Every five years the voters of the 28 member countries of the European Union take part in elections of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). There is no common voting system and each member state is free to choose its own system, subject only to certain broad restrictions. At present there is a total of 751 seats, but as the Speaker does not vote this results in 750 MEPs entitled to cast votes on issues before the Parliament.
The concept of European integration had its first expression in the agreement between France and Germany in 1951 to form the European Coal and Steel Community and formalized by the Treaty of Paris. It was a deliberate political initiative to foster integration and thereby avoid the competition that had so often led to war in Europe. Step by step in the past 60 years integration has advanced: The European Union was formed and membership increased particularly after the fall of communism in 1991, and the European Parliament was established in 1979. The euro currency was created in 1999 for bank transfers and notes and coins began to be accepted by many countries in 2002. The euro is now the currency of 21 countries with Latvia being the latest to adopt it in January 2014.
But if a camel is a racehorse designed by a committee, so it is with the European Union. With its expansion to a family of 28 members it is not surprising that there have been differences of opinion and strains have mounted. The difference between those who sought a federal Europe and those who wanted to retain national sovereignty was evident from the start.
Separately, countries with large populations and strong economies, such as Germany, France and the United Kingdom, had different interests and priorities from smaller countries. The challenges of finding agreement were made even more difficult by the economic collapse of 2008 and the subsequent measures that had to be taken to bail out the economies of countries such as Greece, Portugal, Italy and Ireland. Tempers rose as the countries of northern Europe, who regarded themselves as prudent and comparatively hard-working, resented finding the finances to make loans to others regarded as spendthrift layabouts lolling around in the Mediterranean sun and dodging taxes. In return, the latter resented being made into financial colonies of fat cats in the north.
Matters were brought to their current head by the increased flood of immigration and short-term job hunters from eastern Europe as those countries were accepted into EU membership and therefore their citizens were entitled to travel and work anywhere in the EU area without the need for work visas. Not only have the new arrivals taken jobs from the national work force, but in many cases they have then drawn family benefits for children remaining at home in their original countries. Exacerbating the immigration problem over the years has been the ever increasing flow from Africa and Asia, bringing with them more and more Moslems with inevitable effects on the established cultural and educational systems of Europe. Many of the new arrivals have been unwilling to be assimilated in the cultures of their new host countries, often resulting in ghettos and communities totally alien in attitudes and practices to the traditions of Europe. In this regard, the United States has been significantly more successful in accepting immigrants than Europe in that psychologically here in the United States Americans recognize that almost all have come originally from somewhere else, whereas in Europe that has generally not been the case.
All this has now reached boiling point as evidenced in the elections for the European Parliament in the last couple of weeks. Those who have been skeptical of European integration from the beginning have been joined by the voices and votes of those who are annoyed at having to accept unwelcome decisions made in Brussels or frustrated by the inactions of their own national governments in failing to stem the flood of immigrants. In France, the National Front party headed by right-wing Marine Le Pen has taken a quarter of the French voters. In Great Britain the United Kingdom Independence Party, which calls for the UK to leave the EU altogether, has won first place ahead of the established parties and will have 25 seats in the next Parliament. To varying degrees, progress has been made by right wing parties in Germany, Netherlands, Denmark, Finland and Hungary, while in Greece and Italy it has been the left wing parties who have demanded that austerity should be eased.
The new MEPs will not command a majority in the next European parliament and even trying to find common positions among themselves will be rather like herding cats. But there is definitely a message of unhappiness that will force the main parties of left and right to sit up and take notice. It is likely to be a noisy and tumultuous five years as the newcomers make their presence felt. Europe will have to chart a somewhat different course and decide where it wants to go. Most of the arguments will concern matters internal to Europe but the head-butting and eye-scratching will not make relations with the United States over free trade, genetically modified crops, climate change, dealing with Russia, and defense expenditures any easier.
Ah, politics. Whoever said that we deserve a free ride?
Derek Boothby is a former arms control official with the United Nations and a resident of Manchester.