There are good reasons for attacking the European Union.
Its corporate and privatizing agenda – that puts the interests of business above those of citizens – its opacity, its democratic deficit.
But those are not the issues that get EU bashers like Britain’s Nigel Farage (UK Independence Party) or France’s Marine Le Pen (Front National) fulminating – and winning votes.
On the contrary, their complaints are fixated on the more positive, human rights related work that the EU has done – such as expanding freedom of movement, equality for LGBTI people, safety at work, environmental controls.
Another good thing the EU has been trying to do is regulate banks and cap bonuses.
But then that probably doesn’t appeal to former banker and commodities trader Farage or his élite chums either. The ex-public school boy’s ‘I’m just an ordinary bloke’ image, complete with fags, pint and classless accent, is carefully crafted. And like the best populists, he and his party claim that they are ‘just saying what others are thinking’.
Are they? Or are they tapping into fears and whipping up prejudices to target the wrong people, the wrong issues? You are poorer than you were five years ago. It must be immigrants coming over and stealing your jobs. Nothing to do with a global economic crisis set in motion by reckless bankers and a poorly regulated banking system. Or austerity policies used to raid public services and make profit for private companies. Or ever deepening income inequality. That’s complicated stuff, easier just to blame the Romanians next door.
The full impacts of the landslide ‘eurosceptic’ wins are yet to be seen. Pundits predict that because many on the centre ground (including the ‘reformers’) have lost their seats to the new anti-EU MEPS, the parliament will be far more polarized. On one side will be the eurosceptics who want a far weaker (or no) EU; on the other will be those (like Merkel) who want a more powerful, more integrated union. Ironically, the latter group now has a substantial majority and so could in theory push through their federalist agenda with greater ease.
But what about the impacts of the rise of the populist Right beyond the lobbies of Strasburg or Brussels?
Major political parties who have been given a bloody nose may try to emulate the victors by adding their voices to the echo chamber and wrongly blaming immigrants for all our woes. For them too, it’s easier than tackling the root causes. And as they have learned, you don’t need policies to win votes. You just need to make certain kinds of noises that trigger a pack response.
We underestimate the power of such dog-whistle politics at our peril. It’s not only the ease or speed with which clever populists can whip up casual racism or homophobia, but the long-term effects that tapping into these deep, enduring and toxic prejudices can have.
I was reading Leonardo Padura’s The Man who Loved Dogs when I heard the results of the election and had come a part where one of the characters is lamenting the complacency with which the Left responded to Hitler’s election win in Germany. Many believed he would be a spent force within a year.
Similar things are being said about Europe’s new rash of populists. And let’s not be fooled by the chummy bonhomie – fascism often comes with a friendly face, at first.
Greek voters, at least, had the clarity to express their anti-EU sentiment by electing far more MEPs from Syriza, the radical Left anti-austerity party, than from the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. Meanwhile, Sweden provided the European Parliament with its first Feminist party member.
You have to savour the few rays of sunlight in an otherwise darkening landscape.
You can find more of Marian Kamensky’s cartoons on his website.