Some Thoughts on the EU Elections
As a left-winger, hoping for a future of international cooperation, the results of the recent EU elections have left me pretty despondent.
In the UK it has unhelpfully been touted as a proxy second referendum on Brexit.
The SNP’s strong showing probably makes it safe to still claim Scotland as a majority remain country. In Wales, however, the situation is more complicated. The Brexit Party came out on top; there is no way to spin the results to deny this. Many Remainers however have done the math and worked out that explicitly Remain parties beat explicitly Leave ones (and point to Plaid Cymru beating Labour in a Welsh election for the first time running on a pro-EU ticket). But this is to ignore the fact that Labour voters, despite not knowing the party’s stance on Brexit, will have an opinion, and (while I enjoyed seeing the Tory vote decimated) how many Conservative voters were happy their party had resisted calls for a no-deal Brexit? And how many are pinning their hopes on the deplorable Boris Johnson getting the job done?
Basically, on Brexit, these elections tell us nothing.
In Wales the biggest political issue is undeniably austerity, casting a shadow over the lives of everyone in the country, but the subject was absent from debate in these elections. Even the arguments of 2016, including the fact Wales is a net beneficiary of EU membership verses the lack of material benefits experienced (which at the time ignored domestic austerity) was barely touched upon this time. The most important issue facing the majority of people in Wales, the UK and much of Europe was omitted, replaced with meaningless soundbites.
I consider myself a committed remainer, but in these polarised times I take care not to oversimplify the issue, making it a case of right and wrong. Too many have idealised the EU as an institution, believing its sole, benign purpose to be peace on the continent. This is to ignore the violence beyond its borders it participates in, while denying the hypocrisy; the systematic mistreatment of refugees, the bodies floating in EU waters; the deafening silence in the face of Spanish police brutality in Catolonia; and everything about the Greek financial crisis, which raises the most relevant point here: its embrace of neoliberalism and austerity.
In many ways it sometimes feels the left should completely oppose EU membership; indeed Lexiters, for all the mockery thrown their way, make some valid points (most notably that the much-lauded ‘freedom of movement for people’ is more accurately described as a ‘freedom of movement for labour’).
But overwhelmingly the Left in the UK has taken a stand against Brexit for a reason. Yes, internationalism and cooperation is the only way we, as a species, can get out of the interelated messes we have made for ourselves, from climate disaster and refugees to and famines and wars. But, while I stand by my comments on opposing the polarisation of complex issues, sometimes it boils down to who you align yourself with. To support Brexit is to support Farage, Johnson, Rees-Mogg, Banks, Bannon. To support Brexit is to support the increasingly dangerous and powerful far-right populists getting their way, and that is reason enough to consider it unconsionable.
Be in no doubt: the Westminster, Tory government is to blame for austerity and the suffering in the UK, not the EU. But the EU for the most part approves, acting on occasion like Westminster writ large, showing just how susceptible it is to the influences of the far-right.
Le Pen has won these elections in France, with far right populists doing well in Italy and Poland too.
I’m not a proponent of the ‘better the devil you know' philosophy in life, but the EU in its current form, with its neoliberal austerity, is a threat we understand and so can counter, with the more optimistic of us hoping to reform from within.
Fear of the Brexit Party and similar parties on the mainland, on the other hand, is a fear of the unknown - the Brexit Party has no policies, released no manifesto, and relies mainly on the cult of Nigel Farage and the anti-establishment rhetoric used by the likes of Trump, Orbán and Bolsonaro. I’m depressed and bewildered by the reality that so many, often decent people can support the expression of anger with absolutely no content.
What we do know is that this method of harnessing the justifiable anger of disgruntled populations, using it to gain power, and turning it on minorities, has been used before. The use of the word fascism to describe the recent rise of populists is often dismissed as hyperbole, but the similarities are getting harder to ignore. This isn’t the 30s, and there is unlikely to be a Mussolini or Franco rising up in the same way again. But if history is doomed to repeat itself then we’re getting a glimpse of what a 21st century, Europe-wide fascism might look like, who might stand to gain, and, with the work of people like Carole Cadwallader, an idea of how devious, bold and, most frighteningly, organised it might be.
The status quo needs to be rejected; I want to be unequivocal on that. But the answer must not be a populism that will lead to fascism. We cannot continue helping to reduce discussions of Europe to good verses evil; such simplicity creates fertile ground for the rhetoric of the far-right. We need to develop in-depth but concise descriptions of the ground-level problems our citizens face, tying up the actions of the right in with, and where applicable as the cause of, the problems of the masses; we need to develop a clear, positive path to a better future for us all.