The European Parliament Photo: Wikimedia
After four days’ of voting across 28 member states (including exotic French constituencies in South America and the Indian Ocean), only 43 percent of an electorate of nearly 500 million people bothered to cast their vote in the five-yearly elections to the European Parliament (EP). The biggest winner of this election has, once again, been apathy, the malaise of democratic complacency.
As expected, economic turmoil and increasing scepticism of the benefits of intra-European migration pushed voters away from the centre. As Britain’s Guardian newspaper surmised, sufficient gains were made by far right parties to move them away from Europe’s margins.
Right, left and the establishment
The French Front National won a quarter of the vote in France, Austria’s Freedom party a fifth, Hungary’s Jobbik 15 percent, and the Greek Golden Dawn around 10 percent of the vote in their respective countries. More moderate Eurosceptic parties like the UK Independence Party and Danish People’s Party won the single largest share of their national votes. German voters returned their first Eurosceptic (the Alternative For Germany, AfD) and neo-Nazi (the National Democratic party) MEPs. Hard left movements did well too: Syriza in Greece topped the domestic poll.
The elites of the European ruling classes cannot have been surprised by the results. After numerous occasions on which national votes had rejected further integration (whether through changes to the constitutional Treaties of European Union, enlargement or membership of the Euro) only to be overruled or ignored, the vox populi was clearly expressing doubts about the direction of the European project.
The more it changes…
Despite the anti-federalist vote, however, the elected MEPs are overwhelmingly on the side of state, rather than private, action. This is true even of parties like the Front National, who advocate the extension of the welfare state, support protectionism and oppose globalisation. Only 46 seats of the 751 in the European Parliament are held by economic liberals.
Against this context of Eurosceptic statism, which way will the EU now go on matters like marriage, the family and freedom of religion and conscience? In truth, there will be little change, and the future remains somewhat bleak.
Take three cross-cutting levels of analysis: the philosophical outlooks of new MEPs, the institutional interests of the European Commission and its ‘eurocrats’, and the development of EU law as introduced via the EP.
Family values remain marginal
Although they come in diverse shapes and sizes, some of the ascendant Eurosceptics have cut their teeth in their national same-sex marriage debates. Britain’s Ukip initially took a lot of supporters from Conservatives upset by Prime Minister David Cameron’s announcement in October 2011 that same-sex marriages would be created by the Coalition Government. Nigel Farage, Ukip’s leader, was happy to oppose the plans while his party was gaining numbers. But now the issue is settled (the first British same-sex marriages took place in March), Farage has confirmed that the legislation would not be repealed if Ukip won the General Election in 2015 — although that’s not to stop his fellow MEPs opposing it from the sidelines, of course.
It seems that once the same-sex marriage battle has been “lost”, the expediency of opposing the measure dissipates and politics moves on. Unfortunately, this is likely to be the outlook for most of the new Eurosceptic MEPs. Watch out if a suitable case comes up before the European courts over the lifetime of this Parliament.
The vested interests of eurocrats
At the institutional level it is hard to tell if the grasping hands of the eurocrats will be restrained from further integrationist measures in tax, justice, policing and other powers currently within, to greater or lesser extents, the ambit of national sovereignty, or whether the acquisition of powers will be put on hold or suspended indefinitely. What is not in doubt is that the social orientation of the European Commission will continue to be firmly neoliberal.
Take the fate of the ‘One of Us/Un De Nous’ online petition, signed by over two million people and campaigning for the prohibition of European funding for activities that destroy human embryos. The petition was submitted to the Commission via the European Citizens’ Initiative, a mechanism set up by the EU for the very purpose of encouraging democratic participation. Shortly after the votes were in, the Commission announced it would block the progression of the petition, which had easily covered the million signatures needed for the introduction of legislation into the European system – a slap in the face for millions of Europeans.
However, as the One of Us website optimistically noted,
For the “ONE OF US” Citizens’ Committee, the procedure is not over: on one hand, the Commission’s decision is likely to be appealed before the Court of Justice in Luxembourg – which acknowledges respect for human life from conception – and on the other hand, the new Parliament will audition the next Commission, allowing it to restore respect for the Citizens’ Initiative to the heart of debates, and asks European Institutions to be more ethical and democratic.
Given the close alliances between the Commission and many liberal MEPs, this will be a hard task. Take, for instance, the Intergroup on LGBT Rights, whose support – drawn overwhelmingly from socialist and liberal parties — will be boosted by the increased numbers of far-left MEPs (and a corresponding fall in centre-right ones). Michael Cashman, a British Labour MEP who stood down, noted in a speech the close relationship between liberal campaigners on sexual and reproductive health, LGBT activists and the left, and described social conservatives defending the rights of the unborn as “those who wish to take us back to the middle ages”.
Who is shaping the legislative agenda?
The position of President the European Parliament, in effect its speaker, is also up for election, and neither of the two forerunners, Jean-Claude Juncker – who represents a parody of Christian democratic principles, according to European Dignity Watch — and the incumbent, Martin Schulz, are particularly concerned with the defence of the family, marriage or the unborn. Given their capacity to shape the legislative agenda, this is deeply worrying.
European Parliamentarians have reports named after them, and their prominence makes them a busy bunch. If the development of table reports and legislation in the last parliament is anything to go by, social conservative legislators are in for a torrid time:
The Bauer Report proposed mutual recognition of same-sex partnerships across all member states under the guise of free movement of people, and the Lunacek Report masked in the language of equality its real purpose as a vehicle for LGBT activism.
The Zuber Report declared that family-related responsibilities are an obstacle to human fulfilment in the workplace and promoted instead early childhood indoctrination in gender ideology in state schooling, abortion, same-sex marriage and gender quotoes in public life and the business sector.
The Estrela Report sought to make abortion and population control a major international development priority, prohibit the conscientious objection and religious freedoms of medical staff, compel sex education, and undermine member state subsidiarity in choosing national laws on abortion.
The controversial Fifth Equal Treatment Directive remains to be pushed into the Parliamentary process. In all, the legislative agenda of the past five years put social conservatives continually on the back foot.
Citizen groups and social media
From whence, then, any glimmer of light?
This lies not within the EP, where MEPs will continually be trying to block oppressive and offensive measures, but outside: in citizen group campaigning organisations like CitizenGO and One of Us and think tank and pressure groups like European Dignity Watch and the Dignitatis Humanae Institute. It was thanks to their activities that Zuber and Estrella were defeated in the Parliament: through powerful online and social media campaigns that catalysed popular action and brought pressure to bear on MEPs.
This is a symptom of the broken relationship between Brussels (and Strasbourg: the EP still moves between these cities, an enormous waste of time and money) and the people of Europe.
Let’s hope the rise of Euroscepticism restores some of that relationship.
Peter Smith is a lawyer living and working in London.