European politics: More power to the people


In his regular Together magazine European politics column, Gerry Callaghan finds the current state of the political word simply insane.

Most of us were happy to see the back of 2016, and we’d be forgiven for feeling less than hopeful now that 2017 is well underway. As the EU stubbornly pursues trade expansion and fiscal austerity, the shouts of struggling Europeans fall on selectively deaf ears. A gap is widening between politicians and those they’re supposed to represent. Coincidentally, the gap between business and government is narrowing; with the appointment of former austerity advocate and ex-Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso as chairman of Goldman Sachs International. Citizens are losing trust in government and growing desperate for new political leadership.

However, ‘change’ has become nothing more than a campaign buzzword for ambitious candidates, because what’s on offer is more of the same policies in slightly different packaging. At home, that means more austerity bringing less social, political and economic security. Abroad, well that’s an even bleaker picture. Due to our implicit and explicit support for US foreign policy, Europe is engaged in perpetual war and traumatized by the terror attacks that resulted. Voters feel powerless and are now jumping at the chance to support any real alternatives – the UK Brexit vote and President Trump are shining examples.

Across Europe, and further afield, the far-right continues to rise in popularity. The US elections should’ve fired the stark warning that before we elect our own divisive, ignorant, misogynistic, homophobic, disability shaming, racist, the EU must reconnect with its citizens and be seen to work in their interests. If it doesn’t deal with the feeling of powerlessness then instead of bellowing mindless rhetoric from the European Parliament’s hemicycle, Europe’s far-right figureheads will be sitting at the top table in the Council and Commission.

There is a feeling of anxiety in Europe at the moment. People are worried about privatization of public services, concerned about the rise and normalization of food banks. They’re angry about the rising gap between rich and poor and the prevalence of insecure employment contracts. They are worried about our constant state of war and the terror attacks that result. Combine this with rising house prices, stagnant wages and entrenched working poverty, and it’s easy to see why people have grown disillusioned. However, our leaders are becoming more and more disconnected from everyday life and blindly continue pushing the same failed policies.

Leaders who offer change, a real substantial change – even if it’s far from perfect – are growing in popularity. Our poll-watching politicians are out of touch with everyday reality. They’re becoming less opinionated, and it’s increasingly difficult to tell them apart. Voter trust is shifting towards those who say what they feel, even if their feelings aren’t shared. The UK’s Brexit vote stands as a firm warning of voter discontent, as does the polling figures of Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, and an increase in nationalist marches across member states.

It’s important to understand that the people who voted for Brexit and Trump aren’t all bigoted racists, nor are they all homophobes and misogynists. They weren’t conned, nor are they stupid. They’re genuinely worried about the future and feel hopeless to change it, but the far-right seized upon the feeling of powerlessness and is exploiting it successfully.