Europe’s centre-left is licking its wounds this week after the European Parliament vote, and nowhere is the pain being felt more acutely than by Labour in Britain. But perhaps the larger significance of the poll results for this island nation, which the British media have so far failed to pick up on, is the fact that the British will not be using 60% of their potential voting power in the new European Parliament.
Anti-EU parties did enormously well in Britain’s European Parliament vote. The UK Independence Party, which believes that Britain should secede from the EU, got 16.5% of the vote, beating Labour and coming in second with 13 seats. With the far-right British National Party – which also wants to exit the EU – gaining two seats, Britain will be sending 15 MEPs to represent them in the European Parliament who don’t believe the institution should exist at all. And of course “sending” is perhaps a misleading term here, since all 15 of these MEPs are unlikely to ever show up in Brussels to cast a vote, preferring to remain in Britain in protest.
Yesterday I was at a sustainability conference in London’s Docklands, and was listening to an opening speech given by Tory MEP Caroline Jackson, who represents Britain’s Southwest region. She said she was dismayed that British voters had chosen to waste 15 of their seats in parliament. Those 15 seats which will remain conspicuously empty for the next five years, as the British people have elected them in based on an issue that has absolutely nothing to do with the European Parliament, which decides neither which countries are in the EU nor the makeup and structure of the union.
Jackson went on to point out that with the departure of the Tories from the main centre-right group European People’s Party (EPP), the reality was that the UK has now effectively relinquished 30 out of its 72 seats.
Fulfilling a pledge he made back when he was campaigning for the Conservative Party’s leadership, David Cameron is taking the Tories out of the EPP, the largest block in the European Parliament with all the continent’s centre-right parties – including those of Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy – saying that the block is too federalist. He is instead trying to form a new Eurosceptic party, finding strange far-right allies from Eastern Europe to join him. Jackson, who has decided to leave the parliament after this term, could barely conceal her disdain as she listed these parties, which include the Czech Republic’s ODS (which she pronounced o-di-ous) and Poland’s PIS (which she refrained from making into a word). “Rather unfortunate acronyms” she observed dryly.
“It’s a sad moment for me, as a Conservative, to find that the Conservatives have put themselves in this bottom group, leading effectively nowhere,” she said. She isn’t alone in this observation. Many Tory MEPs have pointed out that this decision will put the Conservatives on the fringes of Europe, with no influence in the parliament and shut out of decision-making. If they had stayed in the EPP, the Conservatives would have been one of the largest parties in the EP’s largest block. It would have been a powerful position in an increasingly powerful body within the EU, which now controls the majority of British policy in the areas of environment, agriculture and trade.
As it stands, the second-largest country in the EU will have just 42 real usable seats in the European parliament (minus 30 wasted seats), compared to Germany’s 99 effective seats and France’s 68 (minus their 4 wasted seats from fringe parties). While the rest of mainstream Europe is fully engaged in the EU as it works to solve problems that cannot be solved nationally - such as climate change, terrorism and the financial crisis – Britain will have taken its toys and gone home. They’ll remain part of the EU, governed by its laws, but refusing to actively take part in shaping its policy. The Tories are now going to lose most of their ranking seats on the parliament's committees. Representatives of British industry and NGOs will now have few MEP to go to to influence EU policy in Britain's favour. Essentially, the UK has cut off its nose to spite its face. Many in Brussels are scratching their heads at what could motivate what they see as an idiotic, irresponsible decision.
Far-Right Ascendance in Britain
However the fact remains that a vast swathe of the British people have yet to be convinced that the EU serves any purpose, and they see no reason why the UK can’t single-handedly solve these large problems all on its own. And there is a growing segment of the country that believes the “British race” would also be better off on its own.
The British Media hasn’t taken much notice of the diminished influence the UK now has in the parliament. They’ve instead focused on the fact that the British National Party, the far-right group that doesn’t allow non-whites as members and espouses the ideas of Adolph Hitler, won two MEP seats. The victories, which were won in the North of England, have caused alarm and revulsion across the UK. When notorious BNP leader Nick Griffin tried to hold an impromptu victory press conference outside the houses of Parliament yesterday he was confronted by a group of anti-fascist protestors who pelted him with eggs. The anti-fascist group says they will trail the far-right leader wherever he goes to remind the public of his extreme racist views, but the reality is such protests will probably bring him more attention than having the seat will.
Of course Britain won’t be the first EU country sending far-right MEPs to Brussels. Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National has long been sending elected members to the body, and there are far-right MEPs from Eastern Europe that have called for the mass deportation of Roma (gypsies). But this is the first time that Britain, the mother of all Democracies, has sent a fascist representative to Europe. In fact, this is the first high office that the BNP has been elected to (so far they’ve only managed to get seats on local town councils), and without a doubt it gives them some legitimacy (if not any actual power since they’re unlikely to ever make a trip to Brussels to cast a vote, lest they mix with the foreigns).
Such a win for the BNP does great damage to the nation’s psyche because it challenges many of the narratives the British people have for themselves. Most British people forget that there was significant fascist movement here during the 1930’s that in the end was unable to wrest power. The sad reality is that this win means the BNP is now a bit player in British Politics that isn’t going away, but they are unlikely to become a significance force with anywhere near the reach of Oswald Mosley’s fascists of the ‘30s.
The British people’s attitude about the irrelevance of the European Parliament has enabled two fascists to sneak into their representation in Brussels. In the long-run, the more important consequence of that will be the European disengagement and isolationism that one day Britain may look back on and regret if it finds itself alone and irrelevant in the 21st century. “And all we were talking about was the bloody BNP,” they may remark with a larf.