It is springtime for the Brexit Party, which has scrambled out of its eggshell and straight into flight, with a predicted 33.4% of the vote in the latest polling for the European elections. By contrast, the most popular Remain-supporting outfit, the Liberal Democrats, is flapping limply along with 17.6%.
It is worth reflecting here on the failure of this ploy of invoking Article 50 over two years. Two years is meant to be enough time for the departing nation to rue their decision, to be sobered by the economic consequences of leaving, and to downgrade the health of their democracy to a lesser priority than market access. But this simply hasn’t worked! There have been two years of scolding, threats, and manipulation, and the EU’s accomplices still cannot field a political party with a majority in any opinion poll.
There are admittedly grounds here for cutting short the Brexit cock-a-doodle-doo. Firstly, of course, opinion polls are now as of little use as a Ouija board in divining our political future. There are presumably “shy” currents in the electorate that might turn out for either Brexit or Remain in the end. Secondly, as we have seen during the careers of both Gordon Brown and Theresa May, voters are wildly enthusiastic about fresh political players up until the point that they know more about them. The Brexit Party is so far flourishing on the basis of its crowd-pleasing pro-democracy slogans rather than on any elucidation of what trading on WTO terms will ultimately entail. And thirdly, these are European elections, which never access any of the seriousness of an indigenous general election.
There’s a “fourthly” too, in that I’m not sure that the rise of the Brexit party really signals any new breakthrough for Brexit. Roughly a third of the country is still not put off by a “no-deal” Brexit; likewise polls generally suggest that more voters presently favour remaining in the EU over leaving it. In the same poll that I began this article with, the pro-EU parties together accrued 37.5% of the vote (and this was excluding the unreadable Conservatives and Labour). Yet the Remain side are at an electoral disadvantage due to their persistent inability to organise a single vehicle and a smooth ride. By rights of all their youthful energy they should dwarf the Brexit Party in the polls, but they cannot seem to come to life and locate the requisite political charisma.
The Remain equivalents of the Brexit Party so far look underpowered and quarrelsomely ungracious. You cannot picture Chuka Umunna ever stomping around the North of England and whipping up working-class audiences. This continental plug cannot yet slot into any UK power socket.
Would this week’s elections to the European Parliament actually exist in any meaningful sense were it not for the Brexit Party? There is a bleak hilarity to the gulf between what is meant to happen here and what is actually happening. In these elections, people across the EU are supposed to come together as a demos – apparently “the second-biggest” on the planet – in order to debate and settle the agenda for “Europe” over the next five years. What positions should our parliamentarians take on this issue? How should they get to grips with such and such a challenge? You will have noticed that nothing even remotely similar to this wished-for democratic process is taking place. It is doubtful that even half of Europe’s voters will turn out. The European Dream is sunk in a sleep that is as deep as the ocean.
For example, for a while on the Spectator website last week, the “most read” articles about the European elections detailed a squabble between the journalists Nick Cohen and Brendan O’Neill over whether former members of the Revolutionary Communist Party (deceased), who are now Brexit Party candidates, had ever defended the right to view child pornography, in one instance in an article that was written as long ago as 1999. Such a debate quickly inspired profound reflection and pulled at heartstrings across the whole of the continent. From the frozen Swedish forests to the balmy shores of Croatia, millions of Europeans thrilled to Cohen’s insights into the minutiae of obscure Communists’ curricula vitae. In fact, this score-settling on the Left was being published solely for the aloof entertainment of the Spectator’s conservative readership. And this is it: in an election that has become so denuded of even the most spectral meaning and relevancy, Cohen’s articles surely confirm the European project’s final disappearance into molecular invisibility.
The Remainers still don’t get it. They don’t seem to realise that these elections are possibly the last opportunity for them to show that the Brexiteers are wrong; that the EU is genuinely a functioning democracy; and that there is really a European demos out there somewhere that we are an active part of. Instead of this, when the EU is fighting for its very survival it cannot manage to even sham an appearance of democracy.
Humiliation is blithely heaped upon humiliation. Six leading European parliamentarians, or the Spitzenkandidaten, took part in the latest “Eurovision Debate” on May 15. The next President of the European Commission might be possibly percolated from this debate, which was variously televised and streamed across the continent. Strangely, for such a supposedly EU-loving nation as the UK, this debate did not get a primetime slot on BBC1. The Spitzenkandidaten often looked as indistinguishable as codfish; whilst their debate was at times as stilted and as hopelessly merry as the proceedings in a children’s parliament. Voters are here being required to follow a process so tenuously democratic that it might not even conclude with the winner being appointed Commission President (i.e. the Spitzenkandidaten System can be potentially overruled by the heads of national governments). So why should we bother tuning into such a sorry, half-arsed democracy?
But how many really did? No viewing figures have been released, and no journalist appears to have inquired after them, but out of Europe’s 743 million people, 27,395 had watched the debate on YouTube after five days of screening. Perhaps one obstacle to the Spitzenkandidaten System becoming popular culture is that the European demos continues to lack a common political language. Five out of the six Spitzenkandidaten spoke in English. Of course, English remains the majority language in one of the EU’s twenty-seven nailed-down nations (Ireland), but the bloc cannot otherwise pivot to French or German because these languages are far less well-known around its expansive periphery.
In a most unfortunate accident, English, the language of Brexit, is also that of the EU’s most active citizens, namely its bourgeois ones. And by dint of such haplessness, millions of non-English-speaking Europeans are left more distant from the EU’s already empty elections than a departing nation that has no honest desire to take part in them.
During the Eurovision Debate, candidates such as Frans Timmermans (Party for European Socialists) were trying to discreetly tidy away Europe’s nations. If the Commission is due to grow ever skywards, France and Spain and Italy will be its roots buried silently under the soil. In one instance, Timmermans wanted the EU to wrest the power to set a minimum wage from national governments. Such colonialism was fittingly spoken down from on high to Europe’s indigenous peoples in the same language that Cecil Rhodes and Winston Churchill had once used to patronise earlier natives.
Hopefully organisations such as the Brexit Party will lead some kickback against the EU’s weirdly energyless momentum. During the Eurovision Debate, Timmermans had scoffed that, “Today, the UK looks like Game of Thrones on steroids” (if Timmermans lived in Westeros, he would be no doubt condemning all of its heroes as dangerous, rabble-rousing populists). By comparison, his own debate resembles The Antiques Roadshow on marijuana.