Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Glamour, Substance and Europe - What To Look For on June 8th

Between June 4th and 7th the whole of Europe will go to the polls. More accurately, around 40% will. Despite high unemployment, company closures and governments being very active socially, politically and economically, turnout in voting for the 736 members of the European Parliament will remain low. Proportional representation means that voting is for a slate of candidates, rather than a specific one and the parliaments work is largely mysterious to many voters, despite the fact that it can affect many aspects of daily life. Most “ordinary citizens” feel disconnected from the important work of the parliament.

There are several things to keep an eye on when the results begin to appear. The first will be how deep the defeat of the Labour Party in Britain is and what this signals for the future of Gordon Brown, Britain’s embattled Prime Minister. Most of the chattering classes in London see the European election and the local elections in Britain taking place on the same day as marking a turning point in the politics of replacing a Prime Minister. If the defeat is devastating, especially in the local elections and Labour losses are high, key party figures begin to see their own political future on the faces of their fallen European parliamentary colleagues and local councilors. The knives will be out for Gordon. His response will be a reshuffle of his cabinet and a focused attempt to reassert his authority – the scale of the cabinet shuffle being in proportion to the scale of defeat in the local and EU elections. Gordon Brown will survive, but the party will have a full dress rehearsal for its expected defeat in May or June of 2010 when there must be a general election in Britain. Gordon Brown will be “damaged goods” and the internal strife within the Labour Party – something which it excels at – will help secure a victory for the Conservative Party in the 2010 elections.

A second development could be the winning of seats by the British National Party (BNP) and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). The UKIP, which won twelve seats at the last European election, wants Britain out of the EU. The BNP is the new incarnation of Oswald Moseley’s version of the British fascist movement – opposing immigration, EU membership and minority rights and favouring what we may see as a white supremacist position. At the last election the BNP secured just 6.4% of the vote – just 2% short of the votes requires to secure the allocation of a seat.

The third thing to watch is the pattern of voting in Ireland. The Lisbon Treaty, which gives a new constitution to Europe and, amongst other things, significantly strengthens the role of the EU Parliament, was rejected by the Irish voters in a plebiscite. When the votes are counted in June, it may signal a change of heart by the Irish or, more likely, a hardening of their opposition to the new constitution. Some of the parties standing favour Lisbon and some are opposed.

Finally, there is the pattern of voting in Germany. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, faces a Federal election in September of this year. No one party will emerge as an overall winner in these elections and some are suggesting that traditional coalitions may also not be easy to form, given the challenges that Germany faces. Merkel has committed to win a majority for CDU/CSU and FDP (the CDU/CSU's traditional coalition partner) in 2009 – the EU elections will tell whether she is on track to do so. At the last European election, the CDU/CSU won 44.5% of the vote and he FDP 6% - they need to do at least this well to signal an easy victory in September.

For pure entertainment, keep an eye on Italy. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, facing divorce from his wife, originally selected several glamorous women with no substantive political background to run for office. It will be interesting to see whether Italians support glamour or substance.

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