European elections: a view from outside the bloc



Picture of Sir Ciarán Devane
Sir Ciarán Devane

Executive Director of the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations and Associate Pro-Vice-Chancellor for International Relations at Coventry University, former chief executive at the British Council and Trustee of Friends of Europe

Being resident in the UK means observing the European Elections while in the middle of our own general election campaign. That campaign will, without doubt, end the run of five Conservative prime ministers and will deliver a much diminished Conservative Party, one which is not recognisable as the one first elected in 2010. By chasing votes to the right of it, that centre-right party morphed into a ’further-right’ if not quite a far-right party, but was ever out-flanked by the true far-right in the form of UKIP, the Brexit Party and now Reform – all vehicles for one Nigel Farage. The result, however, is a centre-right which has narrowed its electoral coalition to such a degree that polling of voter intentions suggest it may get no more votes than the far-right – and not because the latter is thriving.

I say all this because the trajectory of the right in government in the UK since 2010 holds lessons for how similar parties should handle themselves in Brussels, and for how others should handle them. The trajectory is well illustrated by the fate of those five prime ministers. Cameron will be remembered for calling an unnecessary referendum but then not only losing it but not fighting to win it. With the pro-EU wing chastened, May pandered to the Ultras and allowed herself to be dragged to the most extreme Brexit short of ‘no-deal’. With those Ultras still unhappy, she lost power to Johnson, whose chaotic government was overwhelmed by the pandemic and eventually collapsed in scandal only for the neo-liberal Ultra Truss to crash the economy in her 50-day tenure. Sunak, presiding over the endgame, has managed to offend the entire nation by leaving the D-Day commemorations early, the last such to have a substantial cohort of veterans of that day present. He did so to do a mere television interview.

The lesson for parties of the right is that failing to sustain the internal coalitions ultimately leads to the wilderness. Narrower constituencies may be more ideologically pure on the defining issue, but they lead to a strange combination of group think and factionalism, and ultimately electoral oblivion. In parallel, if the selection criterion is ideological purity and not sustaining the internal coalition, the number of competent operators is small, impact and delivery suffer, and punishment awaits. It is not Brexit regret which is killing the UK’s Conservatives but failing on health, the economy and basic political nous.

Demonising them all because of the outrageous views of some factions within them will only promote unity and loyalty

Which brings me to the results of the European Parliament elections. The centre-right right lost ground, but other than in France was not routed. The wrong response would be to feel the need to drift right. The far-right and extreme-right would only travel further right again. The priority should be to sustain the coalition, be capable of delivering the full range of policies and attract support from those to both the left and right of the party through good policies which intelligently address the issues – leaving the dog whistles to the extremists.

The lesson for the rivals of the right is similar. All parties are indeed coalitions. There are fractures within them. Opponents are not uniform. Demonising them all because of the outrageous views of some factions within them will only promote unity and loyalty. Better to identify the distinctions within them, work to attract and separate some factions from others and collaborate on the common issues which are more amenable to collaboration.

A related lesson is that the concerns of the right need to be listened to and heard. It is one thing to roll one’s eyes at climate deniers but not engaging on the impact of climate response on communities and business interests is shortsighted. We may in our bubbles know that the dependency ratio of workers to non-workers is going from bad to worse, that birth rates will not fix the problem and that migration is essential if our health systems are to survive, but we must also acknowledge that fear of the pace of change, the complexity of new communities and the pressure on public services are all real concerns.

The new commission should do everything it can to encourage vast numbers of young people to engage with its mission of peace and prosperity

The new Commission will need to reflect the new reality. It needs to focus on where the centre of gravity of the member states and the Parliament are. It needs to respect the legitimate concerns that migration and climate raise. It needs to address the alienation of people from politics while recognising this is fundamentally a national, not EU, issue. The focus for the EU should be on young people participating in politics and in Europe – while remaining proud of their nationality. The new commission should do everything it can to encourage vast numbers of young people to engage with its mission of peace and prosperity.

As I write UK Labour, self-evidently a left of centre party, has double the voting intentions of the Conservatives. Add in Reform, who are now tracking at the same level as the Conservatives, and you are effectively at parity between left and right. The universal truth of half of us being right of centre and half left of centre holds. Where the election will be won will depend on who is believed to be capable of doing the job well. Victory will be those believed to be competent. My hope for the new Commission, therefore, is that they will take the position of wanting to be effective. Not of the left. Not of the right. But an inclusive, thoughtful Commission which says it will do everything it does clearly, simply and well – bringing the full Parliament closer to it, just as it is close to the Council. A Commission of “What Works?”

Only in that way will cohesion last, and support for the collective endeavour of a peaceful, prosperous, secure and influential Europe prevail.

This article is part of our European Elections #Voices4Choices campaign. Find out more here. The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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