European Elections Special

First as tragedy, then as farce

Europe is putting up a brave front after the watershed election, but now it has to face the bitter reality.

These European elections were indeed historical, but not in the sense that most politicians are so loudly and proudly making us believe. Yes, voter turnout not only remained stable, it even increased marginally over that of the previous elections. And no, that is not a given. In fact, this election was the first ever to see a rising voter turnout. Since 1979, turnout has fallen steadily and consistently, from 62% in the first elections to 43% in the 2009 elections. Be that as it may: Nobody can claim that this result is a satisfying one when only less than half of the European electorate casts a vote and when places like Slovakia have a turnout of merely 15%. The increase in turnout is lipstick on a pig – at best.

Politicians hailed the new introduction of direct candidates (or “Spitzenkandidaten”, as they came to be known) for the post of European Commission President as instrumental in boosting the numbers. But the true reason might be quite another one: As an expert from the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies pointed out, turnout increased especially in those countries that witnessed a strong anti-establishment vote, such as France, the U.K., Greece, Finland and even Germany. What if it wasn’t the presence of “Spitzenkandidaten” that drove people to the polls, but that of populists like Marine Le Pen or Nigel Farage? Would the turnout still count as historical – or would it leave a sour taste?

A forecasted earthquake

A twisted turn of events led to the coinciding of the European elections with the presidential election in Ukraine. And the contrast couldn’t be starker. In Ukraine, people strove and fought for Western-style democracy, whereas here, many are left disillusioned by just that. The results show how many people have turned their backs on Europe and are now following the siren calls from the extreme ends of the political spectrum. Voters have granted populists of all colors sweeping victories in many countries, establishing them as mainstream parties and making their political views more and more socially acceptable.

This is the real historical moment of this election: the return to our own past, the return to a history whose long shadows we have been trying to eradicate. The election results render true what Marx knew many years ago: that history repeats itself: first as tragedy, second as farce.

Of course, we should be cautious with such analogies. The chances of total, all-out war taking place again on this continent are virtually non-existent. But the values and principles that were borne out of the calamities of the twentieth century are neither ubiquitous nor cast in stone. And history should not necessarily remind us of the horrors that once took place, but of the lesson we have learned: that a European continent on which countries are primarily concerned about their national welfare is a hotbed for conflict.

In both France and Britain, the election results were likened to a “political earthquake”. That analogy seems accurate, but nobody should have been surprised when the ground started to shake. This was an earthquake that had been forecast. The populist menace was one of the central issues of the election campaigns. And this election that was called a “watershed moment for Europe” was never about grand strategies or new narratives. It was not a poll about new solutions for a better future. This election and its campaigns were about limiting the damage of the past, about keeping the dangers at bay.

But by cautioning too much against the populists and red-flagging them, the centrist parties accidentally put them on a pedestal. They hung a sign around the necks of the populists that read: “Vote for me if you are dissatisfied with those in power.” They made their foes the friends of their critics – and they made the populist threat a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This election was a blow to everybody with a political vision; its outcome affects us all, not just the countries where the populists triumphed. But what were we expecting? Five years after the outbreak of the debt crisis, unemployment shows no signs of abating and many economies are still a shambles. Fear and uncertainty rule this continent and have made it a perfect breeding ground for resentment. Yet the truth is: it could be worse.

Reason will trump hate-mongering

European elections have always been an opportunity to punish national governments rather than vote for a vision of Europe. For a long time, people have used the elections to vent their frustration. Given the current situation in many European countries, it is a miracle that there will be not even more flag-waving and misguided ideology in the next European Parliament. The populists will remain in opposition.

That, after all, makes me hopeful that the populists are a blessing in disguise. The populists are going to be a constant reminder that the crisis is not yet over and that ills like unemployment still need to be cured. The populists will bring the people’s dissent into the continent’s democratic arena and will force the centrist parties to strengthen and sharpen their arguments and policies.

If they can be contained that way, if their presence causes positive change rather than even more resentment, then one need not be overly pessimistic. There is still life in the old dog, and I am convinced that reason will trump hate-mongering. In fact, the populist surge might be yet another lesson: that the problems at the core of the Union require significant change – change that takes into account all the countries and all the people of Europe.

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