The European Union’s condition isn’t good
It doesn’t have the unity its founders thought it should.
All those calls for integration to a federated scheme,
In the light of this election that is nothing but a dream.
The results of the May, 2014, European elections produced an eruption of direheadlines reporting a
political “earthquake”. Indeed, anti-European, right-wing parties made a strong showing -- Marie le Pen’s National
Front in France and Nigel Farange’s United Kingdom Independence Party actually led all the established parties, and
there were gains for the right in Denmark, Austria, Hungary, and Belgium.
It was not the kind of earthquake that would bring the whole structure down. The mainstream parties still had a substantial majority in the new European Parliament. The right-wingers were not a monolithic group; Farange, for example, called le Pen’s party racist and anti-Semitic, and Le Pen made the same charge about Hungary’s Jobbik party.. Still, the center parties now had to look anxiously not only to their right; for there were also gains for parties of the left in Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal, Slovakia and Romania. There were even rumblings of discontent with the European Union in its most powerful advocate, Germany.
Why so much discontent with this great experiment toward European cooperation that had begun in the aftermath of World War II? On the face of it the EU can boast a succession of accomplishments, for it has grown from the original eight countries to the current 24, free of border tariffs and, for several countries a common currency, the euro. Yet the growing power of the EU has been accompanied by increasing dissatisfaction in its constituent nations, including a multi-national eruption of satire. In fact, many articles on Europe today ask the question: Is the European Union a satire of itself?
The most obvious provocation for this question is the complex of governmental institutions which has emerged to facilitate ever-closer cooperation. There is the newly elected Parliament. Every month for three weeks it meets in Brussels. Then, responding to French insistence, it takes off for Strasbourg. Yet its secretariat is in Luxmburg. A cartoon shows paper-laden parliamentarians engaged in an endless circle, following arrows pointing to Luxemburg, then to Brussels, then to Strasbourg. Few of them, however, are likely to complain. Elected for five years, Members of the Europoean Parliament (MEPs) receive salaries of almost 100,000 euros a year, plus substantial expense allowances. And, like their counterparts in national legislatures, they are besieged by armies of lobbyists: a cartoon shows a European Parliament member caught by his wife in bed with a corporate lobbyist, declaring “But I can explain.”
Moreover, this latest election has given comfortable berths on this “Strasbourg gravy train” to some ludicrously unqualified members. One is a Pole who proposes turning the European Commission into a brothel, restoring the monarchy, and removing women’s right to vote. Asked why, given his hostility to the EU, he had run for the parliament, he answered: “Thanks to this I will have immunity, some money, and I can get myself an MEP office.” From Germany there is a neo-Nazi who has called Hitler a great man. Fortunately the new German contingent also includes a professional satirist: Mark Sonneborn, former editor of the satirical magazine, Titanic. He sees his function as lampooning the European Parliament which he calls “a sort of joke Parliament and this is characterized by the people who sit in it.”
That these and other oddballs could be elected to the European Parliament is a consequence of the so-called “democratic deficit” – a breakdown of the relationship between the EU and its publics. Nor this deficit limited to the Parliament. It extended to the entire complex of executive institutions: the European Council consisting of ministers from the member countries; the European Commission, the main executive body; and the European Bank. But hostility replaced apathy when the subject was the plethora of regulations emerging from these institutions. Thus an online meme expressed irritation at an EU environmental regulation requiring an EU eco-label on all toilet paper.
The online Spiked mocked another actual regulation banning olive oil in jugs in restaurants, suggesting that the only possible explanation is that the EU has been “a joke all along.” The joke was picked up by other magazines inventing further ridiculous regulations.. The Spoof declared that all British toilets must be replaced by the flat-bottomed German loos; and that satellites “painted yellow to comply with EU regulations”, will monitor speed traps in Wales. From Baltic Features came an application for EU funds “for use in developing Latvian satirical infrastructure.” And satirist Mark Sonneborn explained that his purposes as a member of the European Parliament included “even more absurd regulations.”
Yet more important than irritation over bureaucratic regulation were the resentments aroused by two other problems: immigration and the economy. The influx of immigrants, particularly Muslims, was the primary issue seized on by the surging right-wing parties (as well as by the satirical magazines, Charlie Hebdo in France and Titanic in Germany, reacting to the persistent Muslim fury at the Danish cartoons mocking Mohamet). And there was the prolonged inability of most members of the EU to recover from the deep recession that struck in 2008. (See my blog of October 29, 2013.) Unemployment in Greece, Spain and elsewhere persisted at a level well beyond the unhealthy U.S. figures. The weaker countries economically resented Germany for forcing them to emphasize austerity rather than growth, while Germans disliked having to bail out debtor nations. A satirical British film, “A Very European Break Up” depicted a free-spending, unproductive Greek husband married to a thrifty, hardworking German. Cartoonists piled on with accounts of the inability of the EU to address these tensions; one showed Eurocrat officials sitting haplessly around a table asking “How should we mark the Year of the Citizen?” answered by “We could have another treaty.”
Of course, there were important European Union accomplishments. Despite the friction within the EU there was no recurrence of the wars that had racked the continent for centuries. A cartoon depicted the change by contrasting two ships, one marked “1914” going up in flames, the other, “2014”, moving steadily and peacefully with a productive cargo, Many of the EU’s regulations contributed usefully to the health and welfare of its citizens. (even perhaps the regulation of toilet paper).The European Court of Justice produced a number of valuable decisions advancing civil liberties.
Still, satire by its nature emphasizes the failures rather than the accomplishments of those in power. The elections of 2014 made it clear that for the foreseeable future European satirists would not run short of delectable material.