A Song of Earth and Air: EU elections primer

Through the medium of Game of Thrones

“I’m so excited about the European elections!” shouted nobody ever.

MEPs in Brussels seem like a distant, complex, and possibly futile thing for anyone under thirty to worry about. The prospect of actually voting for them is needlessly confusing, and very hard to get enthusiastic about.

Luckily Game of Thrones is here, and it’s great. The cool kids love it. Without further ado, and in no coherent order, here is an EU primer with a heavy sprinkling of G.R.R.Martin.

***Spoiler Warning: content up to s4e5 of the TV show or ‘A Storm of Swords’ of the books ***

The Seven Kingdoms : the European Union

The EU might be 28 Kingdoms (well, member states) but it bears more than a passing resemblance to Westeros. Both show a trend of centralising power to the capital (King’s Landing/Brussels) and both were initially justified in terms of creating a lasting peace and prosperity (Harren the Black’s wars/WWI & WWII).

They both contain a wide variety of peoples, customs, mountains and islands, with important political challenges.  Neither have a particularly strong or united foreign policy, and in both there are arguments that the union promotes economic growth through free trade or stumps it through harmonising regulation.

Robert’s Rebellion : British Euroscepticism

When Robert Baratheon and Eddard Stark rose up against Targaryen rule, they did so for several reasons. Despite representing a big chunk of Westeros’ people and paying serious tribute, they had no influence on the kingdom; the Mad King was clearly an ineffectual ruler; and there were serious issues of governance and justice, such as when Ned’s father and brother were killed without trial.

The EU might not be *quite* as bad as King Aerys, but British Eurosceptics have similar concerns to Ned and Robert. They fear the EU takes too much tax; that Britain’s voice is ignored or too small when deciding EU laws; that the European Commission is undemocratic; and that the European Court of Justice is as arbitrary as trial by combat.

It’s unlikely that Eurosceptics will go as far as armed revolt, especially when roughly as many Britons polled are content with the situation. Readers will remember, of course, that many Westorsi fought for King Aerys and Prince Rhaegar – and the less said about the Sack of King’s Landing, the better. I’m willing to bet President Jose Manuel Barroso doesn’t have a huge bomb hidden under Brussels.

The Night’s Watch : UKIP

The Night’s Watch stand guard on the borders of the Seven Kingdoms, keeping the apparently-terrifying Wildlings at bay. The Watch make a solemn vow and operate as an effective force, although they’re one of the smaller organisations in Westeros. Their warnings and concerns are raised in the capital, but seldom heeded. Although many who ‘take the black’ are honourable and upstanding, some question the Watch’s recruitment policies – they’ve been known to have a few bad eggs.

UKIP was founded to argue for British national sovereignty and to keep traditional political values alive. They have since expanded to attack the EU’s ‘open door’ immigration policy, although they complain that their arguments aren’t taken seriously in Westminster or Brussels. Like the Night’s Watch, UKIP has its share of eyebrow-raising individuals, although UKIP argues they have no more ‘nutters’ than other parties.

I suppose this means I’m saying immigrants are Wildlings. Eek. But then, if we know anything from Jon Snow’s adventures, perhaps the ‘Free Folk’ aren’t so wild after all…

The Lannisters : The Tories

House Lannister is a complex and often divided family, so it’s tricky to characterise. The Lannisters’s power rests partially on their great wealth, but they’ve plenty of other assets and skills. They are generally happy for the Seven Kingdoms to be united, but only when they’re in control, either with Tywin or Tyrion as Hand of the King, or a family member on the Throne. If they’re not in control, they can be very violent indeed…

Likewise the Conservative Party is often at odds with itself: the current leadership is pro-European, albeit with large reservations, while many backbenchers are unapologetically sceptical. Like the Lannisters, Tory leaders want a loud voice at the (Small Council) table, and are pushing for a great ‘renegotiation’ in 2017 to change the UK-EU power balance.

A crucial difference, of course, is the proposed renegotiation and referendum. It’s unlikely that any Lannister would offer the Westerlands a vote on its Seven Kingdoms membership.

The Tyrells : Labour

In the old days the Tyrells fought against Robert Baratheon and opposed his line’s right to rule, but now they’re comfortable within the Seven Kingdoms – so long as they have a role. They’re happy to hold their noses and make political alliances with whoever (Renly or Tywin) seems to be on top. They are socially liberal and make a great show of caring for the ‘Small Folk’, although some in court suspect this is a simple popularity gimmick.

When Britain first joined the ‘European Economic Community’ in 1972, Labour was split for and against 50:50. After we voted to join in a referendum, sceptics like Tony Benn and Michael Foot held sway for years, but with little effect. Labour’s position changed because the EU started guaranteeing workers’ and unions’ rights, and now Ed Miliband’s party is very much ‘In’, while proposing a referendum in specific future circumstances. Labour lead the UK’s polls at the moment, so they may well deserve the Tyrell motto: Growing Strong.

Varys and Littlefinger : the Liberal Democrats

The Master of Whisperers and the Master of Coin are important figures at court, although they do not rule alone. Rather, they are important voices influencing government, ostensibly advising and serving the Iron Throne. Varys claims to care for the realm’s best interests, whereas Littlefinger is secretly all about gathering power. Both of them serve with Small Council members they privately dislike, if it helps further their own ends.

The Liberal Democrats are in coalition with the Conservatives, and are often accused of forfeiting their integrity (tuition fees, Lords reform, drug laws) for a glimpse of power. Others think that, for a small party, they have an impressive record influencing the Tories. They are Britain’s most clearly pro-EU party, although they think democratic reform is important, and would offer a referendum if the EU wrote a new treaty. In the past few decades, they have thrived on chaos and won seats from the two main parties, although this trend is likely to reverse now they are seen as ‘establishment’ figures.

Daenerys Stormborn : the Ukraine

Daenerys is currently outside the Seven Kingdoms but she wants in – wants it very much and has been gathering support to achieve it. As far as Westeros is concerned, she has been quiet and unconcerning for years, but now her power grows and the only thing keeping her in the East is violence and tumult in the lands she has conquered. Her young state’s internal violence and the threats of other Eastern powers intervening mean that King’s Landing is paying a great deal of notice to her.

Ukraine shares a border with several EU states, and it had applied for a closer relationship in 2014. However, former President Yanukovych halted the treaty progress and moved closer to Russia, prompting protests and counter-protests. Now pro-EU politicians have formed a provisional government but various regions have broken off and declared independence or affiliation to Moscow. Presidential elections are planned for 25th May (three days after the EU elections) but it’s unknown whether the country will be stable enough for these to take place.

To the best of my knowledge, neither Messrs Putin nor Turchynov currently possess dragons.

The White Walkers : Climate Change

The White Walkers are a little-known and little-understood force, a threat from the far north used to keep toddlers obedient. Many in Westeros dismiss them as a myth, but there’s gathering evidence from the Wall that this ancient foe is gathering strength and planning to unleash perpetual winter. The Seven Kingdoms’ response is mixed – men of the North and some major lords further south are committed to resisting the Walkers, while some in Court argue there are more immediate priorities and no men can be spared.

The EU has been a major force to combat climate change, with a whole raft of initiatives to ‘go green’ and reduce carbon emissions. Britain has been at the forefront, implementing some measures before other member states, but many critics argue the measures are ill-considered, ineffectual or poorly targeted. David Cameron aims to cut EU subsidies for environmental measures, to cheapen energy for homes and industries.

The more I think about it, the more obvious and intentional this parallel is.

Iron Bank of Braavos : the European Central Bank

Although based in Braavos, the Iron Bank has formidable power since it funds the Iron Throne – not least paying for the Crown’s armies. Much like the Lannisters, the Iron Bank never forgets its debts, and threatens to intervene if debtors default, by force if necessary. After King Robert’s excessive spending and the subsequent wars, the Iron Bank holds serious Westerosi debt.

Gold statues cost money yo

The European Central Bank aims to keep all the Eurozone countries’ economies stable, and consequently it wields formidable powers to order member states to restructure their industries or reduce government spending. Critics say the ‘ECB’ is too harsh, too political, and that it undermines democracy since it’s unelected but influences millions of lives.

Maesters of the Citadel : the White House

The Maesters of the Citadel are learned men who advise the great noble houses on conducting their affairs. They are theoretically neutral and must serve whoever controls the castle they reside in, although sometimes lords accused them of pursuing a greater, hidden agenda.

America is the greatest friend and ally of both the EU and Britain. It wants the EU to be strong and unified, so trade can flourish (T-TIP) and so Europe’s collective voice can support America in international disputes – Henry Kissinger once complained, “Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?” This broadly pro-Union message is in some sceptic quarters as unwelcome outside meddling.

The Kingsguard : The European Commission

The Kingsguard, called the ‘White Cloaks’, are the seven finest knights of the realm, recruited from far and wide. They are sworn to protect the King and the Royal Family, although recent events suggest they’re getting a bit rusty. Based in King’s Landing, the Kingsguard are often ordered to enforce the throne’s will, or to lead royal armies.

The European Commission is the EU’s ‘executive’, and all 28 Commissioners (one from each member state) take an oath to the EU. Commissioners are normally experienced politicians in their home country, and the current Commission includes many former Heads of State and professional diplomats or ‘technocrats’.

A Commissioner’s role is complicated: the general direction of the EU comes from the heads of state of each country, meeting in the ‘European Council’ to provide guidance or negotiate treaties, then passing their intentions to the Commission. The Commission then proposes acts and legislation, and if those laws are passed, it’s the Commission’s job to enforce them and make sure they’re applied fairly across the whole EU. Before laws pass, however, they’re vetted by the ‘Council of Ministers’ (representatives from each member’s government, e.g. Britain’s Fisheries Minister would vote on the EU common fisheries policy) and by the European Parliament (for which we are voting on May 22nd). Sceptics question whether the Commission is too political.

The Riverlands : France

Due to their central location and fertility, the lands around Riverrun and Harrenhal are desirable and often riven with strife. They saw battle during Aegon’s Conquest, Robert’s Rebellion and the War of Five Kings. Although House Tully is nominally in charge, bannermen like the Freys are unruly. After Lannister and Northern forces contested the region, the Riverlands saw the birth of the Brotherhood without Banners, a group that claims to represent the Smallfolk and fights to protect the countryside.

France is a key player in the EU, one of the six founding countries in 1957 that sought economic union with West Germany both for prosperity and to ensure there would never be war between the two again. France has often championed greater power for the European Union, and is likely to be an important member state to woo if Cameron is to get substantial renegotiations. However the country’s politics are complicated, with socialist President Hollande extremely unpopular, powerful trade unions, and the eurosceptic Front National gathering support in the polls.

Dorne and the Vale : Denmark and the Netherlands

Westeros’ two most mountainous kingdoms have historically been somewhat distant and aloof when it comes to wholehearted participation in the Seven Kingdoms’ affairs – neither intervened in the War of Five Kings, and there are some in Dorne who question whether they’d be better off independent.

Denmark, like the UK, rejected the ‘Euro’ currency and negotiated an ‘opt out’ to EU citizenship, defence obligations, security and justice measures. The Dutch look like full members on paper, founding members indeed, but their Foreign Minister recently called for an end to the commitment to ‘Ever Closer Union’ (seen as a threat of federalisation of an ‘EU Superstate’) along with 70 demands for reform.

Dragonstone : Iceland, Switzerland and Norway

Dragonstone’s position between Westeros and Essos resembles that of the ‘half-in half-out’ European states. They aren’t official EU members but have broadly cordial relations, although they dabble with distinct customs such as free trade agreements with Japan and China, or worshipping the Red God.

Smallfolk : The European Parliament

This is perhaps the most crucial difference between Westeros and Europe. The Seven Kingdoms are not big on democracy, even of a complicated and questionable kind, so the smallfolk are seldom represented, are potentially rebellious, and usually loyal only to the local nobility. The smallfolk’s only means of affecting government is violence.
The idea of the ‘EP’ is to give the EU democratic legitimacy – each country sends Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) equivalent to their population, so Britain has 73 out of 751. They are elected by ‘Proportional Representation’ meaning more minority parties (UKIP, SNP, BNP, Plaid Cymru) are represented than in Westminster, which uses the ‘First Past the Post’ voting system.

The Parliament has gained strength with the 2008 Lisbon Treaty, although many argue it’s use and legitimacy is still limited, as so few voters engage with it. That is partly the point of this post – the EP has a role, and whether you love it or loathe it, it’s good to be informed. The Parliament can amend laws proposed by the Commission (Kingsguard) and has championed initiatives like the Financial Transaction Tax (Tobin Tax/Robin Hood Tax), the Bankers Bonus Cap, carbon emissions targets, health and safety measures, and budget reduction (austerity). Different parties are represented in multi-national groupings (European People’s Party, the European Socialists & Democrats, the Liberals, the Conservative & Reform party, the Greens) which co-ordinate on big issues. The whole EP has the power to fire the Commission, which they virtually did in 1999.

Disclaimer: I’m a researcher for a Eurosceptic organisation, but this blog is not affiliated with them. I’ve tried very hard to make this unbiased, partly by following George RR Martin’s tried and tested method of being very mean to everyone. I’ve aimed to link to neutral sources, other than when presenting one side’s argument. If I’ve gone too far one way or t’other, I will happily read your comment, and may even consider amending the words. I’m open to suggestions for Germany, the Stormlands, House Greyjoy etc.

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“A little bit stretched.”


“I don’t really watch fantasy.”

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