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by Euro Reporter
2014-05-19 11:06:24
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Europhobes gain clout: Xenophobic, right-wing and anti-EU parties catch on as elections near

In a tiny pub in a genteel corner of England, the rest of Europe feels far away. Which is just how Nigel Farage likes it. Mr. Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), sips his pint of beer with the smile of a man on track to win the biggest share of British votes in elections this month for the European Parliament — a parliament Mr. Farage wants to abolish, along with the entire 28-nation European Union bloc. “The whole thing is a monstrosity,” he said. “We want our country back. It’s been sold out.” Increasing numbers of voters agree with him — not just in euro-wary island nation Britain, but across the continent. Amid economic crisis and austerity, a union built from the ruins of the Second World War on a vision of peace, unity and prosperity is looking a little shaky. Parties that want to reform, remake or even just dismantle the EU are gaining ground. Years of recession and austerity have eroded Europeans’ faith in an institution with an annual budget of €140-billion ($200-billion) and influence over everything from farming to justice.

Polls suggest Euroskeptic parties could take between 25% and 30% of the 751 European Parliament seats in May 22-25 elections. In Britain, Mr. Farage’s UKIP — which advocates UK withdrawal from the EU and has never won a seat in the British Parliament — has pulled ahead of the Labour Party into first place. The Conservatives, who lead Britain’s coalition government, look likely to finish an embarrassing third. Campaigning on the Georgian streets of Bath, 160 kilometres west of London, Mr. Farage drew a strong and — for the most part — welcoming reaction. Resembling an affable country squire with his mustard-coloured trousers, tweed jacket and ruddy complexion, Mr. Farage is one of those lucky politicians with a knack for popularity. Tourists ask for photos. Two environmental activists who stop to berate him about fracking come away smiling. A man who starts out criticizing Mr. Farage ends up downing Sambuca shots with him. Mr. Farage campaign stops are also being met with protests, and the occasional hurled egg, though, from opponents who accuse the party of xenophobia and racism. That charge — also levelled at other anti-EU parties, from France’s National Front to Italy’s Northern League — is one UKIP may need to overcome if it wants an electoral breakthrough.

The party has been stung by gaffe-prone members, such as the local councillor who blamed winter flooding on gay marriage. It has dumped several election candidates for offensive or racist comments, including one who said black comedian Lenny Henry should move to a “black country” and another who called Islam “evil.” The bigger parties have also slammed UKIP for its anti-immigration billboards, including one showing a finger pointing at the reader with the words: “26 million people in Europe are looking for work. And whose job are they after?” Mr. Farage says his party is not racist and is being disproportionately scrutinized. “We do not have a monopoly on stupid people,” he said. The criticism has not deterred hundreds of people from showing up each night at rallies around the country to hear Mr. Farage’s populist message: “The best people to govern Britain are the British people themselves.” Although the 50-year-old has been a member of the European Parliament for 15 years, many see him as a refreshing political outsider. He has also looked to Canada for inspiration, notably Preston Manning’s success in the 1990s with the Reform Party. Last year, Mr. Farage was a speaker at the Manning Centre’s annual networking conference in Ottawa.

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Does Germany rule your world?

Germans should be the happiest people in Europe. Their nation is one of the very few European countries to have survived the global recession and the eurozone crisis almost unscathed. Their economy is booming; their products are in demand; and, as a result, some argue they can call the shots throughout the region.  But over the past few years, it is this very resilience and economic success which has caused it to be cast as villain.  Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, has been portrayed as Hitler’s daughter. And her country has been painted as “an imperial power that will not be loved or admired by the rest, but hated and resisted”, in a warning by George Soros, the financier, “because it will be perceived as an oppressive power”.  His is not a lone voice of complaint. Indeed from Rome to Dublin, from Athens to Madrid, there has been a mounting chorus of disapproval directed at Germany over the terms it imposed - as the biggest lender - when helping out stricken European economies, especially Greece, Spain and Cyprus.

In 2012, hundreds gathered to protest in central Madrid, waving banners and saying "Merkel go home" and "No to a German Europe". One Spanish economist who took part in the protest said: “The German financial mafia is taking Spaniards hostage." In Athens demonstrators dressed up in Nazi uniforms and gas masks. One Italian newspaper, Il Giornale, published a front-page picture of Merkel under the headline “Fourth Reich”. Banners outside the parliament building in Nicosia read: “Merkel stole our savings.” For some this Euro-wide anger is understandable. Though Germany did come to the rescue of its weaker European neighbours it did so begrudgingly and with a set of fairly harsh terms. Many economists saw these terms - an insistence that the debtor countries cut deficits and spending as well as raise taxes - as directly contributing to widespread job losses and a dramatic slump in standards of living in Europe. In Spain, unemployment hit 27 per cent. In Athens, ministers imposed a 22 per cent cut on the minimum wage. In Cyprus, those with any significant savings found 10 per cent of them were taken in a one-off tax. Detractors of Germany said many of these austerity measures were avoidable and have, in turn, created a “German Europe” - one where Berlin rules the roost, and uses its economic might to dictate the rules of the game to all others.

Ulrich Beck, who teaches at the University of Munich and the London School of Economics, has been one of the most consistent critics. “In the countries most harshly affected by the crisis, many people think they are the losers because the austerity policy pursued jointly by Berlin and Brussels deprives them of their means of livelihood - and also of their human dignity,” he said. Many in Germany find these criticisms unfounded. As Europe’s biggest economy it raised more money than anyone else to save the eurozone - 27 per cent of the €700 million bailout fund came from Germany - and as a result it feels it has the right to dictate some of the terms. Michael Wohlgemuth, director of the think tank Open Europe Berlin, says: “Germany as the key creditor is of course more powerful than before the crisis. The German government has the duty to make sure that German taxpayers’ money is not wasted. Every other country would do the same: insist on conditionality.”

He also points out that the Bundesbank has exactly equal voting rights at the council of European Central Bank with, say, Cyprus. “And Germany is consistently outvoted.” Critics say it is only outvoted on side-issues; when it comes to major policy decisions the Bundesbank holds the purse strings and has, in effect, a veto. But, as the eurozone crisis slowly fades, the criticisms in recent months have turned on Germany’s export success and its enormous trade surplus, which at €199 billion is the biggest in the world, in absolute terms. Germany is so good at making and exporting things -- so the argument goes -- that the rest of Europe ends up being in hock to it, being forced to buy German goods, rather than investing in their own manufacturing and production. It is not just the Greek and Cypriot governments that have ended up being in debt to Germany, but all of us consumers. Beck’s argument is that: “Germany has no need to invade and yet it is ubiquitous.” This sounds like sour grapes. But it is worth asking the question how Germany has ended up so strong. And whether the rest of the Europe needs to worry?

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Key battleground in Euro elections

IT’S the $1.3 trillion budget that will be spent everywhere from Southampton to Sofia and Winchester to Warsaw. The European Union’s (EU) six year budget is just one of the things the south east’s ten MEPs are responsible for voting for. Next week, thousands of people across the region will turn out to vote in European elections at a time when there has never been a greater focus on the UK’s place within the EU. And with 8.5 million residents and more MEPs than four of the EU’s other member states have for their entire country, the south east is set to be a key battleground in the elections on May 22. One of the first acts of the new parliament will be electing a new President of the European Commission, the body which puts forward legislation for MEPs and the council, made up of member-states’ ministers, to vote on. But while the elections will have no bearing on whether the UK stays in the EU or not, the main issue being discussed before the vote is Britain’s place within the EU. UKIP, which is currently out ahead of Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in many polls, are at the forefront of the five parties, with candidates who want to see the country split from the EU, which it joined in 1973. Ray Finch, a Hampshire county councillor and one of the party’s candidates in the European elections, said: “What people are talking to us about on the doorstep is the loss of control over immigration. “It’s not that we have a problem with targeted immigration which can bring people in for specific jobs, it’s that we have no control because our Government has given up on any thought of taking it back.”

The party’s bid to increase the two seats won at the last elections, back in 2009, will be one of the subplots to this year’s vote. Cllr Finch added that MEPs can “do nothing” within the parliament. But while UKIP want out of the EU, other parties believe it is important both for the UK to stay in the EU, and also that MEPs have an important role to play within the organisation. Labour candidate Anneliese Dodds says her party recognises a need for change within the EU, but argues that benefits for Hampshire and the rest of the south east can only be achieved by staying within the union. She said: “We already have support from one of the two biggest groups of MEPs for the changes we want to see, so we can actually deliver them. “The main area we want to see change in is to see the EU more focused on growth and supporting employment as opposed to the Common Agricultural Policy.” And current Liberal Democrat MEP Catherine Bearder argues: “The EU is good for jobs – thousands of jobs in Hampshire depend on our links with the rest of the EU. “It’s also good for security, as our police can coordinate with other forces across Europe.

“And we can only really bring in protection for our environment if we work across borders. “Leaving the EU would be hugely damaging for the UK.” Green Party MEP Keith Taylor says his party’s main objective if he or fellow candidates are elected will be to “create a Europe for the common good.” His party are pushing for radical changes to the EU’s energy policy which will “put the environment at the centre of policy” and see more sustainable sources used, while tackling in quality across the Eurozone and animal welfare issues. He added: “In this election we are attempting to put people and the environment at the forefront.” Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has said his party offers the “third way” in the European elections, between the pro and anti-EU camps, and will offer a guaranteed referendum on membership if they win next year’s General Election.

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These weird Euro elections are the sunset of democracy

Everything is weird about this week’s Euro-election, and nothing weirder than the possibility that the party that comes top of the poll will be one that hasn’t got a single seat in Parliament. Our other parliament, in Brussels and Strasbourg, plays an important part in producing a huge proportion of the laws we must all obey. Yet on Thursday we shall only be choosing a bunch of unknown nonentities to represent us there, commanding just 9 per cent of the votes that can pass or reject those laws – and, hardly surprisingly, the majority of the British electorate will not even bother to turn out to vote for something they don’t begin to understand. We look askance at what the major parties tell us this election is all about. Mr Miliband tells us we should vote for him because he will freeze energy prices, which he has done more than anyone to put up; Mr Clegg tells us we should vote for him, because the Lib Dems are the only party that will keep us in the EU; Mr Cameron tells us that his is the only party that will give us the chance to vote in a referendum to leave it, although he says there is no way he could ever support a vote for us getting out.

The central figure of this campaign has been Nigel Farage, which is why the press and the media have devoted so much coverage to vilifying him. I go back a long way with Mr Farage. We have often spoken on platforms together since 1994, when he was already the star performer for a Ukip that had barely got off the ground. Just before the 1997 election, he invited me to give the keynote speech at Ukip’s first national conference. In 1999, I accompanied him to Strasbourg, shortly after his election as one of the party’s first three MEPs, to report on just what a strange, unreal madhouse the European Parliament was, housed in a building that was like a cross between a Kafka novel and a Fritz Lang film. But if one issue has dominated this present, equally unreal campaign, it has been that symbolised in Ukip’s election leaflet, showing a beaming Mr Farage under the headline: “Our politicians have allowed open-door immigration – Only Ukip Will Take Back Control.” This is as empty a pledge as Mr Cameron’s about that 2017 referendum, which can never happen. There is no way Ukip or anyone else can take back control of our borders so long as we wish to continue trading with the EU’s single market, with which our “open-door” policy is as inextricably linked as it is with our belonging to the Council of Europe, the UN and much else. The only way Britain could regain control over immigration would be to break every kind of international agreement, and to slam the door on the world.

It is equally disturbing that a party founded on a desire to extricate us from the EU should have no properly worked-out policy for how this could be done. Ask Ukip what are the practical steps whereby we could achieve a successful exit from the EU, and the answer is little more than a blank stare and empty platitudes. The underlying reason, of course, why Ukip is likely to do well this week is that it is the only way in which we can express our anger and contempt for the entire political class, which we feel has betrayed us, lost in its bubble of trivial and meaningless make-believe. It is for that reason alone that, joining so many others across Europe flocking to support EU-sceptic parties, I will vote for them. But I shall do so well aware that this is only a gesture – all that is left to us as we see what remains of our democracy gurgling further down the plughole, and in the sad but sure knowledge that where there is no vision, the people must eventually perish.


   
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Emanuel Paparella2014-05-19 12:41:28
How true: "Where there is no vision the people must eventually perish." On the other hand, the people get the democracy they deserve. Apathy on the part of the people who refuse to get involved and at the very least go and vote, can only embolden the visionless politicians and bureaucrats who now dominate the EU, not to speak of the xenophobes and the extreme nationalists now parading all over the EU.

After World War II, Sicily which is an island, contemplated requesting that it become part of the US. Perhaps England, which is also an island should contemplate the same thing. It could transpose the island over the Atlantic and attach it to Maine. As Corrado, then nephew of the prince of Salina said in the novel The Leopard: we need to change everything so that nothing changes. And that was said one hundred and fifty years ago!


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