A couple of years ago I found myself driving through the industrial wastelands that make up the nexus between Belgium, Holland and Germany. The flat landscape rolled by under a heavy grey sky as I towed a trailer filled with our furniture from one part of Europe to another. I had passed through this area on several occasions before, and it was always my least favourite part of the journey due to the sheer dispiriting glumness of the scenery. It’s a landscape of business parks, factories and factory farms, truck stops and power stations. Rivers are corseted by concrete and horizons are cluttered with the droopy spider webs of power lines. Just to the north lies Rotterdam, Europe’s largest container port and, until recently, the world’s busiest, and to the south is Maastricht, famed as the place where the EU was birthed but nowadays a place where they are developing synthetic meat grown in test tubes. We are, of course, within the magnetic range of Brussels itself and the motorways around it buzz with high powered people driving high powered cars.
From space this region is lit up with a particular intensity. It’s one of the most densely populated and industrialised places on Earth, marking it out as an economic power house. But down at ground level, apart from the occasional bird in the sky, the only other life forms visible in this landscape were some peculiarly muscular cows that stood around dociley in fields besides the motorways. Until I saw the swan. I was queuing up with all the other cars and lorries to pay a tunnel toll when I glanced out of the window and saw it lying in a concrete drainage culvert. It was an adult, perfectly white and immaculate but for a black scorch mark on one of its wings. Above it were the high voltage cables that had ended its life.
For some reason, whenever I think of the the EU I think of that electrocuted swan lying there on the concrete. No doubt, later on, a municipal sanitation operative would have come along with a machine and taken away the dead swan along with the fast food cartons, cigarette butts and bottles of urine that truckers routinely toss out of windows across Europe.
I have been thinking about that black and white swan again recently with all the brouhaha about the latest European elections. There’s been a lot of talk about shocks and landslides and earthquakes, not least here in the UK where the anti-EU UKIP (the United Kingdom Independence Party) managed to get around a third of the vote from people who could be bothered to turn off their televisions for fifteen minutes, making them the clear winners. Elsewhere across Europe there were more ‘extremist’ wins, including the Front National (FN) in France and the Danish People’s Party (DPP) in Denmark—although to be fair they have been a force for a long time. Across the board, in country after country, voters elected to deliver a blow to the established parties. People, it seems, are pissed off.
And is it any wonder? Day after day we are told by a compliant media that the economy is in great shape—that we’ve never had it so good. And yet day after day more and more people find themselves unable to pay their rent, put food on the table or get a job that pays more than subsistence wages. Even if you manage to get a job, you’ll more than likely be put on a zero hours contract, meaning that you are officially employed but will be unable to claim benefits should your manager decide to put you on one hour a week. Many thousands, if not millions, have tried to escape this new form of slavery and have been forced to declare themselves as self-employed. But being self-employed offers even less of a safety net than a zero hours contract, even though it is good news for the politicians who can crow on about a ‘nation of entrepreneurs’ and falling unemployment statistics.
Anyway, for me, the fascinating thing about this latest election was the way the British media (mis)handled UKIP. The two mainstream media news sources that I read most regularly are the Guardian, which likes to see itself as progressive and attempts to squeeze most news stories through the prism of gender politics, and the Telegraph, which is properly right-wing nasty and sounds like a crazed and drunken homophobic uncle forced to attend a gay wedding on a wind farm. I sometimes read the amusingly-named Independent, if I haven’t anything better to do, and occasionally torment myself by looking at the BBC, whose main objective seems to be to bore you to death. If I watch TV news, it’ll be on Channel 4, which sometimes has some interesting documentaries.
And here’s the amusing thing, every single one of these MSM news sources tried to bring down UKIP, with disastrous results. Just look back at any of the stories published a week or two ago about UKIP or its leader Nigel Farage and you can get your UKIP bingo cards out. The cards feature the following words: racist, fruitcake, sham, anti-gay, xenophobic, fiasco, coward, gaffe, anti-immigrant and farce. It became quickly obvious that the MSM right across the spectrum (with the exception of the populist tabloids such as the Mail and the Sun) were out to get UKIP, which represented a threat to their respective constituencies, and had decided to work as a pack to bring this maverick down. No stone was left unturned to dig up dirt on Nigel Farage, UKIP or and of his merry band of followers, including a dotty Greek billionaire who believed that humankind would perish because women were allowed to wear trousers. Comments sections were flung wide open underneath online articles and much rabid hatred ensued, with ‘fascist’ being the most over-used word.
The thing was, every time such an attack took place, it looked more and more like our Fourth Estate was trying to protect the established powers that be, and the mask slipped just a little bit further. And every time it did so, a few more people concluded that if the media were so anti UKIP then UKIP might just be the party for them. Which begs the question, what is the point of having a media if all it does is amplify the status quo?
Now, at this point, some people might think that I’m a UKIP supporter. I’ll put your mind at rest and reveal that I voted for the Green Party—the only party that offers even an iota of a chance at making our predicament a little less painful. But the same media machine that accidentally propelled UKIP to a win was able to crush the Greens into the dust, as they always do, by never mentioning them. If they ever do get a mention we are effectively told that the Greens are not a serious party because they don’t embrace limitless capitalism. And they only have a single issue, which is, er, everything that's important.
And so the polite, sandal wearing, permaculture-practicing Greens were once again trounced (although not the one I voted for, who was elected to the European Parliament) and the beery, loud mouthed ‘normal blokes’ UKIP were propelled to victory.
There has been plenty of wailing, but I feel strangely reassured by the result. Democracy seems to be working, for once. I hope I don't lose any friends for saying this, but I have to say what I believe in. I don’t think it does any good screaming ‘fascist’ at people who voted for UKIP or accusing them of being ‘racists’ for wanting to limit the number of people coming into the UK. To do so is immensely disrespectful of people who have to put up with real fascists and dictators and who live in fear of being dragged from their beds in the middle of the night and disappearing without a sound—a fate that happens to thousands of people around the world every year.
So, I’m not for UKIP, but I am all in favour of calling in the EU and examining what exactly it is that we’re signing up for. I know why a lot of people hate UKIP, and it has more to do with hating the types of people who vote for them than the actual party. Comparisons with Hitler are not particularly useful as anyone with even a scant knowledge of history will know that fascism doesn’t flourish easily on British soil (it prefers continental Europe—one of the reasons I moved back here). The Greens should learn a thing from UKIP and be the ‘nice’ anti EU party, such as Italy’s 5 Star Movement has done.
I haven’t always been against the EU because, like most people, I bought the idea that it was all about peace and stability. More importantly, in the minds of most, it was all about not having to visit a bureau de change when you went on holiday. And I’ve always been utterly European. I’ve lived in five different European countries and speak several of its languages. My family spans three countries and I don’t think I could live on any other continent.
When I was doing my gap year at university in 1992 I worked for the the Treasury in Westminster. I had to write my economics dissertation that year and my tutor suggested I write about monetary union in Europe. The Treasury library was more than happy to order me a load of books (at the taxpayer’s expense) detailing the ‘inevitability’ of full monetary union, and my tutor suggested that he’d give me a good mark no matter how badly I’d written it ‘As long as you conclude the inevitability of full monetary union,’. I did and he did.
Ever since then we’ve been swept along on a railroad of propaganda and fake ‘choices’. The EU does not want member states to hold referendums on important matters as was so clearly demonstrated early on with the Danish referendum where they voted ‘no’ (and the subsequent referendum where they were more or less ordered to vote ‘yes’) and the later enlargement treaties. In fact, it is acting more and more like a federal dictatorship. As far as I’m aware, nobody in the mainstream media has focussed on the fact that the EU effectively got rid of two democratically-elected heads of state (in Greece and Italy) and installed technocratic puppets to enact austerity. The patient and tolerant people in Spain, Portugal and Greece are putting up with the kind of grinding austerity without end that people in northern Europe probably wouldn’t be able to bear (although we’ll soon have to). And I’m still waiting for the media outrage over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between itself and the US which would effectively hand over control of democratic rights to transnational corporations.
That last one bears repeating. The EU and the US are currently trying to impose a trade deal on us in the name of growth that would take away our basic democratic rights. Monsanto will be able to sue your government if they decide to ban roundup. Big pharma will be able to take your country to court if it tries to protect children’s health by, say, reducing the availability of sugary drinks.
Is that the kind of brave new world that we want? It makes my head spin that progressives and people on the left still see the EU as a benign entity that is somehow a force for good. It might have been once, but to think that it still is is to place blind faith in the idea that power does not somehow beget more power. And yet even when it was regarded as ‘benign’ by ‘pro-Europeans’ it was still enacting the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy—possibly two of the most environmentally destructive and famine-inducing policies in world history. We Europeans enjoyed swimming in milk lakes and climbing grain mountains while people in Africa starved as a result and the seas were emptied of marine life.
I, for one, enjoyed the early years of the EU. I remember the joy of getting my first red European passport, and the thrill of passing through an open border without having to show that passport. I also took great delight in seeing some of our home-grown predators have their wings clipped by the EU and seeing victims of power abuse find redemption in the European Court of Human Rights. I proudly called myself a European and fervently hoped that Britain would also adopt the euro currency. You could hop on a sleek train in London and get off in a short time later in Paris. It all seemed so modern and progressive.
There were, of course, some people shouting ‘danger!’ from the rooftops—but I didn’t listen to them. These people got lumped in with the xenophobes, the Little Englanders and the crusty British cargo culters who wore navy blazers and swilled scotch in country golf clubs.
But has the EU now ironically become a threat to Europeans themselves? An optimist would say that it brings people together, promotes growth and acts as a bulwark against other superpowers. But step outside the mainstream media for a moment and you might equally conclude that it has transformed into a morally bankrupt powerhouse of rapacious capitalism—an engine for keeping northern Europe economically afloat at the expense of the southern Europeans. Remember, Mario Draghi pledged to do ‘whatever it takes’ to keep the euro currency from imploding, even if that means toppling democratically elected leaders, pumping billions of euros into bankrupt financial institutions and selling voters to corporate interests for a fistful of dollars. Just what kind of democracy is this?
If Greece, for example, were allowed to leave the euro and bring back the drachma its problems would evaporate almost overnight. Its new (old) currency would be correctly valued by the markets, making its exports much more competitive. Tourists would flock there to get a good value holiday, people would buy Greek products again and, equally importantly, Greeks would feel like they were in charge of their own affairs once more and would not feel compelled to support parties like the Golden Dawn. But, of course, the ECB will not allow that to happen. The euro must not be compromised in any way, shape or form. And so the Greeks get poorer, are forced to sell their beaches and national treasures just to pay the interest on their unpayable loans, and the Germans retain their ability to earn money from China and the media says things like ‘the worst is over’ and ‘the crisis has been resolved’. And the anger and frustration spreads and grows like a cancer.
So people have voted UKIP, FN and DPP out of frustration at not being listened to. These things happen with predicable regularity when the economic conditions turn sour. Charismatic leaders attempt to scapegoat minorities and make all sorts of promises, even if they aren’t able to deliver on them. People are fed up with the usual bunch of clowns harping on about economic recovery and change, egged on by their media lapdogs, and promising nothing more than business as usual while enriching their pals at their expense. And now, in the European Parliament, we have an unholy rabble of people who want to expand the EU standing next to people who want to destroy the EU as well as the usual environmentalists, conservatives, communists and socialists. Talk about an odd mix.
So what do all these ‘political earthquakes’ add up to? Could it be the first faint rumble of the beginning of the end for the grand European project? Was the EU just a freak expansion of power straddling the pinnacle of the age of cheap oil? Will people rise up and claim back their democratic sovereignty before it is too late to do so? We can only hope so because if the EU carries on much longer in its present configuration it can only end in one thing, and that was the very thing its creation was supposed to prevent.