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The Economist May 18th 2019

Briefing The EU elections

2 Greeks are far from unique in this inability.


Looking better

Surpassed only by polls in India, the European Parliament elections are the secondlargest democratic exercise in the world. But that does not mean the electorate much cares about the personalities concerned, such as they are. Indeed, many hardly care about the elections’ actual results at all, seeing them more as a way of affirming likes and dislikes based squarely on their own national politics. In the previous elections, in 2014, eight countries saw turnouts of less than a third. Since then, though, there have been changes. The crises of the past decade have tested the union and found it wanting. They have also revealed its resilience. Whenever it came close to breaking up, its institutions and governments took painful and politically contentious decisions to hold it together. The European Central Bank, for example, prevented the euro’s collapse with a promise to do “whatever it takes” that horrified thrifty Germans—who nevertheless, because of the value they placed on the union’s survival, stuck with the strategy. Since the Brexit referendum in 2016 the eu’s response to the once-unthinkable shock of a large nation deciding to leave has both illustrated and strengthened its underlying cohesiveness. Possibly as a result of having peered over more than one brink, possibly as a result of an increasingly alarming world beyond their borders, Europeans are regaining some faith in the eu. In a survey of union-wide opinion taken last September, 62% of respondents said that membership was a good thing, the highest proportion since 1992. Only 11% said it was a bad thing, the lowest rate since the start of the financial crisis (see chart 1). The Brexit mess has doubtless put off other would-be leavers; the parties which once promised referendums on leaving in France and Italy have quietly dropped the idea. But the rise in support began in 2012, four years before Britain’s referendum. Which is not to say that the union is hunkydory. As well as being, in its way, the world’s second-largest democracy, the eu is also the world’s second-largest economy, but it has a range of dire problems on which action is needed: sluggish growth, carbon

“Do you think that your country’s membership of the EU is…?” % polled

Don’t know Neither good nor bad

100 80


60 40


20 0







Source: Eurobarometer

emissions, rising authoritarianism both in the rest of the world and within its own precincts, underperforming armies, a paucity of world-class technology companies and an inability to manage migration. Not Martian, European A visitor from Mars—or, for that matter, Beijing or Washington—might see further integration as a prerequisite for sorting out such problems. But Europe is not America or China. It is a mosaic of nation states of wildly varying size and boasting different languages, cultures, histories and temperaments. Its aspiration to be as democratic as a whole as it is in its parts is profoundly hampered by the lack, to use a term familiar to the ancient Nemeans, of a “demos”—a people which feels itself a people. Few want a superstate with fully integrated fiscal and monetary policy, defence policy and rights of citizenship. For all that Mr Weber and other parliamentarians may want to make the elections pan-European and quasi-presidential, voters will continue to be primarily parochial. Nevertheless, the decade of living dangerously seems to have reshaped European politics into something a bit more cohesive, if not coherent. Europe is no longer in the business of expansion, or of integration come what may. It is in the business of protection. “A Europe which protects”, a phrase you cannot avoid in the corridors of Brussels, is increasingly heard on the campaign trail, too. Policy differences now play


Seats in the European Parliament, total seats=751 2019 election projection Outgoing parliament*, 2019 2014 result 2009 result†


















37 21










Source: European Parliament






32 27


out within a broadly shared conviction that Europe’s citizens need, and want, defending from outside threats ranging from economic dislocation to climate change to Russia to migration. Some politicians offer integration as protection; others prefer simple co-ordination. But even parties once resolutely anti-eu, such as Austria’s hard-right fpo, now demand the eu do more, not less—at least in areas like border control and anti-terrorism. At the same time, a new divide has opened up, one that cuts across the old left/ right and pro/anti battle lines. It is between gradualists unwilling to risk the status quo and those who seek rapid and fundamental change—in various different directions. To see a demos that demonstrates these changes, come to Linz, a working-class city in Upper Austria and a decent barometer for Europe’s mood. On May 1st, international workers’ day, a rally held on the baroque Hauptplatz by the pro-European, centre-left Social Democrat party (spo) rang with brass bands and appeals to the “comrades”. In a stuffy beer tent less than a kilometre away an fpo gathering was getting into full swing. The customary left/ right and pro/anti divides might have been expected to set the two apart as clearly as the waters of the Danube did. Look closer, though, and things are more complex. At both events the politicians are tellingly half-hearted when talking about the sort of things they might normally be expected to harp on about. The praise heaped on good public services by Klaus Lüger, Linz’s spo mayor and the moaning about eu interference in the width of tractor seats by Manfred Haimbuchner, the fpo’s state leader, received scant applause. Where they fired up their audiences, it was on two more nuanced matters that are central to European, not just Upper Austrian, concerns. Both the spo and the fpo argued that Europe should do more to protect the little guy. The spo crowd clapped when told that “only as a Europe of co-operation can we solve common problems”; the fpo tent cheered Mr Haimbuchner as he said he wanted to do something about the fact that “people no longer feel at home in their own streets and towns”. And they also cheered 1

United Left/Nordic Green Left Socialists and Democrats Greens/European Free Alliance Alliance of Liberals and Democrats European People’s Party Conservatives and Reformists Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy Europe of Nations and Freedom Non-attached members Others


*One vacant seat †Total seats=736

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The Economist - 18.05.19  

The Economist - 18.05.19