Saturday 24 August 2019

Paddy Agnew: 'Has the far-right in Europe really been stopped?'

The sighs of relief from the EU's mainstream factions over results may be misplaced

'Even if the far right, for the time being, seems banned from the flight deck, will it prove to be obstructive when it comes to key vote'
'Even if the far right, for the time being, seems banned from the flight deck, will it prove to be obstructive when it comes to key vote'

Paddy Agnew

There is a view out there that last weekend's European election results represented a good outcome for the European Union. At first glance, this is a reasonable spin on the results.

Above all, mainstream pro-EU factions were able to breathe a huge sigh of relief that the dreaded populist avalanche - the modern-day army of Visigoths stretching from the foothills of the Alps in northern Italy all the way across to Budapest and then up to Estonia - had been contained. Had they, really?

By early last week, senior EU institutional figures, such as the European Council president, Poland's Donald Tusk, and the secretary-general of the European Commission, German Martin Selmayr, were spelling it out. Selmayr said the "so-called populist wave" had been contained, adding: "The real winner of this election is democracy."

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Tusk was even more explicit. He declared the European Union to be in good health, hailing the highest EU election turnout for 25 years. A majority of voters, he argued, had opted for a more "efficient" EU rather than a weaker one. Tusk did concede that the populist far right had won more seats (74) than before, acknowledging this would certainly make the new European Parliament "more complex" but it constituted no earthquake.

Are Tusk and Selmayr right to be so sure the new forces will be "contained" in a parliament in which the two traditional ruling groups, the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) and the centre-left Socialists and Democrats, no longer command a combined majority and will thus have to go horse-trading for votes?

Even if the far right, for the time being, seems banned from the flight deck, will it prove to be obstructive when it comes to key votes, such as those, of course, which will see the appointments of a new European Commission president, a new European Council president, a new high representative for foreign affairs and a new governor of the Central European Bank?

Arguably, more important than considerations about future EU parliamentary votes, however, is the possibility that these far-right parties, or some of them at least, are here to stay - and there are a lot of them even if, for the time being, they are far from united, divided among themselves by issues such as Vladimir Putin's Russia.

Just to remind you: in Italy, the Lega, led by Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini returned a 34pc vote, a spectacular jump from 5pc at the last EU elections five years ago and double the 17pc it returned in the Italian general election in March of last year.

In France, the battle-hardened Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement National topped the poll with 23pc of the vote, gaining half a million voters by comparison with five years ago to record a 5.2 million vote.

In Poland, the staunchly Catholic Law and Justice party of former prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski increased its vote from 32pc five years ago to 43pc. Furthermore, that vote came at the end of an electoral campaign dominated for the last two weeks by allegations of systematic Catholic Church cover-up of clerical sex abuse in Poland.

In a moment similar to that which Ireland experienced with the late Mary Raftery's States of Fear RTE documentary in 1999, Poles have been outraged by an independent TV documentary, Don't Tell Anyone, which contains drastic accounts of the Polish Catholic Church's failure to act against clerical sex abuse. More than 19 million Poles have watched the documentary on YouTube.

Despite that climate, the Law and Justice message that the EU elections represented a battle against western liberal ideas - gay rights, environmentalist concerns and anti-Catholic propaganda - scored a resounding success.

In Hungary, the Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a man well-known for his unrelenting anti-immigrant line, returned a massive 52.3pc of the vote. The remarkable thing here is that Orban was slightly disappointed with this poll.

He had hoped to do even better than the 56pc vote he recorded at the 2009 European elections.

The point is, need one point it out, a lot of people voted for the far-right. Even if far-right parties such as the AFD in Germany and the Freedom Party in Austria did not do as well as expected, and even if far-right parties in countries such as Bulgaria, Slovakia and Holland elected no one, overall the far-right vote remains substantial.

That substantial far-right vote, often of a neo-fascist tendency too, comes at a moment when German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned about growing anti-semitism in Germany. Her remarks came days after the German ombudsman, Felix Klein, warned German Jews not to wear kippahs in public for fear of racist attacks.

It was former Italian prime minister Enrico Letta, these days dean of the prestigious Sciences Po university in Paris, who this week spoke about the "ugly" face of the right. Letta was speaking specifically about one of the big winners last Sunday, namely Lega leader Salvini.

Speaking on Italian television, Letta said Salvini showed an ugly, "bad" face of Italy. His Italy is one where you give the impression that it is OK to leave boat people to drown in the Mediterranean, where you can shoot to kill if someone tries to rob your house at night and where tax breaks, flat or otherwise, favour the rich. There is an another Italy, he said, but it is not making itself heard.

In a much-discussed selfie posted on election night, Salvini thanked Italians as he posed in front of office shelves which featured, among other things, a "Make America Great Again" baseball cap, a portrait of Vladimir Putin, an icon of Jesus Christ, a carabinieri hat and a book on the AC Milan football team complete with a photo of legendary player Franco Baresi. He was fully entitled to celebrate but, in the process, he was sending a whole series of messages about his "values".

Salvini's Italy, we would add, is also a country where not just one but two candidates, Alessandra and Caio Giulio Mussolini - granddaughter and great-grandson respectively of Il Duce - could "proudly" contest these elections, for Forza Italia and Fratelli d'Italia respectively. They did not get elected, but...

In his upbeat assessment of this vote, Donald Tusk also suggested the UK's Brexit experience has clearly served as an antidote that would discourage any other EU member country from trying the same number, despite Nigel Farage's 31.6pc poll-topping vote with his Brexit Party.

Here, many people agree. Paris-based Catalan journalist Eusebio Val Mitjavila told the Sunday Independent: "Any temptation to go the same way as the UK with Brexit would now be considered reckless, irresponsible, quite, quite crazy. For the ordinary European citizen, the UK's Brexit experience is indeed a vaccination (against leaving the EU)."

At this point, it is not just sections of British public opinion but half of Europe that is tired of Brexit.

My old colleague, TV presenter Jacek Palasinski in Warsaw, suggested to me that many in Europe simply have long since lost patience with the UK.

"While Britain can still disturb the EU waters - elect MEPs to a parliament they may attend for only a few months - there simply won't be a true political dialogue," he said.

"The EU simply cannot cope with that level of chaos, so the sooner they leave the better, even if what happens in the UK will be a tragedy."

If the huge far-right vote poses some forbidding questions, then the huge upsurge in the Green vote (Germany 20pc, France 12pc and, of course, Ireland 11.3pc) sounds an optimistic note.

Concern among many young voters about the future of planet Earth, however, only highlights another contrast that runs west to east across this 28-country, 512 million people constituency. Namely, concern about global warming is, to some extent, a "luxury" which engages only wealthier, northern European electorates. Not for nothing, no Green MEPs were elected in countries such as Poland and Italy.

With 69 Green MEPs elected, the Greens too will make themselves felt in the new parliament, perhaps even holding the balance of power. The ecological battle lines for the new European parliament are being drawn. up, even as we write.

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