Last week, the European election campaign got underway as EU member states prepare to go to the polls late in May to chose 751 MEPs for the European Parliament in Brussels. These MEPs do not sit in national blocs, but in political groupings. They are expected to leave national interests behind as they enter the gigantic parliamentary building, and join the Europe of ‘interests’. While some groups want a more democratic, more accountable and less federalist EU, the architecture of the Union remains stubbornly opposed to national democratic accountability. Rather than a Europe of nation states co-operating on matters of common interest at each level of the EU and its institutions, we see in Brussels a Europe of interest groups which battle it out at many levels, from the Commission to the Parliament, for power and preferment.
In some member states, especially the founder countries and Britain, the alienation from national interest has prompted soaring Euroscepticism, with an increasing number of politicians anxious to reflect people’s concerns. Indeed some MEPs have taken a lead in defending national interests whenever possible. Some have made no secret of their objections to the status quo, going even further than their party’s official line to explain why the EU (and their own party) must move on.
Over Easter one such MEP explained that those ‘who say Europe must change’ were to be preferred to those who, in a fools’ paradise, want to prop up today’s Europe and do not think about the heavy costs it has brought to the people. The party was not the ‘Supreme Soviet’ with no scope for free expression: what was needed was open debate. This MEP was not from the EU’s most awkward member, Britain, but from France, a founder country of the EEC. Rachida Data is second on the list for her UMP (centre right) party’s Paris region, the Ile de France.
She deplores the scapegoating as ‘Eurosceptics’ of those who challenge the status quo in favour of national interest and emphasises the agreed limitations over the scope of EU authority. She warns her colleagues that the UMP only wins when it allies itself with people’s concerns. Europe must respect legitimate national sovereignty and change direction to meet the concerns of French people. Dati opposes moves to allow Turkey to join the community and to make Romania part of the Schengen area. The free movement of labour must be tightened in the battle against social dumping; and she is keen that the competitiveness of workers in the small and medium size businesses must be protected. Above all, Europe must respect legitimate national sovereignty.
Apart from her concern with the Schengen agreement (which allows ‘borderless’ passage between signatories, i.e. no checks) – which Britain, along with Ireland, has never joined – Dati’s priorities are as national to Britain as to France. They are focused on sovereignty, which is defended by national governments, accountable to their own electorates.
Today the Europe of older, stable nations committed to historic freedoms and democratic accountability, is at odds with the anti-democratic trends of the Europe of ‘interests’. It is no accident that in the founder countries and Britain, more than half the populations are in the ‘Eurosceptic’ category according to the EU’s own ‘barometer’, a position which politicians will ignore at their peril.
When, therefore, on May 22nd Britain goes to the polls in its first European election for five years, for voters no less than political parties, this electionwill manifest the escalation of concern with the European project. Already the chips are down as the political parties line up on the central problem question of legitimate national sovereignty, prompted by the concerns held in common with our nearest neighbour. Border controls, interference in areas agreed to be the responsibility of individual nations, unbridled immigration, and in the case of Britain, the infringement by European legislation of our ancient and widely admired system of justice.
In Britain, the left accepts the status quo in Europe, and both main leftist parties do not seek change. The Labour Party would put further constitutional change to a referendum, while the Liberal Democrats would happily see more EU integration. Both parties swing between the ‘fools’s paradise’ approach of support for the current arrangements and making violent, if unsubstantiated threats, about the consequences of moving on. For the conservatively minded, the aim is to change Britain’s relationship with Europe, to reflect, as Dati puts it, legitimate sovereign interests. The UK Independence Party proposes a strategy of leaving the Union first and renegotiating the terms once out. The Conservative Party under David Cameron intends to negotiate first and put the new deal with Europe to an ‘in out referendum’.
Whatever the outcome of the May elections, one thing is clear. ‘Europe’ and its governing institutions are not just a problem for the conservatively minded. They are a problem for the people who have little confidence in the European project or the institutions which enjoy power without responsibility. In Germany, almost 60 per cent of the electorate are Eurosceptic, according to the EU’s own barometer, and the new Alternative fur Deutchland, an anti-Euro party, is polling 5 per cent of the vote. In Italy, Euroscepticsm is at 53 per cent. But it is in France, with a 56 per cent eurosceptic figure, that the battle to move forward and make the case for doing so is gaining momentum.
Last week, Rachida Dati urged her UMP party to campaign with the people and for national sovereignty against EU encroachment. Meanwhile, the Eurosceptic Debout de La Republique (DLR) gave an ecstatic welcome to UKIP’s leader as he announced his party would ‘twin’ with this French Gaullist group. The party polls around 2 per cent of the French vote especially among middle classes who may be put off by the legacy of the Front Nationale, which polls around 25 per cent. President Hollande and his socialists appear as unwilling as they are unable to enunciate, much less to support, French interests in dealing with the EU. Come the elections in May, he and those who put their faith in the big state, whether at home or in Europe, may have to learn that the centre of gravity has moved away from bureaucratic internationalism to the nation state and its legitimate interests. Now that the genie is out of the bottle, it is likely to stay there.