You British, the elections, and your special brand of European hatred

Pamela Schlatterer, UK correspondent for German TV, reports from the political frontline of a Eurosceptic nation
Click to follow
Indy Politics

Margret, the barmaid at The Avenue pub on Barnet High Street, north London, hands Matt, 20, his pint. He seems surprised to find a German journalist in his local but says he plans to give his European vote to the UK Independence Party (UKIP). "They're going to steal our currency," he says darkly, adding that being British is about independence and being different.

Margret, the barmaid at The Avenue pub on Barnet High Street, north London, hands Matt, 20, his pint. He seems surprised to find a German journalist in his local but says he plans to give his European vote to the UK Independence Party (UKIP). "They're going to steal our currency," he says darkly, adding that being British is about independence and being different.

The pub is festooned with 20 St George's flags - it appears the only European event that really matters here is Beckham vs Zidane. "I would never allow a German flag to be put up here," Matt smiles at me apologetically. By way of explanation, he says: "National pride".

I wonder if Matt knows, or cares, that Margret is Polish and arrived four weeks ago, shortly after the enlargement of the EU. She knows few people and is sometimes homesick.

Voters in Barnet will go to the polls in the European and mayoral elections today. Barnet's votes for London's nine MEPs will be counted with those from across the capital. As yet, there are no UKIP MEPs for London but, according to the pundits, that is about to change. There are already three nationwide, and any more could force the Tories to take an increasingly tough line on Europe.

UKIP was busy on the streets of London yesterday. Its mayoral candidate Frank Maloney, the boxing promoter, was playing to safe stereotypes - bowling about on a Routemaster bus, munching fish and chips as he went.

Outside London, there are other elections taking place. In England and Wales, more than 6,000 council seats are up for grabs. All across the Continent, 25 nations are going to the polls to shape the European Parliament, including voters from the 10 new member states. In all, about 350 million are eligible to vote. Only about half are expected to, but Britain is likely to lag well behind the average.

And it is the European dimension that interests me. I am here to try to discover what the British think about it. The longer I trudge up and down the dreary main road on a hot afternoon, the more I begin to doubt the British will really be voting.

Not a single election poster to be seen, no campaigners. Just mums with pushchairs and people meandering down the street.

Like Alexandra, for example. She is 24, and says she will vote Labour, "because they are pro-Europe". She complains, though, that there has been little information about the forthcoming elections, only leaflets.

I, though, have been unable to get my hands on any election material at all. My letterbox is stuffed full of leaflets for pizza restaurants and Turkish minicabs. But electoral propaganda? In the end, the only one that arrives comes from UKIP.

By contrast, my friend Claudia from Berlin has been complaining to me about endless coverage and information overload over there. Not that it makes voting any easier. She says the endless TV adverts annoy her, particularly the one where an obscure professor tells her to vote for him, because he will cut welfare for foreigners, is pro-family and wants to give every German a job.

My father, who lives in southern Germany, says a tiny turnout of about 20 per cent was expected in the region. That, he said, was down to anti-Brussels feeling. But, unlike Britain's special brand of continental hatred, the southern Germans have a specific reason for boycotting the polls. They are furious about a recent Brussels corruption scandal that spoke of MEPs clocking on for work and hopping on a plane back home.

Now 71, my father is a lifetime Labour voter and local political activist, the high point being when he secured the first socialist seat ever in his conservative region some years ago. But today, when he votes for his MEP, he will not be casting his vote in the local elections, that - as in the UK - run alongside the ones for Europe. That is because it is now European politics that stir up his political fires.

One wonders if the British even know where the European Parliament is, let alone care if MEPs are cooking the books.

Michael, a bus driver I met in Barnet, said he never votes in local elections. This time, he feels he should vote, especially for a mayor who did so much for bus drivers but, still, he "won't bother". After meeting the voters in Barnet, I am almost grateful for the vitriolic UKIP. At least it has put the lifeless debate back in the headlines.

Having said that, the last time I met my German and Dutch colleagues for an election meeting - we regularly team up to exchange ideas about the UK and its weird and wonderful ways - there was bafflement at the amount of anti-Europeanism in all parties' election pamphlets. The attitude seems to be that it will not hurt to include a few sentences against Brussels in propaganda, no matter which party you are from.

We shook our heads at a country that seems intent on denying it is already governed by Brussels in lots of areas. The deep-seated sentiment against being "not independent" has crystallised into Euro-hatred, and even though the Prime Minister prides himself on being pro-Europe, under his leadership, things have got worse.

I was raving the other day about a new central London café, which I see as a triumph of European food culture over sad English cafés. I got a bit carried away and exclaimed: "This island could be paradise: with better public services and more European influence on the food."

My English friend met my enthusiasm with mild irony: "Don't forget, outside London, there is great hostility towards anything that even begins with "Euro". Except one thing.

My local pub in Arsenal is decked out with rows of European flags, the most prominent is a German flag with a large "1-5" printed on it. That is as enthusiastic about Europe as the UK gets. Revelling in past victories over foreigners and anticipating future football clashes seem to be the only things that will get the British pulse racing when it comes to Europe.

Comments