Tuesday 22 October 2019

Ian O'Doherty: 'Europe's political battle forms around new fault line - 'love of your nation' versus 'love of your planet''

Standing with his fellow MEPs, Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage (C) speaks to members of the media at a post-European Parliament election press call . Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Standing with his fellow MEPs, Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage (C) speaks to members of the media at a post-European Parliament election press call . Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

In times of uncertainty, it's natural to look for both the bad news and the good. It is, of course, human nature to ask for the bad news first. In the wake of this weekend's European elections, we can safely say that, from an Irish perspective, the bad news is that there is no good news.

The resounding success of Nigel Farage's Brexit Party means that the brief respite we enjoyed from the B-word while the politicians concentrated on the local and Euro elections has well and truly ended.

At the time of writing, and before all the UK seats have been officially declared, the Brexit Party has won at least 28 MEP seats and managed to secure slightly more than 31pc of the votes cast. Not bad going for a party which was only set up six weeks ago and was initially dismissed as a bit of a joke.

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Well, Farage's opponents aren't laughing now.

Instead, the Tories, already battered and bruised by their own much publicised internal squabbling and backstabbing, received the kind of kicking not seen since Fianna Fáil was outed at the general election in 2011.

There's a world of a difference between a general election and the Europeans, of course.

But the Tories, even though they were expecting an electoral spanking, spent much of yesterday in shock.

Few will shed a tear for their entirely self-inflicted injuries on this side of the water, but British stability is in our interest and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt's assertion that the Tories face "an existential threat" if they don't get Brexit sorted soon is something which should send shivers down our spines.

After all, with Farage flush from victory and threatening to "wipe out" the Conservatives at the next election, his words, for once, are more than just bluster and the usual hyperbole.

The sheer scale of the Brexit Party's success is reflected in the votes they took from the main parties.

Having already increased Ukip previous results by more than 5pc, they also managed to achieve victory in previous Labour heartlands such as Hartlepool and Bolsover, and as we learned yesterday, the soon-to-be-outgoing prime minister Theresa May isn't the only leader who could end up with one word - Brexit - carved into her political tombstone.

Jeremy Corbyn also faces open revolt from his own party following their disastrous performance.

They managed to beat the Tories, which would normally be enough for any party to top the poll. On this occasion, however, they trundled in in third place, behind the Brexit Party and the Lib Dems, and the startling statistic is that even when you combine the Conservative (9.1pc) and the Labour (14.1pc) vote, they still managed to trail a massive 8pc behind Farage's group.

Corbyn's main aides, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, are angling for a second referendum.

Dear Leader wants to hold on for an election; an election which could open the door for a Lib Dem/Green combined power base that, almost incomprehensibly, would dwarf either Conservative or Labour.

These had been touted as the most crucial European elections since they were introduced in 1979 and they are certainly the first to see an increase in turnout.

For once, the people on the ground and the technocrats in Brussels agreed on one thing - Europe is at a crossroads now more than at any time since the foundation of the European Union and people across all 28 (soon to be 27) member states are on edge. In fact, compared to the rest of Europe, Ireland is a bastion of stability and an oasis of consensus.

France has been busy tearing itself apart for the last few months, with weekly 'yellow vest' riots and dark predictions of armed soldiers on the streets and the kind of civil unrest that can lead to complete carnage.

Under those circumstances, it was no surprise to see Marine Le Pen's National Rally beating Macron's Republic On The Move.

However, for all the 'fears' of the so-called 'far right' in France, the real winners, as they arguably were all across the continent, were the Greens.

If the massive increase in the Green vote was isolated to this country then we could put it down as one of those electoral quirks which pop up from time to time.

Instead, they managed to secure the balance of power in most countries and in the European Parliament itself they are now looking at 69 seats.

That's an increase of 17 seats from the last election in 2014 and now positions them as the fourth largest voting bloc in Europe.

With that kind of heft behind them, it was no surprise that German Green politician Sven Giegold said yesterday that: "Whoever wants legitimacy from us and the legitimacy of the many who went on the streets will need to deliver."

The fact that the Greens did better in Germany than the more widely predicted nationalist AfD party was mirrored across the continent as the Greens picked up an unprecedented number of votes. Similarly, while the right-wing, Eurosceptic parties didn't perform as well as had been predicted, they have still managed to increase their representation in Europe.

Frankly, if the Green surge hadn't been so strong, the consolidation - if not necessarily a massive spike - in votes for Eurosceptic parties would provide its own story. But the success of both movements is an indicator that maybe European politics is moving on from the traditional battlegrounds of the Old Right versus the Old Left.

As Mark Leonard from the European Council on Foreign Relations reflected yesterday: "The electorate is crying out for change and is therefore volatile - preferring to back new insurgents rather than the status quo parties that have been around for decades."

People have been predicting a complete rearrangement of the European political establishment for a decade and most of those predictions tended to assume that it would involve a massive rise of anti-European, anti-immigration, nationalist parties.

That the big winners were the pro-European, pro-immigration and avowedly anti-nationalist Green movement is a profound reflection of how much the political landscape has changed in just a few short years.

It's also an indication that we may be moving from the traditional paradigm of Old Right versus Old Left and entering a new phase of political conflict - one which could be bluntly described as a fight between those who say they love the planet and those who say they love their country.

So, if we learned anything from this election it is that the old order is changing.

But whether that's a blip or a foretaste of a new era remains to be seen.

Irish Independent

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