Populism, Europe and a political challenge

Between May 22 and May 25 Europeans will vote for a new European Parliament.

The result may be startling. Opinion polls suggest that around 30 per cent of the 751 seats could go to the Eurosceptic, populist and extremist parties that are riding a powerful wave of anger with Europe’s established political class.

Subsequent to the elections, the global media coverage will likely reflect on the whether the populist parties are racist, anti-immigrant and a dangerous throwback to the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s. Some of this may be true, but it will be to miss other important messages.

If, as is expected, a large percentage of European voters cast their ballot for parties like the UK Independence Party in Britain, the Front National in France, and the Partij voor de Vrijheid (the Freedom Party) in the Netherlands, the medium term impact may be just as great on the position of the traditional parties. They will know that if populist parties win huge numbers of votes, they will have little option but to adopt some of their views on issues such as Europe, crime and migration if they are to continue to control the outcome of national elections.

What is apparent is that voter sentiment in many parts of Europe is undergoing a profound change. This is driven largely by a sense that the tribal politics of the traditional parties has had its day, a view that the established political class is self-seeking and out of touch with ordinary people, and a sense that that the European Union’s implied federalism and its huge free spending bureaucracy has become remote and even damaging to the lives of many Europeans.

The latest opinion polls suggest that support for the two principal groupings in the European Parliament, the centre-right European Peoples’ Party and the centre-left Party of European Socialists, is evenly balanced; with the growing probability that newly elected MEPs from small populist parties will be able to decide which group holds the majority in relation to which issues.

One consequence may be the emergence of new pan-European political alliances in the European Parliament that respond to European concerns in ways that negatively touch policy or issues that matter directly or indirectly to many parts of the world including the Caribbean.

For the Caribbean this may seem remote, but if evidence were required about the ways in which thinking may change, one only has to read the recent comments by the US Ambassador to the EU, Anthony Gardner. Speaking earlier this month, he made clear that he fears that new groups of populist European political parties, together with the numerically significant Green Party, could form an alliance against globalisation that may result in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment partnership (TTIP) – the free trade arrangement that Europe and the US believe is necessary to stimulate growth – being set aside or changed by the Parliament.

For those reading this who do not know the European system, it is important to understand that it does not function quite like other integration mechanisms. In outline, its three principal bodies are the European Commission, a kind of European public service with executive power that develops policy and proposes regulations; a Council of Ministers consisting of all 28 member states that signs off politically on what is proposed after deals and compromises; and a Parliament that until quite recently was discursive, advisory and virtually powerless.
However, that has been changing and it is likely that the next Parliament will begin to flex its muscles making greater use of the powers it was granted under the Lisbon Treaty in 2007. So much so that the Parliament and its members, who are little known to most EU voters in comparison to their familiarity with those in their national parliaments, could now emerge, paradoxically, as having much greater relevance at a time of opposition to the increasingly federalist approach of much of the Council and the Commission.

For most in the Caribbean, its governments and parliaments, Europe’s Parliament is a mystery, and to the region’s detriment, a body which has largely been ignored, other than by the region’s Ambassadors in Brussels. This is despite the fact that it has been of great value in the past to industries such as rum, sugar and bananas that were able to have its committees and its members hear the Caribbean’s concerns and intercede on its behalf.

In an apparent indication of this failure to recognise its potential value, the proposed 2014 meeting of the European Parliament’s only Caribbean-specific body, the CARIFORUM-EU Parliamentary Committee, chaired by a British pro-Caribbean socialist MEP, David Martin, and on which fifteen MEPS of many EU nationalities sit, was cancelled because of the inability of the Caribbean side to attend.

This is short-sighted as the European Parliament’s importance is increasing. It helps define Europe’s development and foreign policy; it contributes to and challenges the work of the European Commission; and its now enhanced legislative powers allow it to decide on EU legislation on an equal footing with the Europe’s Member States in around 90 per cent of cases.

Importantly too, it now elects, in theory at least, the President of the European Commission; consents to the appointment of the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs; has budgetary powers; is playing an increasing role in issues from climate change to transport policy and tax transparency; and later this year, once the 28 new Commissioners (appointed ministers in all but name) have been selected, confirms them in their posts for the next five years.

For much of the Caribbean, the European Parliament falls into the category of too difficult. Despite this, the next European Parliament and Europe’s national parliaments ought to be the subject of much greater focus and lobbying by the Caribbean, not least because many of the new intake could challenge Europe’s traditional values of equality, tolerance and human rights to the detriment of issues of real interest to the region, such as immigration, trade policy and development.

David Jessop is the Director of the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at david.jessop@stagingcaribbean.wpengage.uk