Did Europe sow the seeds of its own downfall?
PUBLISHED: 00:00 17 March 2018
From his position inside UKIP GAWAIN TOWLER witnessed the rise of pan-European nationalism. In his first article since quitting as communications chief he offers an insight into a worrying trend.
There are some things so obvious that they don’t need to be said. Things we hold as self-evident. Brunel was a fine engineer, Shakespeare had a way with words and the member states of the European Union are united when it comes to their Brexit negotiations with the UK.
If we are not entirely convinced, we have the Commission’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier telling us so each time he visits London. His assertions are repeated by his institutional colleagues Donald Tusk and Guy Verhofstadt.
They are, they tell us, entirely as one, and so are the institutions and states they represent. So who are we to demur?
These august gentlemen may well be correct. Brexit acts as a glue which knits together competing and deep-seated differences across the 27 member states.
It provides the external threat that is historically vital to bind a polity. Brexit is perceived as a pendant to Trump, particularly now he has threatened a trade war with the EU.
With these two external threats, it is possible to ignore – or, at the very, least glaze over – history and culture and forge in adversity what Verhofstadt has excitedly called “a United States of Europe”.
But those differences are still there. I saw them close-up when I was working in Brussels, before my UKIP days, as an assistant in the centre-right, federalist European People’s Party (EPP-ED) group and I was tasked with organising bonding drinks for MEP assistants at Kitty O’Shea’s, a bar near to the Berlaymont building, the headquarters of the European Commission. I was given a decent budget to do so: three hours of a free bar and more finger bites than I could carry in five of those big, blue Ikea bags. Great, thought I, this will be easy. The invitations were mailed, the responses positive, I looked forward to the evening.
In the end, the event was certainly instructive. These bright, able young men and women from across the EU were a phalanx of true believers, all fired by a legitimate belief in European unity and holding the slogan ‘Europe, my country’ close to their hearts.
So what happened?
The Brits and Irish appeared first and sat alongside the bar. The Scandinavians came next, and joined in, though at a slight distance.
The Germans arrived and took up position around the largest table, the French came a bit later and disappeared into a different room. And the Spanish, Greeks and Italians rocked up as the free bar was closing at 11pm, wondering why everybody had started so early. By now the Brits were singing. The difference will out, no matter how hard you try to cajole and encourage.
You can have unity, but only up to a point.
With the exception of the French election, where Macron made his commitment to the European Union a centrepiece of his campaign, things are beginning to look a little less certain, a little less unified, elsewhere in Europe. (And even in France, Marcon’s polling has nosedived since he took office).
We are seeing, across the EU 27, including in France and Germany, strong centrifugal forces prizing the union apart.
The EU has always been a journey rather than a destination. It has ambitiously and effectively grown from its original size in successive waves: first the UK and Ireland, then the Nordic nations, the Iberian peninsula, the former Warsaw Pact area, and it now stretches further and further into the Balkans.
As it expands, it has deepened and strengthened integration. But Brexit has created a hiatus in its journey and threatens to reverse it.
The UK government is in a form of Brexit paralysis as the negotiations go forward, unable to address any other area of policy.
However, the EU itself is also finding itself in a policy go-slow, reminiscent of the period after that European Constitution was overthrown by France and the Netherlands, in the early years of the noughties.
Proposals are being made but not a great deal of movement is being accomplished.
And into that gap comes the reaction. Though Macron cleaned up both in the presidential and parliamentary elections, the fact that Marine Le Pen achieved 33% must give pause for thought. More telling is that she received 44% of the youth vote. Away from France, results since the Brexit referendum show that the direction of travel is one way. We are seeing the rapid death and irrelevance of social democracy everywhere except perhaps Portugal.
In Germany, the ‘GroKo’ coalition, of the main parties of the centre-right and centre-left, is facing a surging threat from both the hard-left and, of course, the AfD, which has become the second largest party by polling, and which has a distinctly eurosceptic bent. In Italy earlier this month, more than over 60% voted for parties who reject the EU dream (and a full 65% of the under-25s voted that way).
Slovakia now has a eurosceptic prime minister in Andrej Babis and opposition to the euro has reached 72%.
Austria elected Sebastian Kurz as its chancellor.
He has gone into coalition with the strongly eurosceptical FPÖ and is threatening to turn the Austrian EU presidency into the one that puts the barriers up against continued cross-Mediterranean immigration.
Poland’s ruling PiS party last week had a 30% lead in the polls, and in Hungary, Viktor Orban’s Fidesz has 50% approval going into next month’s elections. In both countries, the EU’s recent campaigns against these two governing parties have resulted in a spike in support for them. After all, people don’t like those they see to be bullies.
Spain, meanwhile, is concentrating not on Brexit and the EU, but on its own constitutional difficulties in Catalonia.
Looking across the continent at those who are challenging the status quo, you can see common threads. For decades the main groupings of parties in the European Parliament – the centre left, through the Party of European Socialists (PES); the centre right/Christian Democrats through the European People’s Party (EPP) and the liberals of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) – have co-ordinated their approach, and, as is the very nature of these things, they have settled upon a middle ground strategy that is fiercely federalist and fiercely in favour of the institutions and policies of the EU.
Their personnel drift through national governments, European institutions and the European parliament.
They have disproportionate influence among most forms of traditional media and they command and control huge publicity budgets to promote their messages.
What has changed is that today, partly due to the system of proportional representation for the European parliament and partly due to the growth of the internet – with its instant, free and easily-promulgated media – we see opposition parties responding. A few years ago, radical groups on the edge of political debate were mostly rooted in their own countries.
They did not, for the most part, make common cause, nor did they shared ideas or methods. As a result of the European parliament and the internet, that is no longer the case.
Parties of both the left and right – UKIP in the UK, Five Star and the Lega in Italy, The Finns in (funnily enough) Finland, AfD in Germany and others elsewhere – have been able to learn from one another phenomenally effectively. Often this has been down to the talented communicators in their leadership, among them, Gianroberto Casaleggio, the web genius behind Five Star, who harnessed YouTube and Facebook to circumvent traditional media, and others, like Nigel Farage, who were able to shoehorn themselves into the mainstream on the back of impressive electoral and web performances.
At the heart of this common cause has been the European parliament’s anti-federalist group, which has been variously known as the ID, EFD and EFDD group but which essentially remains the same. It has always had parties of both left and right, but who shared a conviction of opposition to the integration agenda of the Brussels establishment.
Though its unity was always on a knife edge, with national parties regularly resigning, or being thrown out, its existence has allowed the disparate groups to learn, talk, cross-fertilise and succeed in their home countries. Without the parliament, this would not have been possible.
The very federalism of Brussels contains the seeds of its own downfall.
Gawain Towler was Head of Media at UKIP from 20014-2018 having been on the party’s communications team since 2004. He now runs CWC Strategy, a PR and reputation management consultancy.