This week Europe will have 30 elections: 28 national ones for the European parliament, one European Union-wide vote to anoint a so-called Spitzenkandidat to lead the European commission, and Ukraine’s presidential election on 25 May. Between them, they will draw the map of a continent in disarray.
Unless all the opinion polls are wrong, the 28 national elections will produce a large vote for a zoological array of “anti” parties – from Ukip in Britain, Jobbik in Hungary, the Front National in France to Syriza in Greece. Most of these are on the xenophobic right, but you can’t say that of Syriza or Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy. The one thing they all have in common is that they are anti. Anti the established order; anti the mainstream parties; anti the EU as it is at the moment.
Anti-unemployment, on the left and the right. Anti-immigration, mainly on the right. Anti-boredom too – and most mainstream European politicians can bore for Belgium.
These parties will get a lot of votes because they reflect the anger and disillusionment of a lot of Europeans. People feel that their lives are getting worse, one way or another, and that Europe has become part of the problem rather than the solution.
According to the regular Eurobarometer poll, trust in the EU across its member states had sunk from as high as 50% in autumn 2004 to 31% at the end of last year. Although a recent Pew poll showed a slight upturn in favourable views, it also found that two-thirds of EU citizens feel their voices do not count and the EU does not understand the needs of its citizens. Turnout in every successive election to the European parliament since 1979 has declined, while distrust of it has soared. And yet, under the Lisbon treaty, it will have more powers than ever. Formally speaking, most of what the EU does now requires the parliament’s assent.
Euro-idealists have a logical answer to this problem: more democracy. Hence the idea of what in most European languages are called Spitzenkandidaten: leading candidates for president of the European commission from the main pan-EU groupings of political parties. Did you watch their televised debate on Eurovision last Thursday? Go on, surprise me. Really? And did you stay awake?
Say what you like about the Eurovision song contest: the staging is spectacular and acts like the raunchy Polish faux-folk girls and Austrian drag queen Conchita Wurst are fun. Hard to believe it was the same Eurovision that produced this dreary show, under a blue-drape ceiling that seemed ready to collapse on the contestants at any moment. The Green candidate, Ska Keller, stood out visually and with her no-nonsense style from the men in suits, but then she started saying things like “unfortunately, we missed the chance in the last multiannual financial framework”.
Anyone who thinks a combination of Spitzenkandidaten and more power to the European parliament is going to solve the problem of popular trust needs to think again. The victorious Spitzenkandidat may anyway not be the best person to head the European commission, which is meant to be above the party-political fray.
And if, as seems quite possible, national leaders decide to propose someone else, the whole thing will have been a farce. Back in 1979 it was a perfectly logical idea to suppose that direct elections to the European parliament would gradually create Europe-wide parties, politics, media and eventually a European demos. But it simply hasn’t happened. European politics remain overwhelmingly national, played out in different languages in national media.
A large vote for the anti-parties will mean the European parliament buildings in Brussels and Strasbourg become glasshouses full of people throwing stones; but the mainstream parties will then pull together to create a de facto grand coalition.
The sausage factory of European law-making will become more inspissated than ever, further compromised by the extraordinary opportunities it gives for lobbyists to insert themselves into the sausage-making process.
Not to mention a profligate expenses system that has enabled the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, to use his allowances as a member of the European parliament to pay his German wife to help him bite the hand that feeds them both. Taken all in all, these 28+1 elections are most unlikely to be the creative shock our union needs to galvanise it into effective action for its more than 500 million citizens.
Meanwhile, there is again war in Europe. Not the great war of 1914 or 1939, but a bloody little one, like former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The annexation of Crimea was made possible by a Russian military operation, and the downward spiral of paramilitary violence in eastern Ukraine has horrible echoes of the beginning of the Bosnian conflict.
So the most important of all this week’s elections is the one that takes place in Europe but not in the EU. If Ukraine can successfully hold a democratic presidential election across most of its territory next Sunday, then there is a chance – just a chance – that it can return to a peaceful, negotiated, constitutional process. The result of that negotiation would have to be an unambiguously independent, sovereign Ukraine, but one with far-reaching devolution to its very different provinces.
And who, in the mighty EU, with the world’s largest economy, can make a difference there? Not the Spitzenkandidaten, to be sure – all of whom waffled away in different directions when asked about Ukraine (“We need a lot of dialogue,” said Keller. “We shouldn’t have fascists there,” exclaimed Alexis Tsipras of Syriza. Who exactly did he have in mind?). Not the European parliament.
No, it is national governments, constrained by multiple national parliaments and publics. What the EU does, with its councils of ministers and its own foreign service, is to give them ways of working closely together, and at best crafting a common strategy. Above all, it depends on Germany. If there is one country in Europe that Vladimir Putin will listen to, if there is one country in Europe that can bring together the EU’s potentially large economic sticks and carrots, it is Germany.
German leaders have recently declared that they want to face up to the international responsibility that comes with their country’s power. The chance has come sooner than they imagined, and in the most agonising way.
Thus today’s European politics are both mind-numbingly complex and stunningly simple. Thousands of words may not capture them, but two will also do the job: Germany’s call.
Timothy Garton Ash is Professor of European Studies at Oxford University, where he currently leads the freespeechdebate.com project, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. Furthermore, he is a member of the IWM Academic Advisory Board. His latest book is Facts are Subversive: Political Writing from a Decade Without a Name.
First published in The Guardian, May 19, 2014
© Author / The Guardian