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A loss in Europe

30 May 2014

ONCE, not so long ago, the European Parliament was the class favourite. Lacking charisma, a bit nerdy, she none the less attracted friends because her ample pocket money enabled her to lend carelessly to the others in the class. Of late, however, she has been feeling the pinch, and has asked to be repaid. Consequently, her popularity has plummeted, and her former friends are now making unkind remarks about her size and her habit of interfering in their affairs. The victory of the Eurosceptic parties last week, not just in semi-detached Britain, but in France, Denmark, Greece, and elsewhere, sounded a warning bell to the centre-right coalition that continues to form the majority bloc in the Parliament. Whether it has heard that warning remains to be seen.

The greatest impact, though, is likely to be on domestic politics. The electorate will vote, in general, only for a party that might win. The European election results have changed things significantly by lending credibility to minority parties such as the Front National and UKIP. This leaves the mainstream parties with a choice. They can, of course, pretend that last week's elections never happened, on the grounds that protest votes almost invariably evaporate in the heat of a General Election. Alternatively, they can attempt to outflank the newcomers by adopting their key policies. This is a dangerous route to take, however, since a single-issue opposition party such as UKIP, has no record to defend and no need to co-ordinate a package of policies.

The third option is to address the concerns that have prompted the protest vote. The main parties have attempted to do this largely through rhetoric, but so timidly that they have actually boosted the UKIP vote: the electorate has interpreted Labour and Conservative criticisms of Europe as a tacit support for UKIP's stance. Concern about immigration is paramount, and it is possible for the mainstream parties to tackle this without succumbing to a fortress-Britain mentality. The key is fairness: the more articulate among those who voted for UKIP said that it was unfair for foreign nationals to benefit from the public purse without having first paid into it. If we filter out the blatant racism felt, we are told, by one third of the population, this is a defensible position.

To focus on this, however, would be wrong. Politicians in Britain and on the Continent must not be drawn into the age-old argument about the deserving and the undeserving poor. Critics of the present system should, instead, focus on the forces that have set different sections of Europe's population against each other: the heedless actions of the pan-European financial institutions that take no responsibility for the results of their profit-seeking - such as the loss of industry, the manipulation of foodstuffs and other raw materials, and unemployment. If Europe's politicians are serious about a new focus, let it be, as the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has suggested, the undeserving rich.

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