The two elections in Europe that Britain should watch

This article was published on the Dale&Co. website

Forget the US – Two Elections in Europe Count Right Now

10 October 2011

Today two elections vital to Britain’s future are taking place. In Poland, the Civic Platform government headed by Donald Tusk, is likely to be re-elected. This will the first time since the end of communism that a party forming a government in Poland will have won a second term. It marks the coming of age of Polish democracy. Two of the key – and most successful - ministers in the Polish government, Foreign Minister, Radek Sikorski, and Finance Minister, Jacek Rostowski, are British educated, know London well and would like the two countries to be close.

In France, the choice is made today of who will stand against President Sarkozy in next spring’s election. The contest is based on a primary system as the French socialists copy Labour and move away from a closed selection made at a conference or party cabal. Although Sarkozy is a political street fighter and is soon to be the first president of France to become a papa while in the Elysée the polls are not looking good for him. The French right is badly split between Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party and the ultra-nationalist Eurosceptic National Front, headed by Marine le Pen, who has sought to reposition her party away from the crudely racist, anti-semitic style of her father’s leadership.

But to watch the Sunday political shows on television or to catch the World This Weekend, the British media world just does not acknowledge that two vital elections and political choices that will impact on Britain are taking place on the continent. Instead on Sky we were treated to an interminable interview with an American political pundit (unknown to this keen observer of US politics) about the confused and confusing list of Republican wannabee candidates.

This disdain for anything political that happens across the Channel is not new but as Britain becomes more and more mono-lingual our editors and news-shapers have lost all interest in anything that happens other than in the United States.

Take the Polish election. Britain and Poland used to be the closest of friends. From Spitfire pilots in 1940, to Margaret Thatcher’s denunciation of Soviet communism in the 1980s, or Tony Blair’s enthusiasm for Poland joining the EU this century, Warsaw has looked to London as its best friend, after Washington in the world. Not any more. The grievances between the two centre-right governments or major countries at either end of the European Union are growing, are worrying, and are serious.

Tusk and Cameron have fallen out badly over the latter’s crude political support for the ultra-nationalist Polish politician Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the PiS (Law and Order) party. Last autumn Cameron hosted a red-carpet reception for Kaczynski at Downing Street on the eve of the Polish presidential election where Kaczynski was easily defeated by Tusk’s candidate, Bronislaw Komorowski. This was seen as blatant and crude interference in Polish internal political affairs. Cameron is tied to Kaczynksi in the Conservative Party’s alliance with ultra-nationalist and anti-EU political parties – dubbed by Nick Clegg as “nutters, anti-Semites and homophobes”. Rostowksi and Osborne disagree on EU financing and the future shape of the European union. The Poles are the fourth biggest contributor to the UK rebate. They recall how Mrs Thatcher quadrupled Britain’s contribution to the EU budget between 1984 and 1990 to help poor countries like Portugal, Spain, Ireland and Greece grow. Now Britain wants to freeze all EU budget support for Poland.

On foreign and defence policy, Warsaw is angry at William Hague’s refusal to support Sikorksi’s ideas on EU defence. Poland offered to provide free accommodation and training terrain for British soldiers when they leave Germany. It will be very costly to relocate these armoured army units in the UK. But Hague and Fox dismissed Sikorski’s offer out of hand.

As a result Poland now looks to Berlin as its main ally in the EU and is forging links with central, East, Baltic and Nordic states in the EU as there is no friendship on offer from Tory London. This is a barely reported failure, if not worse, in Britain’s European policy. The re-election of the Tusk government should produce a re-think in London but if Polish politics gets no coverage why should Whitehall think Poland is important.

On France, clearly the choice of a socialist candidate does not mean an automatic change of power next spring. But if there is a convincing choice of the man or woman to try and win the Elysée for the left for the first time in 30 years, then Britain should take note. Even if Sarkozy does win, there is every chance that the Socialists or a coalition of non-UMP parties could win a majority in the National Assembly as parliamentary election follow on directly from the presidential contest. Britain should thus prepare for a socialist Prime Minister, Foreign and Finance ministers taking opposing position to the UK across a range of EU and foreign policies.

Cameron has placed a great deal of UK ouefs in the Sarkozy panier. The UK-French defence Treaty and Cameron’s following Sarkozy’s initiatives on the Libya interventions are two main achievements of Tory foreign policy since May 2010. Both can be justified but if there is a change of either president or parliament in Paris in a few months’ time post-Sarkozy France will have very little contact or natural friendship with Tory Britain.

But at the BBC and Sky, editors are oblivious to anything happening east of White City and Hounslow and even our serious papers (other than the FT) have so downgraded their coverage of European politics it is doubtful if more than a few specialist MPs and foreign policy wonks have the faintest idea of the key importance of the Sunday elections for Britain’s future