Front National leader Marine Le Pen during a press conference at the party's headquarters in Nanterre. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Eurosceptics will do well in May, but the federalists will retain their grip

The parliamentary alliance between the the centre-right and the centre-left means the increase in the number of eurosceptic MEPs will have a largely symbolic effect.

Most people believe that Europe needs to integrate for the eurozone to survive. As such, the makeup of the Commission and European Parliament may be about to become rather more important than it has been previously. This is thanks in large part to the Lisbon Treaty, which has bolstered the powers of the Parliament, extending its influence over the Commission, and prompting the main European party groups to insist on selecting their own candidates for the role of Commission President (currently held by José Manuel Barroso).

The overwhelmingly pro-European profile of the European Parliament could also be about to change, with a number of new eurosceptic nationalists likely to be elected at this May's European elections. With no obvious explicit basis for banking union or financial solidarity in the existing treaties, fears are growing among the European cognoscenti that the integration process, such as it is, could be at risk of derailment by Europe’s increasingly restive electorate.

The political duopoly of the centre-left and centre-right has been eroding since the onset of the global recession in 2008 (chart 2). Since then the combined support of the big, pro-EU, pro-market parties, which have held power in most of western Europe since the 1970s, has dropped from 67 per cent to 57 per cent. The average support of "hard" eurosceptic parties, meanwhile, has jumped from 5 per cent to 14 per cent in the same period (chart 1). Both of these measures are weighted, so the rise of the Five Star Movement in Italy, or UKIP in the UK, has a far greater impact than the dwindling of Vlaams Belang in Belgium (where eurosceptics have faded).

Precise projections for seat numbers at the European elections are tricky thanks to the varied electoral systems employed by each country, but the broadly proportional nature of the overall system resulted in the 8.1 per cent that hard eurosceptic parties polled in 2009 translating to 65 or so seats (8.6 per cent of the total). Based on current trends, we can expect such parties to poll between 16 per cent and 22 per cent, which would translate to between 120 and 165 seats.

These numbers should not be construed as constituting one monolithic, eurosceptic bloc. They include parties of both the hard left and hard right who would be highly unlikely to work together. They also include neo-fascist parties like Greece’s Golden Dawn and Hungary’s Jobbik, who are shunned even by right-wing parties like France’s Front Nationale. Indeed, Front Nationale is currently taking steps to expand the eurosceptic, anti-immigration party of which it is a member, European Alliance for Freedom, but has ruled out including neo-fascist parties and has also failed to bring on board Europe’s other big eurosceptic party, UKIP. European parliamentary history is littered with attempts to construct nationalist, anti-immigration parties which eventually broke up in disagreement and recrimination. Such parties do not play well with others and their influence is less potent as a result.

So the data indicate that the centre-right and centre-left will retain their legislative grip on the European Parliament. They vote together on most of the important bills (e.g. the general budget for the European Union). It’s worth noting that there is no mechanism for small groups of recalcitrant MEPs to filibuster legislation that has majority support (as in the US). Speaking time is allotted to parties in proportion to their size and those parliamentarians who go over their allotted time are liable to being physically removed from the chamber.

There will almost certainly be a significant boost to the number of eurosceptic MEPs, but it will likely be of little more than symbolic effect. In fact, we expect it to be more or less business as usual in the European Parliament after the election dust has settled. That’s good for stability, though whether it’s a good thing for Europe long term is another matter. If the toxic mix of political inaction and high unemployment continues in, then the trends in the charts below will likely continue to deteriorate, pushing an ultimate resolution to the crisis even further beyond reach.

Chart 1: Support for eurosceptic parties on the rise, but still relatively modest

Source: ASR Ltd.

 

Chart 2: Europe’s biggest established parties are losing support

Source: ASR Ltd.

Richard Mylles is a political analyst at Absolute Strategy Research, an independent consultancy based in London.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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