According to data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau for the 2005-2009 American Community Survey, 13.7% of Minnesota residents were born in Europe. Of those, a significant number will be looking eastward this Thursday 22nd as the European Union parliamentary elections take place. Normally considered an insignificant sideshow by Europe’s populace, this election promises to be a forum for the continent-wide unrest and resentment shown toward the supra-national body based in the Belgian capital of Brussels.
Since 2008 and the economic crash which decimated economies across the continent, electorates throughout Europe have grown increasingly mistrustful of diktat from both the EU and the European Central Bank in Frankfurt. This is especially true of those member states whose economies suffered most harshly and have since been the subject of stringent Frankfurt- imposed austerity measures. The ECB, based in Frankfurt, is the body which effectively dictates fiscal policy to those nations with the Euro as official tender. This "eurozone" comprises: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain. Meanwhile, the E.U.'s remaining nine member states outside the eurozone retain economic sovereignty through the use of their own established currencies.
Those countries hardest hit by the central bank's policies, lumped together under the inelegant acronym PIGS – shorthand for Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain – have, on the surface at least, been the recipients of E.U largesse in the form of bailout cash, which at the same time came with punitive strings attached. Essentially, each country was bailed out in a fiscal pact under which the member state was required to make drastic cuts to their respective welfare budgets, punishing essential services. This is nothing new in Europe, of course. In 1976, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey agreed on a similarly harsh compact with a supra-national body, on that occasion the IMF, whereby Healey agreed upon “haircuts” to public expenditure in return for the cash injection.
The extent of E.U. involvement in individual member states’ internal politics was revealed for all to see when, in November 2011, Mario Monti was controversially installed as Italian Prime Minister. Monti, formerly an E.U. commissioner, appointed a cabinet of unelected officials and set about implementing austere economic measures in line with E.U. fiat in a bid to resuscitate the Italian economy.
However, pure economics is but one side of the argument here. In 1992 when the European Economic Community morphed into the European Union, citizens of member states became citizens of the E.U. The full fruits of that bureaucratic sleight of hand can now be seen in the richer western states of the union. As the E.U expanded into the east of the continent, so it created new “citizens”. Eventually, Polish, Romanian and then Bulgarian workers, among others, migrated to the more prosperous western nations. With a ready influx of cheap labor innumerable problems ensued, most notably the undercutting of native workers in the employment market and the concomitant societal challenges involved in assimilating migrant groups. Additionally, free movement of labor has also placed added strain on Western Europe's social welfare systems and infrastructure.
If the resentment in the eastern and southern quarters of the continent is centered on stringent economic measures imposed by the E.C.B., then in the western half of the continent it can be said to be a result of the inability of each member state to police its own borders and control immigration. With free movement of labor assured, these are issues which are governed at the supra-national E.U. level, obviating the individual nation states concerned.
It is small wonder in such circumstances that a raft of populist parties has emerged in Western Europe. Often seen by critics as being “far right” and “tea party” organizations, these political parties emphasize the primacy of the nation state, controlled immigration and, in the case of parties in France, Italy and Netherlands, a repudiation of neo-liberal economic orthodoxy. France’s Front Nationale, the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom, Britain’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and Italy’s Lega Nord have come to represent a growing disenchantment with the established political order, which is viewed as increasingly out of touch with its own electorate and which, in many cases, has refused its own citizenry the right to referenda on individual member state involvement with the E.U.
There is, of course, a potentially serious by-product created by the mainstream parties neglect. As they have failed to address issues causing concern among their own electorates, so these populist parties have stepped up to fill the lacunae. Consequently, in France, Britain and Holland those same parties have been accused of invoking dark, xenophobic impulses with their rhetoric in the build up to the election. Nick Cohen, the London based writer, has even argued that UKIP is little more than "Nigel Farage's personality cult"
It seems that the reality of the E.U. is not quite that of the utopian vision once held by the American writer T.R. Reid in his 2004 book The United States of Europe. Instead, from the perspective of a growing number of disaffected citizens at street level, it is now viewed as being representative of an out of touch political elite with their snouts in the trough, supplanting traditional member states' traditions with a suite of alien cultural and political values. As Serbian political commentator Srdj Trifkovic has argued, “(the) European Union is a project of the elite class of Europe that denies the value of the genuine heritage of European civilization and seeks to replace it with the politically correct dictate of the ideology of post-modernism and post-nationalism”.
With polling less than a week away, Britain’s UKIP heads the polls at 34%, ahead of the established order of Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat Parties. When UKIP leader Nigel Farage thoroughly repudiated the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in a recent televised debate about Britain’s future in the E.U., it was clear that voter disenchantment was in the air. With some polls granting Farage victory in the debate by as wide a margin as 67% to Clegg's 27%, it is clear that UKIP, like other similar parties across Europe, has tapped into significant dissatisfaction among voters, who feel little outlet for their views among the established order. Although often lamentable and controversial comments have been attributed to UKIP and other European parties who operate outside mainstream discourse, it is clear that this election has caught the attention of Europeans like no other in recent memory. Whatever happens on Thursday, things in the E.U. are about to get interesting.