June 13, 2014
A Slippery Slope Towards An Older Europe
In a recent blog, Peter Suciu drew attention to the tensions caused within Europe by the power of Russia and its influence. Quite rightly he fears that this could take us on a path to war if the situation is mishandled. Russia’s President Putin is a wily politician and it seems clear he is not bent on full scale war, but is playing the West for all he can get. What worries me more is a European drift towards an older time. The European dream is taking hard knocks and in May’s elections for the European Parliament, the so-called “Eurosceptics” took a big share of the seats in most member states. These parties want major reform of the European Union and in may cases complete withdrawal. What seemed like a relentless drive towards a Federal style EU has been stopped in its tracks. The big story here though is the rise of extremist parties, in particular the far right, though in Greece, for example, a far left party picked up seats on the back of its anti-EU stance.
A few years ago I took a coach trip to Austria from the North of England. We shared a table in the Austrian hotel with five other people, including an old couple in their early 80s that were seasoned travellers. At one point, the conversation turned to politics. The old chap chipped in with “Perhaps Hitler was right.” I’ve heard that one before and it always makes my blood boil. The only justification people can usually find for this statement is the success of the German economy, ignoring history and the fact that Germany as a nation has turned its back on Hitler and far right politics. So I pointed out that we had just driven all the way from England through France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, and Germany and were now enjoying a meal in Austria. Not once did we have to show a passport or be marched through customs. Free movement and tolerance between nations at peace with each other was a wonderful thing. I then reminded him that 70 years earlier, all the places we had traveled through were mired in war. Europe was blowing itself to pieces, as it had been for centuries. Surely he did not want to go back to the old ways that had allowed the rise of Hitler? Surely at his age he could remember the personal tragedies of war? I have two Christian names and they were chosen by my father as the names of his two best friends who were killed in the Second World War — just two individual stories, but a constant reminder of the bad old days. I, for one, never want to go back to a Europe of nations in conflict.
At the moment, there is some kind of euphoria among far right parties and it derives from a perceived common purpose — the break up of the EU. If that is achieved, however, we will see the nationalism inherent in far right politics come to the fore. Here in the UK we are already in the midst of a fierce debate about what nationalism might mean as Scotland prepares to vote on whether it should be independent from the UK. This is just one example of a drift away from the ideal of shared nationhood. After Scotland it could be Wales and Northen Ireland or even parts of England. And le’s not forget that for hundreds of years Scotland and England were bitter enemies and fought many a war.
Tied up with this debate, of course, is the issue of immigration and it is here that the European in-out debate takes a more sinister turn. The far right parties don’t just push for EU break up, they have a platform based on anti-immigration that appeals to a lot of people. The outcome of all this is that we are seeing more and more anti-immigrant sentiment with the inevitable overtones of racism. The far right parties are getting a lot of press. In the UK, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) seems to dominate the headlines, although it has no seats in the UK House of Commons. It picked up more seats than any other party in the European elections. This was described as a “political earthquake.” Was it? The turnout was around 37 percent and UKIP got about a quarter of the votes, so in effect the UKIP vote was only 8 percent or so of the electorate. They capitalized on a low turnout from the supporters of the other parties.
This is all relative to Peter Suciu’s article – just when Europe needs to stand together, it is in danger of breaking up and reverting to a dangerous past.