Friday, 15 May 2015

How Britain’s election reflects Europe’s problem

Perhaps it helps to be on the ground in the United Kingdom during the lead up to an election, but then again, almost all the pollsters picked the final margin phenomenally poorly. At least foreign analysts have an excuse for ignorance and terrible prediction.

In the weeks and days before the United Kingdom’s general election, Labour and the Conservatives were tipped to be neck and neck, and UKIP (formerly the UK Independence Party) was predicted to gain far more than its ultimate tally of one lonely seat.

At the close of the day, the Conservatives polled 6% more votes than Labour and won an unexpected majority in the House of Commons. The Scottish National Party stormed home in the high north. Scotland last year achieved 45% approval for secession from the United Kingdom.

So its relative victory last week surprised only those who weren’t paying attention. The obvious criticism of the elections is to despair at the seemingly broken political system of what’s left of Her Majesty’s kingdom.

Many are saying its balkanised parties are no longer suitable for a first-past-the-post voting system. Analysis of election data shows the 2015 challenge delivered the least proportional result in the country’s history. With those numbers, the UK has done nothing to solve a growing crisis of legitimacy. Voter turnout only reached 66% which means Prime Minister David Cameron won re-election with the support of only 24.7% of the adult population. Nevertheless, those results gave the Tories their first majority since 1992 and theoretically puts more power in the hands of Mr Cameron.

However, his power now has different constraints. The Conservatives’ majority is thinner than under previous coalition governments and could be held hostage to a small number of potentially discordant lawmakers whose defection would put the party’s number of seats below the majority threshold. Add to this a growing movement of Euroskeptics in the Conservative party, and Mr Cameron’s room to manoeuvre could be tighter than he thinks. Following these elections, it could be said that the UK is essentially an unrepresentative democracy.

However, the UK elections’ true importance is what it says about the state of the European Union and whether it can remain a strong entity or will devolve into a toothless organisation similar to the United Nations where every constituent member prioritises its national imperatives over the supranational. Taken as a microcosm of the larger EU financial and social crisis, the UK has all the threads of what’s going wrong in Europe.

UKIP represents a deep and growing displeasure about the European Union which has led to a number of right-leaning political parties coming to power since 2008. However, it has been the larger conservative parties in control, not the smaller and more tenacious rightist parties, which are yet to show competency in controlling the larger EU system.

Although it has weathered its fair share of militancy and terrorism over the decades, a pronounced anti-immigration sentiment driven by a justified but largely overblown fear of Islamic jihadism also runs through the modern British society. This is reflected in the policies and rhetoric of many parties in the UK and elsewhere.

And the UK is facing its own returning questions about nationalism – questions both the continent and Britain hoped had been settled decades or centuries ago. While the EU struggles to balance its budget, these movements are getting louder and more powerful with each passing election.

These tectonics displaying in the UK have real geopolitical consequences. They raise dangerous issues about Britain’s relationship with both the EU system and its Atlantic alliance with the United States. After all, should the Scots choose to make good on their departure plans, the contiguous integrity of the United Kingdom would be at risk.

Britain no longer controls the seas nor has an empire spread across the world, so it must balance the interests of the EU and the US. Splitting from one risks subsuming too greatly with the other, which could threaten Britain’s freedom of action.

How Britain balances the necessities of national imperatives with the demands of the larger organisation is the central story of the EU’s struggle. Britain’s electoral system may be flawed, but the fact that the Scottish National Party won a significant amount of the vote speaks volumes to how UK citizens feel about the greater socio-political reality.

Mr Cameron is now beholden to his promise of setting a referendum on EU membership in 2017. It is entirely unclear at this point whether Britain will remain part of the community, and that should raise questions of far greater import than those surrounding Greece’s choice.

After all, Greece represents a fiscal failure. Whatever it decides about its position or is compelled to do is driven by wholly different forces than those occurring in the UK. Should the maelstrom of nationalism, anti-immigration and Euroscepticism in Britain spin faster, Catalonians in Spain or the Flemish in Belgium may push their political power much further. And that would be just the start.

What this brewing storm in Europe might do to the organisation is unclear. But if its members value national interests over those of the larger community’s, then the union’s power and existence could be in question.

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