Elections to the European Parliament: What to Expect?

Oblonskys’ Moment of the European Union          

The beginning of Leo Tolstoy’s masterpieces Anna Karenina well characterises Europe before (and probably also after) this week’s elections for the European Parliament: “Everything was in confusion in the Oblonskys' house. The wife had discovered that the husband was carrying on an intrigue with a French girl, who had been a governess in their family, and she had announced to her husband that she could not go on living in the same house with him”. And this was not the only problem of this unhappy family. Europe in 2019, or more precisely, the European Union is indeed going through its Oblonskys’ moment, where everything is in confusion.

Usually, and in contradistinction to national and even local elections, voting for the European Parliament is not a big deal in most of the member-states. It is not the most important organ of the Union and citizens of the Union don’t feel much affinity to the institution that is supposed to represent them in Brussels (or in Strasbourg or in Luxembourg - the multiple locations of the Parliament has recently become an additional bone of contention between member-states, especially between France and Germany). This year’s elections are, however, somewhat different. It is not that the Europeans have become more affectionate towards the Union. The reason why the May 2019 polling cause more excitement among Europeans than usually is the fact that they are seen as a plebiscite on the trust in governments, oppositions, political parties and, terrible even to think, on the future of liberal democracy. As if this all wouldn’t be enough to confuse even the most sophisticated electorate, issues of global politics such as the US-European relations (Europe’s strategic dependence on, even its subordination to, the interests of the United States), the rise of China and the role of Europe in the changing geopolitical (and geo-economical) configuration of the world, the attitude towards Russia (seeing Moscow as a natural part of Europe and an ally in facing global threats and challenges or continuing, to use the words of the first Secretary-General of NATO Lord Ismay’s, “to keep the Russians out” thereby serving geopolitical (and also geo-economical) interests of Washington.

The bitter struggle between so-called (or self-styled) “progressists” (i.e., those, who like true Marxists earlier, know for sure in which direction the inevitable progress of history is leading the humankind) and soi-disant “populists” (rarely self-styled, more often used by “progressists” as a kind of catch-all stigma for those who disagree with them) is in the centre of pre-election debates and mud-slinging in many European countries. If the first stand for liberal democracy, globalisation and free markets, are soft on immigration and consider nation-states as outdated political entities (though it is difficult to understand how all these things, considered by many as God, motherhood and apple-pie, can harmoniously coexist), it is much harder to define “populists”, since already Ralf Dahrendorf noted that “one man’s populism is another’s democracy, and vice versa”. Or one may with some confidence agree with former French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine that “populism is a measure of the failure of elites”. Therefore, instead of operating with such a loose and abstract category as “populism”, it would be advisable to look at real practical contradictions dividing European societies. And here we find that the number one division exists indeed between elites (political, economic, intellectual etc.) and masses of people. This eternal societal division has been exacerbated by the globalisation from which elites have hugely profited while most of the people haven’t either seen significant benefits or quite a few have even lost what they had before.

Current population movements, also a part of the process of globalisation, have moved migration problems to the centre-stage of domestic politics of practically all European countries. Not only individual member-states but also the European Union have failed to find solutions to the problem of uncontrolled migration. Many European societies have economically benefitted from previous migration flows. It would be difficult to imagine, for instance, the United Kingdom without doctors and pharmacists from the Indian subcontinent. British public health system (NHS), and not only that, would collapse without migrants. However, on the flipside of the mass migration is not only and not even so much that “they-take-our-jobs”, but there is a real concern of local people about the loss of their identity. Although there are those who can be anywhere (borrowing from David Goodhart), there are still many more who want to be somewhere, i.e. they care about their roots, traditions, religion and other values that they have inherited from their ancestors. In his recent book Demeure, Francois-Xavier Bellamy, a philosopher and a rising star of the French conservative politics, well depicts and explains one of the important modern (or post-modern, if you prefer) predicaments: when everybody and everything has to be on the move, when more and more goods must be produced, traded and consumed as quickly as possible, when change and innovation are required from everybody and there is no time for contemplation, lest be left behind, at least some people start thinking about the meaning of such runaway lifestyle. It is not only that not every innovation or change is not for the better. Humankind is standing on the shoulders of the past giants. Therefore, only learning from the past can we understand directions of the change and innovation. Only knowing where we come from can we chart the way ahead. Therefore, the conservatism à la Bellamy, if not necessarily progressive (and it is not supposed to be), is humane. It calls for the preservation of everything valuable from the past of our different societies.

Both progressiveness and conservatism have their place and value as well as their flipside. Not every change or innovation is for the better, not every tradition needs to be preserved. However, if without change and innovation we would still live in caves, by squandering our inheritance we lose our humanity. We may well disagree with Plato on the value of democracy or with Aristoteles on the understanding of slavery, but without them and many others Western civilisation wouldn’t exist, as it would be much poorer without Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Anton Chekhov or Piotr Tchaikovsky. I am mentioning particularly these Russian giants not only because they too belong to the European heritage, but also because the next European dilemma needs for its resolution the helping hand of Russia.

One of the values most peoples, including in Europe, treasure is independent statehood. As European elites, or at least a considerable part of it, consider the concept of state sovereignty as somewhat outdated and prefer to speak instead of European sovereignty (read, e.g., Emmanuel Macron), the issue of sovereignty of European states has become a European-wide bone of contention. Although today no European leader is openly calling for the establishment of the “ever closer union” (today, it is replaced by the phrase “we need more Europe, not less), there is still a dominant trend towards federalisation of Europe that has, however, become counterbalanced by calls for the union of nation-states instead. Around the competition of these two trends – a further federalisation of the Union versus retaining or even strengthening the sovereignty of its member-states – there is a host of more specific problems: the criticism of widening the Union (i.e., extending it to the Central and Eastern Europe, including the Baltic states) instead of deepening the integration of the historical core of the Union; the issue of a multi-speed Union; difficulties with the Schengen zone etc. Attempts to resolve this bundle of controversial topics indeed amount to the Herculean (or rather Archimedean) task of squaring the circle.

On the one hand, Europe really needs more unity (not only economic but also political and strategic) to adequately face contemporary global challenges. Strategically Europe has always been dependent on the United States. If during the Cold War such a dependence was understandable, with the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the bi-polar world it lost its raison d’être, at least for Europe, if not for the United States. With the advent of the Trump administration, that has taken off the velvet gloves from Washington’s iron fists even vis-à-vis its European allies, many Europeans feel, to put it mildly, uncomfortable, even humiliated. Trump’s withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal and Washington’s use of its extraterritorial legislation vis-à-vis its allies and sanctioning them have brought home for many Europeans the need to lessen Europe’s dependency from Washington’s whims. Hence, the need for strategic consolidation against America’s dominance. Equally, the economic rise of China is not only benefitting, but also worrying Europe, lest it become too dependent not only from Washington but also from Beijing. Once again, there is a need for more unity. However, as we have seen above, European peoples still value the sovereignty of their states and are not ready to sacrifice it on the altar of a “ever close union” even if we call it “more Europe, not less”. This is indeed a problem of squaring the circle.

 As the squaring this circle may be impossible, at least for the foreseeable future, the European Union may still increase its strategic autonomy, especially vis-à-vis Washington and Beijing. This can be done by considerably improving relations with Moscow. If Washington, in the attempt to perpetuate its global domination, may be interested in the simultaneous containment of both China and Russia (though a dangerous and probably even counter-productive endeavour), Europe is suffering from its poor relations with Moscow not less than Russia. There is no benefit whatsoever for Europe of demonising Russia and its political leadership. Having at least normal relationships with Russia would not only be economically beneficial for Europe; it would also widen the space for strategic manoeuvring even without creating a European super-state. Such a rational policy transformation should need not be oriented against the United States or China. This would only mean that Europe would considerably lessen its strategic dependency from Washington and have at the same time also a stronger bargaining positions vis-à-vis Beijing.

Although the European Parliament that will be elected this week will hardly have more influence on matters European than its predecessors, these elections are certainly more important for the Union and even more so for most member-states than previous ones. In most countries this would also be a plebiscite for trusts in governments in power and as well as for oppositions. For example, in France the score between Macron’s Le Republique en Marche and Le Pen’s Rassemblement National may well have a bigger impact on domestic politics than on the composition of the European Parliament. The balance between “progressives” and “populists”, between those who care more about the preservation of the identity of their societies than about unimpeded flow of trade and even more so of migrants will determine future policies of European countries. In Great Britain, where the Government and the Parliament are deadlocked over the Brexit, European elections – in itself an illogical event since Britain is going to leave the Union (or is it really?) – will certainly be a well-deserved blow to Theresa May’s ineffective conservatives, but this would hardly benefit undecisive labourites of Jeromy Corbyn. The best that can be expected from these elections is that they may reveal the relative strength of opposing tendencies. And this already could be progress, or would it?   

The European Parliament Elections: Promising Change, Delivering More of the Same?
Vincent Della Sala
Elections in Europe have become complex affairs, combining issues that are important for the national arena but have serious consequences for European Union (EU) decisions and vice versa: decisions at the European level shape national debates and politics.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.