Comment

The three elections that matter for Europe in 2024

Denis MacShane / Jan 2024

Image: Shutterstock

 

2024 is unusually busy for elections from Austria to Pakistan. It is safe to discount the elections in Russia and India where both Putin and Mohdi have created a leadership cult about making Russia great again and making India great for the first time. Putin depicts Russia as surrounded by enemies – Ukraine, the EU, the US. Modi promotes his Hindutva ideology of Hindu supremacism aimed especially at the 204 million Muslims living in India, about 11 per cent of the world’s total Muslim population.

In it first  200 years of existence from the late 17th century Bill of Rights English parliamentary democracy was based on creating an internal enemy – the Irish Catholics – who were said to owe allegiance to a foreign puissance – the Vatican.

From 1920 to 1990, American democracy required the presence of an enemy within. Many American leftists of any hue were accused of being Soviet agents or supporters and the word “liberal” in American became a synonym of “communist.”

Today the right in the Euro-Atlantic world has a new enemy in its sights – the mass people movement of refugees fleeing different forms of persecution and poor migrants wanting to better their families’ future. 

As the white nominally Christian North gets older and older and total annual hours of work get fewer the economic case for 21st century migration gets as stronger as it was in the 20th century.

But the political weaponisation of mass  immigration has now become the single most important factor in electoral politics. It is used by the right, notably Donald Trump, Europe’s great-grandchildren of mid 20th century fascism in France, German, Spain, Italy and Hungary but the left is not much better. 

In Britain Labour exults in the damage caused to Rishi Sunak by his complete failure to control immigration from undocumented arrivals to clumsy efforts to oblige a minimum income of up to £40,000 on wives and husbands of foreigners working in the NHS, and other public services.  The Danish Social Democrats were the first to explore relocating undocumented immigrant arrivals to Rwanda. But a brief look at the wretched police state autocracy and corruption in the Central African state put off the Danes.

The biggest source of illegal economic immigration in Britain are those who arrive from the 111 countries whose citizens are not required to have a visa to travel to the UK. Many come from countries like Brazil and then disappear into the informal labour market.

Brexit has meant the UK has clamped down on European workers and in return the EU is demanding that Brits are finger-printed to enter EU territory leading to ever longer queues to go on holiday to the continent or make a business trip to a EU capital.

In truth, Europe is much tougher on people movement than it likes to pretend. The behaviour of Italian and Greek coast-guards to boats bringing in those fleeing from failed states like Libya or Syria has been far more brutal than British treatment of those crossing the Straits of Dover.

All this means that the first important elections in 2024 for the EU – the June elections for 650 Members of the European Parliament  (EP) – will have immigration as the dominant theme. The liberal-left with its inherent reluctance to support quasi racist, anti-Muslim, immigrant-hating themes dear to the right will be punished. So will all governments in office - right, centrist-liberal, or social democratic.

In Italy Giorgia Meloni is putting herself as the head of all the 5 national lists to elect Italian MEPs. She wants to secure a big vote of endorsement of her position as Prime Minister. Yet her rightism is a milk and water version of what people expected given her Mussolini heritage rhetoric on her ascension to high office. She has dropped all her earlier anti-European themes and won plaudits in Washington for her support for Ukraine against Russia.

Yet polls show less than 40 per cent support in Italy for sending arms to Ukraine, a lower rate than other European Union countries surveyed. Meloni’s economic policy with its bizarre bans on vegan food does not help. Many Italian businesses meanwhile, are close to  bankruptcy and closure, due to rising energy costs and interest rates. The research institute Nomisma reports that 62% of Italian households currently live on less than 1800 euros a month — and many blame the war in Ukraine for their economic woes. Other more rightist racist anti-Ukraine parties like Matteo Salvini’s Lega may profit by profiling themselves as tougher on immigrants than Meloni.

Voter turnout in European Parliament elections is about half that of national government elections. The EP elections are used to register a protest vote. It is how UKIP in the UK, the AfD in Germany, Syriza in Greece, or VOX in Spain first got parliamentary representation. Green parties who are fading nationally remain a commanding force in EP elections.

There will be more far right MEPs in the next European Parliament but not according to the professionals in Brussels who run the European political networks in such numbers as to replace the MEPs from mainstream democratic parties.

A more important election for Europe is the US presidential contest. If the Europe-hating, soft-on-Putin Donald Trump is elected there will be major crisis in transatlantic relations. Trump’s consiglieri Steve Bannon still maintains links with the European populist nationlist right. He met Giorgia Meloni and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán as well as Rishi Sunak, at a gathering of European hard anti-immigrant, Muslimphobe party leaders oganised before Christmas by Meloni in Rome. A victory for Trump will throw Europe’s pro-Ukraine policy into disarray and weaken Europe’s fragile unity as rightist leaders crawl to Trump.

After the European Parliament and US elections, the third key election for Europe is paradoxically in the nation where the Putin-Trump axis scored its biggest political victory of the last decade when Britain left the EU.

Polls for more than a year have placed the modernised, ultra-moderate reformist Labour Party a clear 20 points or more ahead of the Conservatives. This was a reaction against the lost years when Labour led by Jeremy Corbyn went down the same path as Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France, Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece or 5 Stars in Italy with a populist leftist platform that voters repudiated even if the mainstream left had lost touch with electors’ worries and fears. 

It culminated in two comprehensive election defeats for Labour led by Corbyn in 2017 and 2019. Since then Labour has decided to be serious about winning power and under the cautious leadership of a former chief prosecutor for Britain, Sir Keir Starmer, Labour has become electable once again.

The paradox is that Labour’s return to electability has been helped by Britain leaving the EU. Until 2016, Labour especially under Tony Blair was seen as the principal pro-EU party in Britain.  Blair fully embraced freedom of movement leading to four million European immigrant workers arriving in British cities and towns this century. Britain has no works councils, weak. divided trade unions, nor even ID cards which are the norm in other EU states so that citizens feel the government can protect their interests.

Brexit has been a disaster for Britain’s overall economic position but it is no longer possible to blame the EU for 1001 irritating decisions affecting citizens’ daily lives. Against Labour under Blair, opposition parties like the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, and UKIP could attack him for bring the EU’s pro-consul in London.

Not any longer. Liberated from having to defend each and every decision or directive from Brussels, Labour can depict the Conservative led by the billionaire Goldman Sachs banker Rishi Sunak as a government only for the rich, of Britain weakening public services and causing significant rises in poverty and an ever widening gap between London, the Luxembourg of Britain, and the visible poverty of too much of the rest of Britain.

If Labour win the 2024 election and governs without the need for coalition partners it will be seen as the most successful democratic left party in Europe even if outside the EU.

 

Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane

January 2024

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