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Why Europe’s voters stayed at home
f the results of the local and European elections look dire for new Labour, they look better when compared with the results across the Continent. Tony Blair’s Labour polled 23 per cent, the party’s worst performance in a national election since 1918. In Germany, Gerhard Schröder’s ruling SPD plumbed even greater depths, with 21.5 per cent, while Poland’s ruling social democrats got a mere 9 per cent on a 20 per cent turnout. In Britain, the UK Independence Party reached 18 per cent; in the Czech Republic, the Eurosceptic Civic Democrats got 30 per cent, in Sweden a new Eurosceptic party called June List won 15 per cent, and the far-right Vlaams Blok got a quarter of the vote in the Flanders region of Belgium. UK turnout was 38 per cent; Slovakia managed only 17 per cent, the lowest ever in a European election. Are these results a defeat for social democracy? Or a rejection of the European ideal? They are neither. Where the right is in power, as in France and Italy, it did as badly as the left did in Britain, Germany and Poland. Eurosceptics in Denmark took a kicking and in Austria support for Jörg Haider’s antiEurope Freedom Party fell by more than 17 per cent. Some of these bewildering results can be explained by local factors, or by sluggish economic growth and high unemployment across the eurozone. But the real story of the elections is that nobody knows what they are voting for. Jacques Delors once described the EU as “an unidentified flying political object” and its workings will be about as clear to the
The workings of the EU will be about as clear to the average Polish peasant (or professor) as those of a flying saucer from Alpha Centauri
average Polish peasant (or professor, for that matter) as those of a flying saucer from Alpha Centauri. Is the European Parliament, for example, a legislative body, as one would expect of a parliament? Well, yes and no. The usual procedure is “codecision”, whereby the Parliament and the Council of Ministers together adopt legislation proposed by the Commission. The best the Parliament’s own website can make of this is that it “enhances its ability to influence European legislation”. Top of the list of achievements, according to the website, are the right to watch some big sporting events on unencrypted TV and “more visible” warnings on cigarette packets. This may be exciting news to a Polish peasant, but he will probably be more interested in farm prices. Indeed, ask most people what the EU is about, and they will mutter something about the Common Agricultural Policy. Alas, the Parliament can only express an opinion on farm prices and the Council has the final say on agricultural policy, which accounts for 46 per cent of all EU spending. No wonder east Europeans stayed at home in their millions: the Parliament must look suspiciously like something they remember from the Soviet era. Related to this is the sense, among peoples across Europe, that the ruling elites have a private agenda that is entirely different from the concerns that move their constituents. Among the elites, the talk is all of “reform”: privatisation, labour market “flexibility”, public sector “efficiency”, the overhaul of pension and health schemes. There is no public demand for these things. Quite the contrary, as shown by the enormous unpopularity of the reformist German government and the strikes against electricity privatisation in France. People are told that reform is necessary. They do not believe it. They think the agenda is set by business and financial interests which see, in privatisation and the reduction of public pensions, for example, the chance to enter new markets. They suspect that any savings to the public purse will not go to promised tax reductions on personal incomes and purchases but to tax relief and other sweeteners for multinational companies. This may be an inescapable aspect of
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” says John Paul II. And the Catholic Church. he seems to use coded language to suggest that more of the public sector should be handed over to private business. business can take its jobs and profits elsewhere – but there is no point pretending there is anything democratic about it. 1 per cent were condemned to death. in the spirit of the teenager who tells her father that she is only a little bit pregnant. has apologised for the Inquisition’s “errors”. Polls suggest that. they probably had Sky Television in their cells.leader q 21 June 2004 q newstatesman 7 globalisation – if it doesn’t like how a country is run. The Pope. Mr Blair can boast of significant success: schools and hospitals that are working better than for years. Those heretics had it too easy H istory needs constant revision. To be sure. allegations of widespread torture and burning. but insists that it did not actually kill very many heretics at all. were got up by the press some time over the past 500 years. people are satisfied with the schools their children attend and the NHS treatment their elderly parents get. There is scant evidence of consumer dissatisfaction. after big injections of public money. the Immaculate Conception or the Resurrection. “It is necessary to have precise knowledge of the facts. To many ears. It says that out of 125. like prisoners through the ages. explains the Vatican. roast turkey on Sundays and opportunities to play snooker all day. despite the occasional and inevitable horror stories (most of them in the London area and far exceeded in number by stories about privatised railways). Why participate in democracy if real politics has moved elsewhere? The curious disconnect between elite preoccupations and popular sentiment is amply demonstrated in Britain. whether considering miracles. Yet Mr Blair insists that continuing “reform” is required. Indeed.000 tried for heresy in Spain. Has it? . has never proceeded on anything less than precise knowledge. with more choice and more “personalised” services. many were sent to prison but.