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EU shock may spur reforms

by Hugh Cortazzi

Internationalists, moderates and liberals were shocked by the results of the elections to the European Parliament announced on May 25-26. Extremist parties made gains at the expense of long-established centrist parties.

In Britain, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) topped the poll and won 24 seats against 20 for the opposition Labour Party and 19 for he Conservative Party. The Liberal Democrats suffered a crushing defeat, winning only a single seat while the Green Party won two.

In France the right-wing crypto-fascist National Front led by Marine Le Pen also won 24 seats putting the Socialist Party led by President Francoise Hollande into third place.

Right-wing anti-European parties made gains in other countries including Austria, Hungary, Denmark and Finland. The extreme left anti-austerity party gained ground in Greece.

The newcomers are opposed to the European Union and to immigration. They include a few politicians with racist and extremist views. According to one American newspaper, the new intake includes one leader with a swastika tattoo, one who wants to rid his entire country of Muslims and another whose party founder has suggested releasing the Ebola virus on migrants.

This is scary, but there will still be a majority for centrist parties who support the European Union. Proportional representation, which is used in European parliamentary elections, tends to favor smaller parties.

Turnout was disappointingly low. The average for the EU was some 43 percent. In Slovakia only 11 percent voted. In Britain barely one-third of the electorate bothered to go to the polls. One of the reasons for the low turnout was ignorance about the work of the European Parliament. Many thought it a waste of money and perhaps unfairly saw its members as overpaid parasites.

The European Parliament was established to meet the “democratic deficit” of an EU in which decisions are made in Brussels by the European Commission and the European Council representing the governments of member states.

Many of those who did vote in the elections did so in part at least as a protest against the established parties, which they saw as out of touch with the electorate. Politicians in Britain have lost a lot of their prestige as a result of scandals over their expenses.

The biggest issue in many European countries is immigration. The troubles in the Middle East and North Africa have led to waves of illegal immigrants arriving either in leaky unsafe boats across the Mediterranean or over the land frontiers of Turkey.

Many of these immigrants are Muslims who do not speak European languages and find it difficult to integrate into European society.

Immigration from the less prosperous EU countries to the more prosperous in search of employment has also been a problem with some workers seeing their jobs taken, or their wages undercut, by such immigrants.

A few immigrants have taken advantage of the right to free movement to move and claim benefits in another EU state. There is a problem, but it has been greatly exaggerated in the media. A fundamental feature of the EU and the single market is freedom of movement and nondiscrimination in employment.

The positive case for immigration needs to be made more forcibly. Feeble concessions to popular prejudices will only damage the national interest.

Especially in Southern Europe, voters were protesting austerity measures they saw as unfair and as imposed on them by more prosperous Northern European countries, especially Germany.

The large number of regulations issued by the European Commission in furtherance of the single market has aroused resentment. Some regulations are viewed as silly (such as rules about the shape of vegetables and fruit sold in shops in EU member-countries) or as unreasonable (such as the working-time directive that has caused problems in hospitals).

There is pressure especially from Britain and now from France for greater subsidiarity — meaning that the EU should only deal with issues that have multinational aspects.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has called for changes in the way the EU is governed. The election results may strengthen his hand and spur reforms. A strong core in Europe still looks toward ever closer union. Change will not be achieved easily.

Not all the newly elected representatives of anti-EU parties are “loonies” or “fruit cakes” as some have termed them, but most, including UKIP, have not worked out realistic alternative policies that would further the national interest.

Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP, is an effective publicist who pretends to represent “the common man” and likes to be photographed with a pint of beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. His German wife is kept in the background, and he glosses over his deplorable failure to perform his role as a member of the last European Parliament.

These election results do not mean that Britain (or France) will leave the EU in the foreseeable future. The case for continuing membership of the EU, however, needs to be made forcibly and persuasively by the political leadership.

The single market and the expansion of trade and investment that it has brought about are fundamental for future European prosperity. European countries on their own cannot hope to deal on equal terms with the huge economies of China and India. A united Europe is much stronger that its constituent parts.

The European election results should not be seen as a pointer to the results of the next general election in Britain due in May 2015. UKIP will have real difficulty in getting any meaningful representation in an election fought on the current U.K. first-past-the-post system.

Neither the Labour opposition nor the Conservatives can be certain of winning a majority. Another coalition may be necessary. The Liberal Democrats need to revive quickly if they are to be partners in a future coalition.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.