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Europe before the Parliamentary Elections

Heading Back to the Past?

March 31, 2019 | by ANTON PELINKA

EU Flag. Photo by Robyn Mack via flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

Ahead of the European Parliament election in May, the bloc is ideologically split between authoritarians seeking to reduce its sway, and those seeking a moderate track. In essence, voters have to decide if they want to move forwards or backwards.

Looking ahead to the European Parliament ballot which ends on May 26, Jacques Delors springs to mind. The European Commission's President, often touted as the architect of the Maastricht Treaty, has warned that the European Union should only embark on "Eastern Enlargement," bringing in former communist countries, once it has finished the process of "deepening," making the bloc into a federation.

Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming election, the European Parliament faces the major challenge of authoritarian tendencies in countries like Hungary, Poland and Romania. It will need to sustain the de-facto coalition of mainstream-party groups of the moderate right and the moderate left while integrating the apparently rising number of members, who are more or less against any kind of deepening.

Of course, the anti-deepening members will not only come from Central Eastern Europe. But the European People's Party (EPP), the centre-right, pro-European political party with members from more than 40 countries, will probably remain the biggest group in the parliament. That group will have to come to terms with the Hungarian Conservatives, Fidesz, which the European Parliament is mulling expelling for its anti-European stance. Meanwhile, the S&D group, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, will likely remain the second biggest power, and will have to decide what to do with the Romanian Social Democrats. The Hungarian Conservatives have much more in common with the French National Rally and the Italian Northern League, which both oppose the present European Commission (led by the coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats), than with the German Christian Democratic Union or the Austrian People's Party. Meanwhile, the Romanian Social Democrats Party are Social Democrats by name only: Its policies hinge on averting any EU impact on Romanian politics.

Democratic credentials wane

The European elections come as democratic standards are under pressure in many countries in the bloc. The Bertelsmann Stiftung's Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) found that the quality of democracy deteriorated in a significant number of European states compared with the SGI of just four years earlier. At the same time it highlighted that a declining quality of democracy does not necessarily imply a weakening of citizens' confidence in their governments. While the report points out that countries like Poland and Hungary "no longer can be considered consolidated democracies," it shows public confidence in their governments has increased over the last few years. It concludes: "This is a worrying finding, since fundamental democratic values are apparently not sufficiently anchored in the political consciousness of a considerable share of society."

And yet, the Europe of 2019 is the most prosperous Europe ever known in history. And it is a peaceful and stable Europe. Within the European Union, wars have become unthinkable, even impossible. Within the European Union, xenophobic stereotypes have far from disappeared but have lost their mobilizing force. Alsace-Lorraine (an area which was receded to France after World War II) and Versailles (the treaty which nationalists considered punishing to Germany after World War I) have influenced generations and have been used to push aggressive nationalist policies, often simply by asking: "Remember Alsace Lorraine?" or, "remember Versailles"? The EU has struck on a way of dealing with revanchist resentments: Instead of shifting European borders, it reduces the significance of borders within Europe.

Migration sparks division

Of course, there is the challenge of migration, which deepens social and cultural conflicts within Europe. Meanwhile, anti-EU sentiment correlates with the fear that migration to Europe will jeopardize the very essence of European identity. The Germany's Alternative for Germany Party (AfD) is above all defined by its anti-immigration message. The Hungarian Fidesz, meanwhile, even invents mass migration to fuel fear for the party to exploit.

It is helpful, though probably not on the short term, to look into the adaptability of the anti-European populist parties' various policies. Here contradictions abound. The Italian Northern League criticizes the EU for not helping Italy with immigration to its shores, which is, actually, a migration to Europe. Meanwhile, the Northern League claims to be best friends with the Polish PiS - the party which, as the governing party in Warsaw, blocks any consistent EU-policy which would help Italy. The PiS-government in Poland feels threatened by Russia's foreign policy and asks for help from NATO - but the PiS' best friend, the Hungarian Fidesz, is Putin's best friend within the EU. The British politicians, responsible for the United Kingdom's exit from the EU, are still clueless on how to prevent Ireland becoming a powder keg as a result of Brexit.

The alternative to this unfinished business within the EU, is either to forge ahead with deepening, as favored by Jacques Delors in the 1980s and 1990s, or to return to a divided Europe with one form of nationalism fighting against the other. So it is either time to further restructure the continent which was responsible for two World Wars and the Holocaust, or to return to a past, as defined by Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Benito Mussolini.

As the elections approach, Europeans are aware of this choice - or, at least, they should be.

First published in a similar version on the www.EUObserver.com

Anton Pelinka was a professor of political science and nationalism studies at the Central European University in Budapest from 2006 until 2018. He is one of the authors of the SGI Report 2018.

Photo attribution: "DSC_0182". Photo by Robyn Mack is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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