The European Union has had a very rough few years. Soon after the start of the financial crisis in 2009 several member states found themselves on the verge of bankruptcy. Then there were the bailouts, the stubbornly high unemployment, the austerity measures in many countries and the massive protests against those cuts in government services. The years of crisis have made Europeans ask fundamental questions about the role of their union. How far should its influence spread? What values does it represent? And how much should it pay to uphold those values? This week, Europeans will have their first chance since 2009 to react to these questions at the ballot box. They will not only choose a new European Parliament. They will signal how willing they are to carry on with the European experiment itself.
Judging by the opinion polls, public confidence in that experiment, or at least the institutions it created, is faltering. A survey by the Pew Research Center found that a firm majority of Europeans see the E.U. as intrusive, inefficient and unresponsive to the needs of citizens. Although economic confidence has been broadly rebounding in the past year, in line with economic growth, less than 40% of Europeans believe that integration with their neighbors has improved their country’s economy. Barely half take a favorable view of the E.U. as a whole.
In the past few years, these sentiments have proven fertile ground for the rise of so-called Eurosceptic parties, which are expected to nearly double their seats in the European Parliament in these elections. That means at least a quarter of the chamber’s seats could be filled with lawmakers who claim that the chamber is itself unnecessary or outright harmful. Coming both from the far right and far left, these parties want to see power taken away from the E.U. and handed back to national governments and parliaments.
What’s driving their popularity is not merely disillusion with the dream of European prosperity through integration, but the blandness of the mainstream European parties themselves. For years, most of the E.U. parliament's seats have gone to two centrist blocs within the chamber – the social democrats to the left and the conservatives to the right of center. But their broad agreement on most of the key issues facing Europe has eroded the sense of competition within the chamber. “You can’t put a piece of paper between them,” says Simon Hix, an expert on European politics at the London School of Economics.
That much was clear in the European debates that were held for the first time ahead of these elections, in part to highlight the differences between the four major groups of parties inside the European Parliament – the social democrats, the conservatives, the liberals and the Greens. But through the hours of discussion, expressions of mutual agreement proved far more common than the jabs and barbs that one expects from a political cage match. It all looked a bit too civilized considering the severity of the problems that Europe’s economy continues to face. So it is not surprising that voters fed up with the state of affairs on the continent have turned to parties far from the mainstream.
These range from the far-right parties like the National Front in France to the far-left groups like Syriza in Greece. Pressed on key issues like social spending, their views are as disparate as can be, but they are united in these elections by a common sense of frustration with the flow of power from national capitals to the seat of the E.U. in Brussels, a sense of frustration that voters increasingly share. By calling for the E.U. bureaucracy to be dismantled, these groups have helped turn the continent into a tapestry of doubt.
No one has watched that development with quite as much pleasure as Russia. Even before the Russian invasion of the Ukrainian region of Crimea in March, President Vladimir Putin tried to sow these divisions in Europe, favoring economic deals with individual nations, most notably Italy and Germany, rather than dealing with the bloc as a whole. By making individual members more dependent on Russia than others, such deals have weakened the E.U.’s ability to take any united stand against Russia’s meddling in Eastern Europe. Even passing sanctions to punish Putin’s elites for their country's incursion into Ukraine have proved a struggle for the E.U., and these elections will only underscore the divisions that make such decisions so difficult.
“I’m certain that the rise of the Eurosceptics will force a change in the architecture of the European Union,” says Sergei Baburin, a nationalist politician in Russia involved in talks with Europe’s right-wing parties. “The European people are feeling a desire to defend their homes, their families, their towns and their nations from this supranational idea of Europe that has been forced upon them by the Americans.”
That desire has found champions among Europe’s fringe politicians. In March, several of them even went to Crimea to add legitimacy to the referendum that allowed Russia to annex that region of Ukraine, and their parties will become part of a strong bloc of Russian apologists within the European Parliament after these elections. One of them, the Ataka party in Bulgaria, even launched its campaign for the European Parliament in Moscow.
A vote cast for that party, or any of the other Eurosceptics, will not necessarily mean a vote for Putinism. But it will be a vote of no-confidence in the European project of integration and unity. After the last few years of hardship, this sentiment is not surprising. Europeans have indeed grown more concerned about the economic health of their countries and towns than the lofty ideals on which the E.U. was founded. Most of all, their sense of indifference to what happens in Brussels will come through in the voter turnout, which already dropped to 43% during the last elections to the European Parliament in 2009. If it falls even further this time, it will not be a win for the sceptics or the mainstream parties. It will be a sign that Europeans are turning inward and tuning out.