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Category: European Union

Why the UKIP Problem Will Get Worse Before it Gets Better

imagesIt’s official.  The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has arrived as a presence in British local government.  Elections last night saw a dramatic increase in their number of council seats; of the results so far announced, they have successfully defended two seats and gained 155.  Chuka Umunna, the Shadow Business Secretary, conceded that Britain was entering an era of ‘four party politics’.

From a wider European perspective, anti-EU, anti-immigration populism has been relatively slow to make an impact in Britain.  Such parties are already well-established in most western European party systems.  The process has taken longer in the UK because the first-past-the-post electoral system strongly favours established parties at the expense of newcomers.    However, the sociological bases of right-wing populist support have much in common across western Europe.

It is usually well understood that anti-EU, anti-immigration populist parties gain support from ultra-conservative voters, many of whom favour a very tough stance on law and order and immigration, and have strong and traditional views on national identity.  Such voters have always existed in small numbers in the UK.  The more moderate stance of UKIP (compared, for example, to the BNP) casts a wider net around the far right of the political spectrum.

Less well understood, however, is the increasing number of former Labour voters who are turning to UKIP.  This is a product of the interaction between de-industrialisation, which has led to an increasing scarcity of skilled working class jobs across north-western Europe, and immigration, which is perceived to create increased competition for those scarce jobs.

Put simply, globalisation and neo-liberal policies, which have dominated economic and political thinking across western Europe since the 1980s, have created ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.  The ‘winners’ are the most educated and those who already have capital: these groups can take advantage of the increased opportunities to work, travel and conduct business across borders.  At the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum, life has become harder.  Mines close because they are no longer efficient.  Factories move to Romania or China.  Tasks formerly carried out by skilled manual workers are now completed by computers or robots.

For the most part, these problems are not caused by the European Union.  Successive British governments have chosen to embrace neo-liberal reforms.  Globalisation and automation would happen whether or not Britain was a member of the EU.

However, the ‘losers’ of globalisation are a large sociological group, and one that has felt entirely unrepresented since the mid-1990s, when the Labour Party distanced itself from the unions and staked out new territory in the political centre.  During the same period, the European Union has expanded both its powers (particularly post-Maastricht) and size (following the 2004 and 2007 expansions).

In the absence of proper representation, debate, and recognition of their concerns, the ‘losers of globalisation’ have become increasingly disenfranchised, and thus ripe for mobilisation by anti-immigration, anti-European populists.  The economic crisis of 2008-2012 fuelled this already-toxic mix.

Britain’s traditional political parties miss the point when they decry UKIP as ‘racists’ and ‘scare mongerers’.  By huddling in the centre/centre-right, and focussing on media-management at the expense of formulating original policies, or building links with society, Britain’s ‘traditional’ political parties have left both the right and the left of the political spectrum wide open, a situation that is ripe for what the eminent political scientist, Giovanni Sartori, termed ‘centrifugal competition’.   Until mainstream political parties recognise the extent of the sociological change that has occurred in Britain, and the new demands that this creates, support for protest parties and populist parties is likely to continue to grow.

Dr Alison Smith holds a DPhil from St Antony’s College, Oxford.  She teaches Comparative Government, European Politics, Politics of the EU and Russian Politics.  You can follow her on Twitter @AliFionaSmith




A New Global Strategy for Europe?

Review of the ECFR Briefing ‘Why Europe Needs a New Global Strategy’

In the decade since European leaders approved the first ever European Security Strategy (ESS) in 2003, the world has changed dramatically and a re-think is now essential.   Policies that were once central to the ESS’s success are now holding Europe back.  That is the finding of a new European  Council on Foreign Affairs policy brief, a copy of which can be found here.

The ECFR identified six main changes since 2003.  They are:

1.  EU soft power as a wasting asset: Europe’s commitment to liberal values and human rights often conflicts with public opinion within the country that they seek to influence.  Nowhere is this seem more clearly than in the southern Mediterranean countries, where there is little desire to sign up to European norms.  Elsewhere around the world, the EU faces geopolitical competition from Russia and China.

2.  ‘Effective multilateralism in a neo-Westphalian world’: Rising powers have increasingly used the UN and other institutions as a means to counter Western ambitions.  As a new ‘multipolar environment’ takes hold, the report recommends that Europeans may have to go ‘forum shopping’ when the UN is gridlocked over crises.

3:  The death of liberal interventionism: Austerity has led to cuts in defence spending, while the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in conflict-aversion.  The US is pivoting towards Asia and now expects Europeans to take the lead on conflicts in their own back yard.  The report argues that Europe must develop its own capabilities.

4.  Rising influence of Asia: Over the last ten years, trade links between Europe and Asia have boomed.  China’s influence now reaches far beyond Asia.  EU Member Sates must craft a joint approach towards China.

5.  Economic interests and the failure of convergence: Although the eurozone has restored some credibility since the summer of 2012, it is increasingly clear that economic interests will continue to vary from member state to member state.  Europe is increasingly divided into surplus countries and deficit countries.  The report argues that top-level political direction is needed to make the strategic case for cohesive defence efforts.

6. The necessity of choice: European nations must choose between pooling capabilities and losing them.  Despite the fact that different member states have different economic and security interests, the report concludes that ‘it is past time to get Europeans thinking strategically again’.

The ECFR’s report is thought provoking, and makes valid observations about the the changes in the strategic environment since 2003.  It is no doubt correct to conclude that the European Security Strategy must evolve if it is not to be of any value at all.  However, can the European Union rise to the challenge?  With anti-integrationist sentiment rising in many parts of the European Union, it remains to be seen if the collective action problem can be overcome.

The full report can be found here:  http://ecfr.eu/page/-/ECFR90_STRATEGY_BRIEF_AW.pdf

Follow Alison Smith on twitter @AliFionaSmith

What Next for Britain’s Pro-Europeans?

One of the problems with political science is that publishing books and articles takes time, but events move quickly.  In 2005, Stefano Bartolini wrote an influential monograph, Restructuring Europe, which  argued that the ‘Europe issue’ had complicated the internal politics of Member States, but had not yet fundamentally changed party competition.

Cameron’s ‘Europe speech‘, finally delivered on 23rd January 2013, and the anaemic response of Britain’s other major parties, whose leaders ostensibly support the EU but are not willing to expend any political capital making a positive case, have finally forced the issue.  Polls show that, while 40% of the British population would vote to leave the EU, 37% would vote to stay.

Britain already has an influential anti-European party, UKIP.  Having, until now, benefited from the tacit (if unenthusiastic) support of the existing political elite, the pro-European lobby has had less incentive to create a formal political movement.

The first-past-the-post electoral system inevitably acts as a straitjacket during Westminster elections.  However, if the anti-European jungle drums continue to beat louder, it seems only a matter of time before the pro-Europeans organise, perhaps in advance of the June 2014 European elections.

Alison Smith is a lecturer in Comparative Government and tutor in European Politics at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford.  You can follow her on twitter @AliFionaSmith.

Mythbusters: three things Cameron’s EU veto didn’t achieve

David Cameron’s EU veto has, according to opinion polls, given a warm fuzzy feeling to 60% of the British population.  Sticking two fingers up at Brussels might feel good, but what has it actually achieved?

Cameron has not saved the City of London from EU regulation:  Indeed, EU regulation was never even on the agenda at Thursday’s EU summit.  Britain has genuine concerns in this area, particularly over the proposed ‘financial services tax’.  These are issues for another day, and Britain had better find some allies fast if it wants to achieve aims like locating the new European Banking Authority in London.

As a non euro-zone country, Britain had no vital national interest in Thursday’s treaty anyway: The treaty was flawed because the austerity it imposes on euro-zone states will probably be unworkable.   However, Britain was not being asked to adopt these regulations itself, merely to agree to euro-zone countries adopting new fiscal rules.  Under these circumstances, a veto is the diplomatic equivalent of using an industrial crushing machine to squash a tonka toy.

Britain has lost sight of its real vital national interest i.e. helping to stabilise the euro-zone:   Even the most ardent pro-European would accept that the euro is in mortal danger.  Even the most ardent anti-European would accept that this poses grave risks for the British economy.  There are no easy answers to averting the looming economic catastrophe.  But if we haven’t got any better ideas, it would at least be polite to get the hell out of the way and make supportive noises while others try to sort the problem.