After yesterday’s results, it is no longer possible to doubt that the European Union is suffering from a serious malaise. But within the tsunami of euroscepticism which crashed over Brussels there are many different colours of dissent - drastically different views both as to the nature of the sickness and its cure.
For some of the victors, notably Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen, the EU is an irredeemable institution; as Mr Farage put it succinctly, “Europe should leave the EU”. Ms Le Pen, whose victory over both of France’s mainstream parties was the election’s most stunning upset, wants the repatriation of all powers, the end of the Euro, and an end to the right of free movement within Europe.
These and others among the deeply reactionary figures who won yesterday represent a popular yearning for the illusory comforts of the past, when Europe was, as they falsely recall it, cosily Christian, hermetically divided into nation states, and overwhelmingly white.
But it is a past that we can never recover – for which we should be profoundly grateful to the visionary founders of what became the European Union.
Modern Europe was forged in the crucible of endless bloody wars. The Common Market was conceived by leaders who understood that the only way to avoid ever more devastating conflicts in the future was to bury the continent’s differences in powerful common institutions.
That vision is as valid and vital today as it was 60 years ago. It has yielded more than two generations of peace, with the resultant prosperity spread far more broadly and fairly than in the past. The very fact that we all now vote for one continent-wide parliament is a measure of how far Europe has come.
But the European Union is not loved, even by those who regard it as vital. The logic of “ever-closer union” has gained an apparently unstoppable bureaucratic momentum, which threatens to steamroller national parliaments into insignificance; the equally imperious logic of expansion has brought in countries whose political and economic backwardness makes them difficult bedfellows; while the Euro, far from making Europe more equal, has had the effect in the past seven years of dramatically increasing its inequalities, causing atrocious levels of youth unemployment, and consigning much of the Union to long-term stagnation. Meanwhile corruption has become shockingly common at the highest level, and the gap between rulers and ruled has never seemed wider.
The Union, in other words, has taken a wrong turn, and these results are a scream of rage from voters who feel themselves trapped inside a juggernaut that is barrelling into a pot-holed cul-de-sac.
This disaffection has opened the door to neo-Nazi racists, authoritarian ranters and other dangerous cranks. But it would be a mistake to interpret the results as a mindless lurch to the extreme right by voters possessed by fear alone.
With the arguable exception of France – where only this week Jean Le Pen, founding father of the triumphant Front National, offered the Ebola virus as a solution to the immigration problem – the election results reflect a continent-wide awareness of the problems besetting the EU, and a rainbow of ideas about solving them.
So for example in Greece, which has seen the rise of the deeply alarming, openly Fascist and violent Golden Dawn party, voters have chosen instead to back the socialist Syriza party as its riposte to the harsh austerity foisted on the country by Brussels. In Hungary the notoriously anti-semitic and anti-gypsy Jobbik party made no progress. The gains made by Austria’s right-wing Freedom Party were more apparent than real, caused by the folding of a rival outfit, while the Green party there did almost as well. In Britain one useful role performed by Ukip has been to drive the BNP to the margins.
At this point the worst response from the EU’s mandarins would be to keep calm and carry on. The voters have delivered a thoroughly mixed message, but unscrambled it means that the success of the EU should no longer be dependent, if it ever was, on “ever greater union”, and that national differences must be accorded far greater respect than in the past. But a vital institution it remains; and Britain still belongs at the heart of it.