The majority of articles and analyses on the 2014 European Parliament elections focus on the rise of an anti-European trend, consisted of populist and far-right political parties which express an anti-immigrant, xenophobic and in some cases racist speech. The relevant discussions attempt to explain the reasons for the rise of this trend and its consequences for the future of Europe. However, the main trend of the elections – and the real winner – was a low and disappointing turnout. This poses a greater danger for Europe than the rise of an anti-European trend, which, to be honest, is not something new for Europe. Perhaps even, an opportunity to move forward.
For the advocates of the European integration and the European idea, the election results seem rather disastrous: A rise of political parties which oppose to the European Union and express (the truth is to a different degree) anti-immigrant, xenophobic and even racist views. These parties form a heterogeneous trend (heterogeneous with regards to the taking of extremist views), however with a basic feature: it is overly Eurosceptic, almost anti-European.
Thus, we have the emergence of an anti-European trend in the EU member-states. The political forces of this trend does not only not wish the deepening of European integration, but also are in favor of weakening the European Union. They think the EU has too many powers and that these powers should return to the states. In other words, the main position of this trend is: less (or even no) Europe.
Post-election discussions focus on the explanation and the reasons of this anti-European trend as well as on its consequences for the future of Europe. The predominant motif of the answers and observations is that the reasons have to do with the financial and economic crisis and the unemployment, whereas the consequences are related to the slowing and the overall questioning of the European integration. In some cases, the strengthening of the anti-European forces is interpreted as one more landmark in the disintegration of the EU, as one more sign that the European project cannot move any further and inevitably will be dissolved.
The main position of the anti-European current is less Europe and more state. According to the view of its proponents, Brussels have gathered excessive powers and cannot deliver effective solutions: the only available option is to return the power to national capitals.
EU does not only fail to meet the expectations of its people, but is in itself the source of the problems – economic and financial crisis, unemployment, increase of immigration and so on.
It is true that the success of the European Union and the support it was receiving from the peoples of its member-states was due to its economic performance. The living standard of the European people and the wealth of the European states were increased inside the European Union. However the 2009 crisis, the slow recovery and the austerity policies at the South resulted in decreasing levels of support for the EU. In other words: when economy performs well, EU receives support. When economy performs poor, there is a growing discontent for the EU. The result of the EU elections confirms this tendency.
But to what degree does the emergence of this anti-European trend poses a threat for Europe? And is this trend the winner of the EU elections? Undoubtedly, this trend represents a threat for the integration but not up to the point of a possible dissolution of the EU. As for the real winner of the elections (and a fact that poses a greater danger for the EU) was the disappointing low turnout.
The existence of forces that oppose European integration and the transfer of powers to Brussels is not something new for Europe. EU was developed (and is still being developed) by balancing between two opposite trends: one in favor of the integration (federal Europe) and one against it (Europe of nations). The European construction is formed on the basis of constant compromises between these two trends. Before we rush to speak about the end of Europe we should consider one important element in this discussion: Europe has still not decided what it wants to become. We do not know what the final aim of the EU is, what is going to be its final form. We have two conflicting visions about Europe, but we do not know (and we have yet to decide) which one is going to prevail. The EU project never had a clear-defined aim for its final stage or its final destination: its evolution is a dynamic procedure and no one can predict it.
Moreover, EU will continue to exist after the elections. It’s not the first time in its history – EU has been through more difficult anti-European crises that put the integration into question. However, it always managed to survive and to find compromises in a slow but steady course towards greater integration. Perhaps not on the pace or the speed that the visionaries of the United States of Europe would wish and many times integration was nothing more than a simple declaration of intentions. However, no one can contest that since 1957 many important steps have been made towards the direction of a united Europe – and this does not imply just the transfer of powers from member states to EU institutions.
The anti-European trend is not a new threat for Europe. What is more threatening is its ties with far-right, populist, xenophobic and racist forces. But, neither the anti-European trend nor the anti-democratic forces are a majority in the European Parliament.
That this anti-European trend is not a majority does not mean that it does not pose threats and challenges not only to integration, but also to the democratic values which are the foundations of Europe. The same time these very threats and challenges show the way that Europe should follow from now on: the causes of the emergence of this anti-European trend are exactly the issues on which the European leaders and EU officials should focus.
It is almost certain that the result of EU elections will have negative consequences for the European integration. EU will turn inwards, entering a stage of soul-searching. Yet, this is not necessarily a bad thing. The re-examination of the EU project may prove beneficial: the rise of the anti-European trend indicates the remoteness of EU from its citizens as well as its weakness to provide effective solutions to their problems and concerns. The anti-European trend reveals precisely these weaknesses, the changes and the improvements that need to be done. Somehow this is an opportunity for Europe. It is an opportunity to re-examine and re-define the Europe we want.
The disappointingly low turnout poses a greater threat for a united Europe than the anti-European trend. 57% of the EU citizens did not cast their vote on the European elections. Paradoxically, this percentage is comforting and threatening simultaneously.
It is comforting because compared to the percentage of the anti-European trend shows that the momentum of the latter is not so great. Anti-European forces may be surged, but this surge represents only the 43% of the European citizens.
The same time, low turnout seems threatening. More than half of the European simply did not express their opinion about Europe. This percentage is threatening exactly because is mute. Unidentified. We do not know what it believes or represents. The danger is to have an EU which exists and moves forward (no matter how slow or even stagnant it may looks, EU remains a dynamic and evolutionary process) without its peoples.
The main problem regarding the low turnout is that we do not know with certainty what it represents and that it is a fact susceptible to many explanations. Is this a form of protest against the EU, analogous to that of the anti-European trend? It is possible, but then why European citizens did not express themselves by supporting these political forces? Is the so-called “looseness” of the specific elections which is related with the limited powers of the European Parliament within the EU system? Maybe, but despite the gradual increase of its powers, turnout declines. In times where EU parliament was merely decorative, turnout in the elections was significantly higher.
Is low turnout due to a pessimistic view of the European citizens that their vote has no power and is not likely to induce changes? Is it due to disillusionment with the EU? Or is simply indifference – a perception that Brussels are very remote and the EU is an institution which has little to do with their problems or even worse it cannot do anything about them?
Of course there is not a single explanation to the fact of low turnout. It is a combination of factors, not only of these which mentioned above. Yet the question remains: we do not know why the 57% of the EU citizens did not cast their vote.
In my opinion, low turnout is more a sign of disillusionment and indifference rather than anything else. It is a sign that the gap (and its perception) between the EU and its citizens has grown. It is a sign that EU is remote from its citizens. And this is a greater threat for the European project than the surge of an anti-European trend. The total equalization of abstention with the anti-European vote (in other words, abstention as a form of protest and a sign of anti-European sentiment) is mistaken. There is a crucial difference: One thing is the conscious rejection of the integration and the empowerment of the EU and another thing the indifference and/or the disillusionment with the EU. The anti-European trend consciously rejects the EU. These who did not cast their vote are indifferent, they do not express their opinion about Europe – more or less EU or what kind of EU. Put it simply, they do not care about Europe.
These are the ones that the EU (and the advocates of European integration) should win their hearts and minds. We should focus and study the reasons of low turnout and abstention, not only the ones of the anti-European trend surge. More or less we know why European citizens elected parties like the French National Front. What we do not know is why most of them did not even cast their vote.
The anti-European trend is an opportunity to see the mistakes, the omissions and the weaknesses of the EU. It offers an opportunity to build a new European vision. However in building this vision we should take into account the ones who remained silent. These are the ones that EU should win and this is the greater challenge: to win not only their trust but first and foremost their interest. To convince them that their vote has power. The EU should work on strengthening the feeling of participation to its citizens, that the EU project is their project.
In the graphs of the elections, first we have the “pie” of participation and abstention. The “pie” of participation is divided in various colorful pieces which represent the opinions, the “voices” of the EU citizens. The “pie” of abstention remains white. Blank, silent and bigger than the other one. Perhaps it is time to focus more on this “pie”.