Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

Merkel's Boyne could be fast approaching in new Europe

Rise and fall: Angela Merkel is crucial to Europe’s future, while Sinn Fein and Gerry Adams have pushed ahead of Fianna Fail

Dry, dour and driven by thrift, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is painted as Europe's new Protestant saviour. Mrs Merkel is a Ballymena man's prayer, said to be so tight with the household budget that she insists on hand-washing her own underwear.

However, never mind her smalls, Mrs Merkel holds the future of us all in her hands. She looks increasingly like a modern-day King William, trying to emulate the glorious, pious and immortal Dutchman, by leading her army of accountants to deal with the profligate Catholic excesses of the Irish and the Italians, the Spanish and the Portuguese.

Established political parties are having a tough time wherever one looks. Something striking is happening to the body politic. People are deserting established parties and even the democratic process.

The French have dismissed Nicholas Sarkozy. The Greeks can't form a government. The Irish have already rejected Fianna Fail. David Cameron and Nick Clegg are manning their lifeboats after losing 800 seats in the council elections.

The battle-lines are drawn between Right and Left. On one side, the German Chancellor with her lieutenants, David Cameron and George Osborne; on the other, the new French president, Francois Hollande, aided and abetted by Left-wing voices from across Europe. If, as looks likely, no consensus can be found, where does that leave us in worrying days ahead?

Lost in the headlines in France over the election of the new president was the fact that two million people spoilt their votes. Their action says much about dissatisfaction and detachment from modern-day politicians and the party system.

Disenchantment is threatening democracy. Apathy is everywhere. People are detached from what they see as a separate political class and from major parties who are blamed for the current economic malaise.

A sense of powerlessness pervades many homes. From Athens to Athenry, there are people who feel household finances have taken second place to the bail-out of the banks.

The electoral turnout traced from the 1970s until the present day in Northern Ireland has fallen to a point where, in some areas, more people elect to stay at home, rather than cast a vote.

Only 40% voted in the recent London mayoral election, in spite of all the hype surrounding Boris Johnston and Ken Livingstone.

More minority, or extreme, voices are capitalising on the frustrations of people looking for an alternative to the discredited mainstream parties. Witness, for example, the rise of Sinn Fein in the Republic at the expense of Fianna Fail, the far-Right of Marie Le Pen in France, the frightening emergence of nazi-like politics in Greece.

Even the Speaker of the House of Commons, David Bercow, admits there is a major problem. He says people feel let down by the major parties. They haven't got what they voted for and they are suspicious - despairing even - of the political system.

The party-political system is sustained by highly-questionable financial donations from the rich, on the one hand, and trade unions on the other. The main parties are inflexible and clubbish. Mr Bercow says they are too look-alike for the electorate.

People want more independent-minded voices to challenge those in power, who are seen as aloof and accused of not listening to common man's concerns.

Maybe we are experiencing an irreversible change in electoral habits, because the days have gone when people gathered in community halls to listen meekly to elected representatives.

In the texting, twittering world of today, the man or woman in the street wants to have his or her say. Individuals have the power at their fingertips. They speak out as never before to challenge Church and state, as is happening among lay and clerical Catholics alike over the child-abuse scandal.

These are unsettling, difficult times across Europe. Old orders are being challenged just as they were in the 1930s before the Second World War. The fabric of a united Europe is looking more threadbare. Battles over migration and immigration are drowning out the ideal of open frontiers.

Frightening levels of youth unemployment in many countries, such as Spain and the Republic, fan the flames of uncertainty. If a new generation feels it has no future, more instability is likely to follow.

None of us can be certain where it will end. If Mrs Merkel is Europe's 21st century King Billy, she has one hell of a battle on her hands.

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