they will to a degree have succeeded in disenfranchising Europe’s voters. And if national parties fail to campaign on European themes they will have objectively abetted this masquerade.
One can understand the temptations. In Britain the Opposition may well relish the Tory/UKIP dogfight, hoping perhaps that UKIP regains some traction in 2014 to stop David Cameron from getting a majority in the general election of 2015. But this would merely allow the debate to move further on to the ground preferred by the right, and deprive Labour of the good score it needs as a springboard for 2015.
Similarly, if opposition parties fall back on the tired formula, ‘these elections are a referendum on the government’ they demotivate voters who understand full well that their national governments are chosen through national elections. If the politicians can’t say what’s really at stake in EP elections, then why should voters bestir themselves?
In fact, the disservice mainstream parties perform in not fighting elections on concrete European themes is triple. They weaken the democratic moorings of the EU through failing to combat abstentionism. They unwittingly assist populist forces which put forward frivolous answers to the continent’s problems. And they obscure the real choices for Europe genuinely at stake in May 2014.
For choices there are. In the book which I have edited with some Labour MEPs and senior Brussels insiders, (Our Europe, Not Theirs) we point out that the policies and activities of the EU institutions are not technocratic or ideologically neutral.
For the past five years the conservatives have held sway in national capitals and the European Parliament, which has provided a majority for the Barroso Commission. The result of this conservative hegemony is clear if paradoxical; austerity imposed on member states to such a degree it hampers the deficit reduction programmes which have set unrealistic targets with impossible deadlines to the extent that even the IMF has distanced itself from the Brussels approach; and with it come the scourges of poverty, rampant inequalities, precarity jobs with cut-price incomes, and above all mass unemployment and genuinely horrific prospects for the young. And under this cloak of retrenchment the fundamentals of the welfare state, the European model, are being shredded.
So the Left has a narrative. If it can project an alternative radical programme which puts job creation, growth and support for competitiveness at its heart then there will be real competition between the mainstream European parties- with contrasting policies and different visions of our European future. The real debate is this one. On it hangs the future direction of travel for the Commission and the EU in the years to come, and who’s behind the wheel. Suddenly the elections will have some relevance for voters. Game on!