- 26 Jun 19
While the bulldog nationalists and eurosceptics of the far right predictably polled well in parts of Europe, the threat of an anti-EU wave hitting the European Union where it hurts receded once the polling stations across the continent closed. If anything, the results of the 2019 European elections are likely to require a shift to the left, with climate change becoming a key issue. What made it all the more satisfying was that Ireland rejected the far right entirely...
It wasn’t as bad as it might have been. On the run-in to the European elections, it was impossible to escape a terrible, gnawing sense of dread. What if the far right parties exceeded expectations in France, Germany, Holland, Switzerland and more? Polls suggested that they would figure strongly across much of Europe.
The impression created in the media, on the count-down to the vote, was that the threat of a right-wing political coup was very real indeed. If the polls were under-estimating support for populism to any degree at all, and a Brexit-style wave gathered momentum across the continent, then the entire shape of European politics might be radically altered.
It didn’t come to pass. In the UK, the cynical opportunists of the Brexit Party made the running as expected and ended up with 31.6% of the vote. The Conservative party were routed, gaining only 9.1% support. And Labour were spurned almost as contemptuously by the electorate, clocking in at just 14.1%. The Liberal Democrats surged into second place, with 20.3% of the vote. And there was a climate change dividend too in the UK, with an increase to 12.1% for the Green Party.
On the face of it, the Brexit Party’s electoral success might have seemed like an endorsement of the UK’s decision to leave the EU; and also as a vicarious victory for the European far right.
However, a closer look at the figures says otherwise. Most commentators agree that when you take Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as Wales, into account, the pro-Remain vote in the election was in excess of 50%, while the Leave vote had slipped to 47%. With the same people voting, the result in a second referendum would be 8.7 million for Remain and 8.1 million for Leave.
That would represent a 5% swing against populism, since the decision to leave the EU was taken back in 2016. No sane person would put money on it, given the utter lack of leadership in UK politics right now, but it does hold out the prospect that – given the right chain of events – Article 60 might yet be revoked, with Britain staying in the EU.
In tandem, polls also show that the Liberal Democrats would likely gain the most support of any UK party if a General Election were called tomorrow. They are polling at 24%, with the Brexit Party at 22% and Conservatives and Labour at 19% each. Given the deep inequities of the UK's first-past-the-post system, it is not clear that this would deliver the biggest number of seats. Nor is it clear how the likely anointing of the poisonous, blustering Boris Johnson as UK Prime Minister might affect that precarious balance. But the message is clear, if not exactly resounding. Amid the confusion and incompetence of the Tories, the far right may have risen to the top of the conservative pile, but the tide of pro-Brexit sentiment has waned nationally.
There is evidence in the election results that the momentum of the far right in Europe has also stalled. That is not true in France, where Marine Le Pen’s Le Front National 2, aka National Rally, were the most popular party in the European elections, winning 24% of the vote.
However, in the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Spain and elsewhere, the centre and the left remained stronger. MEPs of the far right will likely represent up to a third of members of the new European Parliament. They are a force to be reckoned with. But they will not be in a position to dictate the terms, or even to disrupt parliamentary business excessively.
The rise of the Green Party has acted as a kind of antidote to the climate change deniers and mob bullies of the right. They topped the poll in Germany, taking 27% of first preferences and winning 22 seats.
Combined with the European Free Alliance, they now hold 69 seats overall. It is likely that they, rather than the Eurosceptics, will hold the balance of power in the European Parliament. In effect, this will make it more palatable for the main political blocs to pursue Green policies. If anything, the required coalitions will involve a shift to the left and away from a purely market-driven ideology. Far right parties may be in a position to make more noise, but they will not be able to foist their agenda on anyone.
In Ireland, meanwhile, far right candidates received only derisory support in the European elections. Gemma O’Doherty received 1.8% of first preferences in the Dublin constituency. The hurley-wielding Ben Gilroy got 2.1%. A few other right-wing headbangers received less than 2% between them. The total Grotesque Vote was less than 6%. Pro-EU candidates garnered over 65% of the vote, while those who style themselves as ‘EU critical’ took over 26% – with a few floating per cent that could be interpreted in different ways.
The rejection of anti-EU candidates – and indeed of ‘EU critical’ candidates – in Ireland South was even more resounding, with at least 77% of the vote going to pro-EU candidates. In Midlands North West, the ‘EU critical’ candidates did better, with Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan, Matt Carthy of Sinn Féin and PBP’s Cyril Brennan garnering 28.7% of first preferences. But the right wing anti-EU vote was too pathetically small even to bother calculating.
We need to remain vigilant. Social media has provided those who are determined to stoke hatred of immigrants with a platform to air their twisted views publicly. And some neanderthals were successful in the local elections, notably in places like Longford.
Where the money is coming from is anybody’s guess, but these individuals seem to be better funded than at any time in the past. The loathsome mix of religious fanaticism, anti-choice propaganda, racism and bunker-mentality nationalism is being actively promoted. Right now, Irish people are not interested. Indeed, the rise of the Greens in the European election is a powerful statement that the majority here want Ireland to play a part in the global movement to combat climate change.
If anything, the results of the European elections also confirm what the outcome of the referendums on Same Sex Marriage and Abortion told us: that, for now at least, Ireland is a positive, outward-looking, tolerant, and relatively liberal modern democracy. Nothing, however, should be taken for granted. We need to ensure that it stays that way, by urgently and effectively tackling the social issues that are most likely to be exploited by individuals and parties whose politics are essentially nasty, hate-filled, reactionary and retrogressive.
That means getting to grips with the housing crisis. It means being effective in drastically reducing homelessness. It means delivering initiatives that address poverty and disadvantage. It means ensuring that the rich classes, and corporations, pay their fair share of taxes. It means ensuring that banks are brought to book and held properly to account. It means regulating insurance companies so that they can no longer screw Irish customers, whether people living in Ireland or businesses operating here.
It means re-booting the health system so that waiting lists are brought into line with the best levels in Europe. It means ending the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church, and indeed all religious vested interests, in Irish education, in particular at primary level. It means ensuring that a commitment to fairness and equality is built into the way the State, and the public service, operates. It means providing public transport that does not destroy cities, and that works. It means managing and meeting our commitments in relation to carbon emissions. And, of course, as we have always advocated in Hot Press, it means valuing and supporting our artists, our musicians, our writers and our culture.
None of this will come easy. But it should be possible to ensure that the neanderthals of the far right, and the proto-Fascists with them, are denied the climate of grievance that gives them, and the sick views they expound, a crude platform. It should be possible to build on the ethos of openness, of generosity of spirit, of mutual support and of collective decency that began to come to fruition here over the past decade – and which, if nurtured successfully, will turn Ireland into an ever-more balanced, fairer and more fulfilling place for everyone who lives here.
Nowhere is perfect. We are constantly – or we should be – striving to improve. In Ireland we have made enormous strides in that direction since we entered the EU in 1973. This island is a better place to live, to work, and to be yourself, than at any time previously in our history. We may never make real the Utopian ideal, but that should not be for want of trying.
In 2019, we need to work harder than ever in that cause, all the better to ensure that we cannot, and will not, be dragged back into the horrors of the past.