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September 19, 2014
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A howl at the heavens

File photo of United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage.
By Ivan Briscoe
For the Herald

Control and help could not be better leitmotivs for the upcoming European elections

THE HAGUE — If you are looking for what has been lost and found in European public life, then consider the habits of the continent’s greatest police inspector. Over the course of 75 novels written by Georges Simenon during of the 20th century, Inspector Maigret managed to stay inscrutable and incisive in his resolution of heinous crimes even while he was, to use the demotic, tanked to his eyeballs.

“A functioning alcoholic, forever at the beer, the wine, the fine and the Calvados,” explains British novelist Julian Barnes in a recent review of the retranslated Maigret novels. “Today he would be sent off to HR to help him share and confront his problem.”

Possibly true, although if one thing can be said to evoke general affinity with the British populist politician Nigel Farage, head of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), it is his stern refusal to act upon medical advice.

Like Maigret, Farage seems unable to function without booze, and maybe a brimming ash-tray for good measure. By his own admission, televised political debate without something to soothe the nerves is an absurdity of modern life. “We got to the green room and there was just mineral water! I said: ‘We can’t be doing with this sort of thing, we want a bottle of white and a bottle of red or I’m not going on.”

When understood in these terms, this former stock-broker in his tweed livery, propping up a bar with his vehement opinions, throwing a hissing fit because pleasureless androids appear to rule the world, comes across as a naturally appealing fellow. Someone we might all like. It is for this reason, in part, that a ramshackle political force such as UKIP, whose internal discipline resembles that of a stag party in Ibiza, could possibly emerge as the winner in Britain of this week’s European elections. The other major part of UKIP’s political appeal lacks the charm of Farage’s inebriation, but certainly has a long tradition of being effective at the polls: a lot of hate aimed in the general direction of Romanians, Muslims, gypsies and Europeans in general, especially if they don’t have a job.

So winds the path of European populists since time immemorial: the common touch laced with a hot geyser of bigoted wrath. And the elections to the European Parliament, taking place across 28 EU countries from Thursday to Sunday, appear set to welcome many Farages into the shimmering limelight. Polls suggest parties opposing the EU and seeking to repatriate powers to their country, or to sever all ties with Brussels, will gain in the region of 20 percent of the total vote. If challengers to the integrationist European orthodoxy from right and left are included, this movement might prove victorious not only in Britain, but also France, the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, Hungary and Greece.

None of this means Europe is about to be dismantled by a tribal horde. For a start, European elections have never mattered that much: turnout usually averages 40 percent, and the Parliament itself, though gaining powers, is still secondary to the assembly of nation-states known as the European Council. Furthermore, the media shorthand which generally lumps the various anti-EU forces together disguises some pretty fundamental differences of opinion. Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen, from the Islam-baiting far right in the Netherlands and France respectively, may have signed up to the same charter. However, it is parties of the left in Greece and Spain, with an agenda stressing the social injustice of fiscal diktat from Brussels, who are the principal challengers to EU normality. Slogans may be shared between right and left, but it is hard to imagine polite words doing the same.

Perhaps most significantly, the tepid recovery of European economies since last year has led to an increase in support for EU institutions, and a surprising jolt of optimism in Germany and Britain. Even so, it is premature to read too much into these findings from the widely commented polls released last week by the Pew Research Centre, which found support for the EU rising to 52 percent of the region’s population. Only days later, the EU statistics bureau saw economic growth freezing once again into a glacial velocity.

Yet among all these notes of caution and uncertainty, the headlong charge of popular wisdom from Bepe Grillo the Italian troubadour to Nigel Farage the barfly buffoon, through the Socialist Alexis Tsipras in Greece to the atavistic Jobbik in Hungary, one element repeats itself over and over. There is absolutely no doubt that the actions of the European Central Bank (ECB) in 2012, when it promised to do “whatever it takes” to support the euro, were fundamental in calming the flutters in markets for government debt. It was on this basis that countries in the afflicted south could begin to consolidate their finances, and re-emerge as low-wage, low-risk economies.

The deal to save each and every state nevertheless came with a price tag, one that German Chancellor Angela Merkel bluntly specified: “Conditionality is a very important point,” she declared in a speech backing the ECB’s move. “Control and help… go hand in hand.”

Control and help could not be better leitmotivs of this election. Saved by the oligarchy of the EU from a post-euro wasteland, the people that have been thrown to one side, or otherwise downsized, underemployed or rendered into eternal interns, are intent on choosing the politicians that are most radically opposed to any sort of control, least of all of themselves. Since the EU professes to be in control of the policy fundamentals, any symbol of unwanted change can be thrown at it — immigrants in particular. Nothing stands out more clearly from the Pew opinion polls than the contrast between rising satisfaction with the EU and a deep and unalterable sense that it does not understand citizens, nor wishes to hear from them.

The one opportunity to have a say will thus become in many countries a howl to the heavens, followed shortly afterwards by something other than mineral water.

See also Italy's Renzi prepares to face Grillo challenge.

@itbriscoe

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