‘‘You have the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low grade bank clerk!’’ Thus thundered right wing agitator Nigel Farage at the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, to the delight of Eurosceptics across the country.
As the Ukip firebrand demonstrated in 2010, hostility toward the European Union has traditionally been dominated by the more right wing elements in Britain: Eurosceptic Tories; the Mail; James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party. But, in recent years, anti-EU sentiment is increasingly finding itself at home on the left, a shift which could have a profound impact on the upcoming referendum.
In the days of the European Economic Community, figures on both ends of the political spectrum opposed greater continental integration. But by the time that the EU came into existence in 1993, Euroscepticism had largely been purged from the Labour party and the trade union movement. The quest for a peaceful, united Europe, wrapped in anti-nation state ideals, was seductive for the left, whereas the major criticisms – such as border control powers, national sovereignty and an independent currency – appealed to the right. On the continent, the most virulent opposition to the EU is generally found in hard right parties like the French Front National, the Hungarian Jobbik and the Dutch Party for Freedom.
So what has changed? The situation in Southern Europe has been the catalyst. It is in the Mediterranean, where the Eurozone project has succeeded the least, that populist left wing parties are challenging the EU more successfully than their rightist compatriots. Syriza and Popular Unity in Greece, the Five Star Movement in Italy and Podemos in Spain are the most obvious examples, with Alexis Tsipras elected as Prime Minister of the Hellenic Republic. A host of Communist and left wing regional groups (as found in Galicia, Basque Country and Catalonia) also identify the EU as a harbinger of Mediterranean misfortune.
Widespread financial woes and the North-South cultural divide has allowed these parties to peddle theories of rampant barbarians taking advantage of poor locals, and thus introduced a leftist slant to Euroscepticism. Liberals in this country have looked to the Latin and Hellenic world and become convinced that normal people’s lives are being made harder due to the crushing machinations of capitalism. British opposition to the EU is thus no longer seen as the preserve of “Keep Our Pound” bumper sticker enthusiasts and blazer-wearing Thatcherites, but also of latte-sipping metropolitan types.
The Anti-EU campaign could benefit greatly from Euroscepticism becoming fashionable on the left, since large numbers of traditional pro-EU fans are open to voting to leave. Thanks to what is happening politically in the Mediterranean, that is now a distinct possibility. Indeed, it could ultimately be the left that ensures Farage no longer has to offend Belgian Eurocrats.