Austerity and Europe Bite Britain

Image of homeless girl in London part of exhibition by Lee Jeffries at Museum of Rome.

Tremors in European political life are nothing new, nor is mass disaffection with conventional politics, but what we’re seeing at the moment speaks of a larger malaise. Europeans in large numbers are not only questioning the remote and bureaucratic political institutions of the European Union but some are prepared to countenance abandoning them altogether. Economic progress is widely sluggish and long-term unemployment, particularly among the young, remains, as Pope Francis has observed, shockingly high. Nowhere is this disaffection more true than in Britain, where the rise of the anti-EU UKIP (UK Independence Party) has evoked a robust policy shift from the ruling Conservative Party and sparked an auction for the anti-European vote as next year’s Westminster election looms.

Europe is one of the main concerns to dominate current UK news. Another is poverty, particularly the plight of the working poor. The two issues are linked and became dramatically intertwined over the weekend when news emerged of an EU bill for £1.7bn (US$2.7bn, or just over 2 billion Euros), demanded of London as an additional contribution to the EU budget. Annual budget payments from member nations get calculated according to economic statistics; in recent years, the UK has received little-noticed rebates. Westminster Tories, eager to avoid being further outflanked by UKIP, moved quickly to condemn the demand while EU officials pointed out that they should have seen it coming. One result is a sharp increase in the popularity of UKIP; according to one poll, now at a record high. Yet the Labour party, traditionally the opposition to the Conservatives, seems unable to make inroads as voters turn their backs, as elsewhere in Europe, on the two old-style mainstream parties.

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A significant and shocking rise in poverty, particularly among low-paid “working poor,” contrasts with figures showing some real growth returning to the economy. The rich are getting richer. The pathetic phenomenon of foodbanks is, shockingly, now a common feature in many cities; it is often the low-paid, and not only the unemployed, who face hunger as a daily reality in today’s Britain. Austerity programs tell us that there is no alternative while salaries and property prices, especially in the prosperous south-eastern region around London, soar. Austerity policies need someone to blame, be that the previous administration, or the European Union. Figures show that younger voters mostly just don’t vote, and probably won’t vote in the forthcoming May 2015 general election. The exception was in the recent Scottish referendum, where engagement across all age-groups was remarkably high and continues. This would suggest that, when the populace feels that they have the real possibility of urging change, they will participate. But it may be that the proponents of austerity, which has the power to humble people into submission, might prefer that they didn’t.

Dave Stewart, S.J., is America's London correspondent.

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