Are Europe’s voters growing up?
Like any self-respecting West Africa trickster, Anansi registered to vote in elections in both France and Britain. As he duly exercised his democratic duty as a global citizen, he ruminated on what Europe’s changing political landscape might portend for Africa. Europeans are touchingly naïve when it comes to election security. You turn up at the polling station without any ID, and the serious-looking official asks you where you live and then solemnly hands you a ballot paper and a pencil. You are then directed to an open table to choose your candidate. A political activist friend in London’s trendy Notting Hill is convinced that last year’s referendum vote to leave the EU was entirely fraudulent. But the upside, he told Anansi over a pint of bitter at the Uxbridge Arms, is that suddenly European elections are consequential. Voters in both France and Britain in May and June went to the polls against a backdrop of terror attacks and deepening social divisions. Days after Britain’s elections, a fire broke out at a tower block with a loss of at least 79 lives. Many of the residents were refugees from the Middle East and Africa. Most poignantly, the first confirmed death was of a young Syrian who had fled his country’s inferno for what he had hoped would be sanctuary in Europe. The Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, which owns the block, is one of the richest local authorities in Europe. It has treated families displaced by the fire with soul-destroying parsimony. This follows years of council officials haughtily dismissing residents’ concerns about the building’s safety. This absolutely avoidable tragedy reminded voters in Britain why they had defied the wishes of a handful of tax-dodging billionaire media barons and voted for a humiliation of the incumbent Conservative prime minister, Theresa May. Now heading a minority government, May has to rely on the votes of a dozen right-wing Ulster Unionists to pass laws. After her electoral debacle, May had to field a call from an amused Brussels mandarin inquiring when she might be ready to start negotiations to leave the EU. The French term ‘ emmerdée’ neatly covers her political predicament. Not that the rest of Europe has much to smile about. French voters faced a serious choice between the ‘extreme centre’ under Emmanuel Macron, recherché socialism and workers’ rights under Jean-luc Mélenchon and a hybrid of Mussolini and Berlusconi under la famille Le Pen. Voters unenthusiastically avoided the worst, but President Macron’s celebrations have been discreet. Preternatural policy analyst and polymath though he is, Macron’s workload will be overwhelmingly to fix the economy. International policy, especially African matters, will come a distant second. Already, there is an ugly battle between France and the US over who finances a five-country counterterror force in the Sahel. African leaders are wisely turning their eyes towards Germany, Europe’s strongest economy, which is organising a season of development summits this year ahead of a grand Euro-africa convocation in October. Chancellor Angela Merkel has promoted a series of trade and investment compacts with Côte d’ivoire, Ghana and Tunisia, Ethiopia, Morocco, Rwanda and Senegal. Sitting on the biggest national development fund in Europe, Germany is financing a new network of renewable power projects and proselytising on how apprenticeship programmes could speed up Africa’s industrialisation and cut joblessness. It was music to the ears of African trade negotiators when Merkel conceded in June that there were grave flaws with Europe’s Economic Partnership Agreements. Before this gets too Teutonic and starry-eyed, remember that Germany has its own elections this year. But the good news is that the main choice is between the credible Merkel and a candidate who is still more liberal and internationalist, Social Democrat leader Martin Schulz. So don’t seek a refund for that Lufthansa ticket just yet.
Suddenly European elections are consequential. Voters in both France and Britain went to the polls against a backdrop of terror attacks and social divisions