Rise of 'European Tea Parties' cannot be ignored

Rise of 'European Tea Parties' cannot be ignored

Tony Abbott's tweaking of foreign policy to be ''more Jakarta, less Geneva'' was a largely symbolic shift designed as much as anything else to stroke the Indonesian ego.

Having said some pretty robust things in opposition, Abbott knew the going would get even tougher when the time came to implement his promises. Putting a bit of goodwill in the bank made sense.

But it fazed Abbott not one bit that his mini-pivot also carried a flick at old-Europe and Labor's supposed fealty thereto.

The political right has long regarded Europe with suspicion bordering on contempt.

This is in contrast to the United States whose severe budgetary problems are just as entrenched.


Even as America's political institutions have proved to be inimical to the national interest or even, mystifyingly, their own best interests, the right is more inclined to take potshots at Europe. References to Geneva or Brussels are offered more or less as code for incompetence, over-regulation, and worse, creeping socialist tendencies.

It is as if on the one hand there is the God-fearing US, which equals strength, freedom and efficiency, and on the other, there is Europe. Civilised perhaps, but relativist, bureaucratic, secular, and permissive.

You hear it all the time. Just last week Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews justified a mooted wind-back of Australian social security payments, by raising the Euro-bogy. Tough remedial action was inevitable lest ''we will find ourselves in the case of some of the European countries at the moment where welfare systems had become unsustainable".

It is a fair point given that countries such as Italy, France, Austria, and Belgium commit about one-in-five Euros or about 20 per cent of their economic output to welfare payments, compared to little old Australia on a modest 8.6 per cent.

But the argument for urgency stales when you consider that Britain spends 12.2 per cent of its GDP on social transfer payments, and even the hard-as-nails US spends proportionately more than us, at 9.7 per cent, on OECD figures.

Clearly if our ''welfare'' bill is so generous, our first order of business might be avoiding the path of Tory Britain before we worry about ''Europe''.

While we're on selective evidence, don't even mention the paid parental leave scheme. Its extraordinary generosity makes existing middle-class welfare payments look positively parsimonious.

Anti-Europe parties ... may well claim the lion's share of votes.

Abbott's Geneva reference derived in part from this conservative mindset but it also proceeded from an assumption that the European Union is established enough to weather any such slight and sufficiently diffuse that no one country would take it personally.

That the continental harmony is seen as fixed is noteworthy given Europe's role as scene of the bloodiest conflicts in human history, and the fact that more recently it has strained at every seam under the weight of its own debt crisis.

Yet arguably even as that crisis eases, modern Europe's political and economic union is facing its most testing hour.

Right now, hardline right-wing parties, many of them pledged to the federation's swift demise, are rising to dominance.

An underappreciated fact is that within powerhouse and basket-case economies alike, extreme right-leaning parties have emerged as the single biggest entities.

With elections for the European Parliament due in May, polls show that in many cases, it will be these nationalist parties that will do best.

In France, Greece, Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands, Britain, Germany, Sweden and Finland, anti-Europe parties are growing. They may well claim the lion's share of votes.

Bundled as the ''European Tea Parties'', these populist movements differ on some policies but generally cohere over the need to dismantle the EU, scrap the Euro, and restore national currencies. Some contain violent elements, and others are more rhetorically vile.

But their rise cannot be ignored. It speaks to legitimate frustrations arising from extensive failures and overreaches of the EU, from the structural problem of a single currency which is valued too high for the weaker states, to the free movement of people, which means in many cases, African migrants.

Ultimately, it will be the people of Europe who decide these matters, but if withdrawal and division takes hold, it will have major implications for every nation on the globe.

For all the criticisms, Europe's accomplishment in achieving internal harmony deserves greater recognition and more robust protection, externally and internally.

Because if it turns out the EU was but a temporary reprieve from violence and persecution, it won't merely be Europeans who pay.

Mark Kenny is chief political correspondent.

Mark Kenny is the national affairs editor for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House

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