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Public apathy about Europe is what Farage depends on

On May 22, there is a likely to be a big turnout in the European parliamentary elections from people who dislike Europe and its parliament.

Or rather, there is likely to be the usual derisory turnout distinguished by a lot of noise from the minority of the minority who detest the European Union.

Pick through those facts and arguments emerge. One, obviously, is that those who might support the European Parliament are neither vocal nor active.

The democratic legitimacy of an institution and a project are very far from certain if the only test is, brutally, who can be bothered. A few make grand speeches about a European dream. The rest snore.

The elections therefore become a badly distorted mirror. In Britain, they are treated more as a grand opinion poll on domestic matters than as a test of politics on a continental scale. Will our vote say something about the EU expansionism that has led to a confrontation in Ukraine? Or is it just a way to teach the Tory Party an obscure sort of lesson?

According to some predictions, perhaps 25% of the 751 people elected on May 22 will proceed to Strasbourg and Brussels with the intention of shutting or obstructing the parliament to which they have been sent. If even half of 375 million eligible voters state an opinion it will count as a triumph. And in Britain, all that will matter will be the story of how well or badly Nigel Farage and Ukip have fared.

This is a strange state of affairs. The peace of western Europe since 1945 is now treated as a kind of detail. The alliances between former bitter enemies are treated as a bit dull. The re-emergence of former Soviet states is almost old hat. The creation (and survival) of a common currency is little better than a nuisance to those who said it could never work or last. Remarkable facts are discounted.

Apathy and complacency are related. We have, it turns out, a lot to be complacent about. If that was the yardstick, there would be no reason to fear for the world's second biggest parliament. It has become one of those facts of life, despised by a few, ignored by most. The parliament doesn't actually do much - it cannot - but stands instead as the neglected symbol of something that most of us can't be bothered to define.

Sceptics therefore make the running and most of the arguments. What they mean by "Europe" isn't entirely clear. Mr Farage's supporters seem to be more interested in immigration and the nature of Britain than in the EU's role in trade, diplomacy or geopolitics generally. They tell lurid tales of what the EU has done, is doing, or will soon do - you can count on that - to "us". But they sing some very parochial tunes.

The European parliament has precious little power, but Ukip dislikes it regardless. The EU's other institutions can do nothing important without the agreement of national governments, yet the sceptics identify a conspiracy against democracy. The in-out referendum promised (apparently) by David Cameron has become their shibboleth, but they seek withdrawal to make a point about Britain, or at least about Tory Britain.

The rest of us, the non-voters, mild europhiles and couldn't-care-less constituency, have fallen into the habit of standing back while dedicated sceptics get on with it. There's some fun to be had, it's true, from watching the Conservative Party tear itself apart over a fixation. It is less amusing to watch certain traits evident in Ukip seem to become commonplace. After all, and as the turn-out will show, these are not the views of the majority. Such, nevertheless, is "the debate".

The EU and its institutions do themselves no favours. You'd have to be foolish or Nick Clegg to pretend otherwise. Careerism, corruption and an apparatchik mentality are far too prevalent. The big philosophical arguments, especially those over statehood and ever-closer union, are far from settled. Too often, indeed, they are set aside as too difficult or troubling. But this creates a vacuum. So here comes Mr Farage and others like him.

A referendum on whether you wish to remain within a union is not such a terrible idea. You might want to argue how much better off you would be with full statehood restored. On the other side of the argument, you could claim that a truly sovereign nation has nothing to fear in a union that preserves its identity. Britain doesn't have those arguments.

It has David Cameron following the usual route of Tory prime ministers in making a big noise about smallish reforms that, somehow, will resolve every problem. It has Mr Farage garnering extraordinary attention south of the Border because he sees all the ills in the world in the word foreigner. It has Mr Clegg talking to himself and a Labour Party saying as little as possible. These patterns are being repeated across the continent.

In this, nevertheless, Britain has form. Other Europeans are sometimes mildly surprised that we are still within the union given all the chatter down the years. In Scotland, we have the strange comedy of threats to our post-independence membership of the EU from people who otherwise work to engineer the UK's withdrawal. It amounts to a big, if vague, question: why do some find "Europe" so troubling?

You could answer one question with another. Why are so few of the rest of us outspoken in favour of the EU? At minimum, you remember that the elections on May 22 will count as a remarkable exercise, given European history. Do we already take general harmony in the west of the continent so much for granted? Or are we just satisfied with complacency?

Identity, that word apparently disallowed in Scotland's debate, has a lot to do with it. A great many people do not, and will not, admit to feeling even slightly European.

They do not recognise themselves in the description. It's not a feeling that admits to argument. Do those others of us who say "Scottish and European" make a different kind of claim?

That might count as a belief; it's not exactly an argument. Attachment to the EU is meanwhile not deep-rooted. Attachment to its parliament barely exists. But that in turn renders euroscepticism a game with shadows.

All that rage over institutions that barely impinge on the attentions of the majority: you might call it Quixotic.

It would be more impressive, nevertheless, if the sceptics queuing up for election promised to refuse to take their seats after May 22. Equally, it would be nice to hear Mr Farage describe the kind of Europe he has in mind. Some of those in the south contemplating a vote for Ukip might find the truth enlightening, not to say alarming. The gentleman occupies a very small sort of world.

Since it's all that's allowed, just turning out to vote of May 22 would be the best argument anyone could make. I won't hold my breath, but if Scotland's place in Europe is an issue, so too is participation in a European election. Think of it this way: Mr Farage wouldn't like it.

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