The EU elections will be shadowed by paradox. Almost everyone agrees that the continent’s establishment parties will lose ground to insurgent ‘Euroskeptics’ on both the Right and Left, making it harder to conduct business as usual in Strasbourg and Brussels. If this happens, millions of people will have voted to devalue future exercises in supranational polling.
That is why both the European Union itself and the national parties that support it have mounted such an extensive get-out-the-vote campaign.
Worried that turnout will be low — it has been dropping steadily since the first Parliament was elected in 1979 — and therefore magnify the power of malcontents, Europe’s political establishment has been implying in not-so-subtle ways that people who refuse to participate in this week’s elections will be putting the continent at risk.
“Stop the Nazis!” exclaims a poster from Germany’s Pirate Party. That term may not be as specific as it once was, but it still has the power to invoke the collapse of the Weimar Republic. While the onset of the Great Depression was the most important factor in the rise of radical parties intent on that government’s destruction, the ease with which they secured electoral legitimacy surely didn’t help.
The danger of populism, both then and now, is that it can undermine the political and economic elites that “know best.” But that’s also what makes it so attractive to voters who feel shut out of the decision-making process. The National Socialist Party rose to prominence by exploiting the resentments of Germans who lived far from the capital, winning provincial elections in small states like Brunswick before transitioning to the national stage.
In contemporary Europe, a similar scenario is playing out on a larger scale, with some of the continent’s most troubled nations, such as Greece, serving as the proving ground for a supranational assault on the idea of supranationalism. But even in the continent’s wealthiest and most powerful states, such as Germany, more and more people are asking why they should sustain their investment in the idea of Europe.
Different versions of this dynamic have been playing out throughout the developed world, as animus from the periphery targets a center depicted as simultaneously remote and intrusive. Even in Japan, with a populace regarded as unusually homogeneous and averse to conflict, frustration at the pace of post-tsunami reconstruction has been high. And in the United States, the seeming demise of bipartisan sentiment has powerfully reinforced the conviction that Washington is out of touch.
This problem is worse still in the European Union, where differences of language and culture continually chip away at feelings of continental solidarity. Germany’s Social Democratic Party advocates for a “Europe of people, not money.” But the fact remains that the Euro is the main thing binding its citizens together. Or at least that’s what the Euroskeptics would have you believe.
Perhaps the most poignant of the pro-Europe campaign posters comes from the Green Party. A young woman of indeterminate, but most likely “southern” origin stares plaintively at the viewer above the slogan “I have a dream. I’m a refugee. I’m Europe.” While this language is clearly meant to invoke Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech during the 1963 March on Washington, the vagueness in the wording is vexing.
Does that dream persist in spite of her status as a refugee? Or is it, rather, a dream of dispossession? And what would it mean for someone on the margins like this to assume the identity of Europe? For many of the voters who wish to reduce or even eliminate the power of supranational authority, this figure of the outsider is precisely what they fear.
In a way, this girl serves as a stand-in for the European Union itself, which is derided both for not having a true home and for spending more time dreaming than it does awake. While she may be easier to identify with than a faceless bureaucrat in some Brussels office, the emphasis on her otherness ultimately exacerbates the impression that the Europe she represents is at odds with the national identities promoted by many Euroskeptics.
Commentary by Charlie Bertsch. Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit.