What’s at Stake in the EU Elections

Democracy depends on participation, so if voters don’t participate, it means there’s something wrong with the system.
The European Union has begun its first pan-European poll since the euro crisis began in earnest. What's at stake in these elections, and what impact will they have on open society in Europe? I spoke with Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy Institute.

Why are the forthcoming European elections important for open society in Europe?

This is the first pan-European poll since the euro crisis. In addition to the impact of austerity, there is a crisis of representative democracy in the EU. People are angry about the recent past and fearful about the future. They are looking for someone to blame for the fall in living standards, the impact of globalization, and the general uncertainty that has accompanied the crisis. European elections often focus just on domestic issues, but this time there are similar issues in many countries.

What other issues are at stake in these elections?

The EU has some major decisions to make about what kind of a union it's going to be. Is it going to be an inward-looking union dominated by populism and extremism of various kinds, or is it going to be an outward-looking union concerned about its role in the world? What should the EU be doing about Russian pressure on Ukraine, Armenia and Moldova, for example? There are divisions on these issues between EU countries and parties, so it’s important that voters’ voices are heard.

How clear are those voices likely to be?

Significant sections of the electorate are feeling a combination of anger and fear. If the turnout is low, that will result in more support for anti-EU and anti-immigrant parties.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that voters across Europe have turned against European integration, or against migrants and other minorities. It results more from the fact that they’re angry and looking for somebody to blame. They want to change the status quo.

We know from extensive polling and political research that people cast a vote for populist parties for a wide variety of reasons. It’s important to drill down and find out in detail what precipitates someone’s vote, to see what kind of Europe the voters in these elections are asking for. Commentators and mainstream politicians should not jump to the conclusion that because someone voted for Geert Wilders or Marine Le Pen, that person supports the whole xenophobic agenda of their parties.

Turnout has been falling over the last few elections. What does it mean for the democratic credibility of the EU if the turnout is lower still in this election?

Democracy depends on participation, so if voters don’t participate, it means there’s something wrong with the system. Mainstream politicians and their parties don’t take European elections as seriously as national elections. They don’t campaign as much; they don’t commit as much effort, time, energy or money. All elections are important — they are a barometer of public opinion and they decide who is going to sit in the assembly.

When the major parties are apathetic, their supporters get demotivated, which discourages people to turn out and vote. If this happens, there is likely to be a disproportionate number of populists elected to parliament. Voters who are particularly angry or particularly radical are more motivated to turn out than those who are fed up with the whole business of politics and decide to stay at home. All political parties need to work harder to get the vote out.

What can the mainstream parties do to mobilize their supporters?

All the parties have to persuade the electorate that these elections matter, that European issues are relevant to them. They should be more active in debating the issues, not just leaving the most contentious ones to the extremes.

The best way to counter the ill-informed claims of the more xenophobic populists is to hold a very wide-ranging debate across Europe. Only then can they confront and disprove the claim that responsibility for the ills of Europe lies with migrants or Roma or other marginalized people. The mainstream parties have to engage, otherwise the falsehoods go unchallenged.

It has been said that a new narrative is needed for Europe, that the old definitions of Europe and the EU aren’t relevant any more. Europe used to be defined by war and peace—that is its history, but it seemed to belong in the past. Now we have the situation in Ukraine and the narrative of war and peace is very much alive. What influence is the Ukrainian crisis going to have on the EU and people’s perceptions of it?

The choice that the EU is facing is to turn inwards or outwards in response to what is happening between Russia and Ukraine. Beyond Ukraine, Russia is seeking to prevent other countries like Armenia and Moldova from developing closer ties with the EU.

The EU has to make a strategic choice, just as it did during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, which provoked the development of the common foreign and security policy. The EU is a significant power. It is clearly the major power on its own continent, but it also has a major role to play in ensuring a values-based international order that fosters open societies. The individual nations of the EU have political cultures that help to protect the vulnerable, and collectively they have a unique role to play extending this help to the world’s poor and disadvantaged.

How can the case for the EU’s foreign policy role be better presented?

The EU has a lot to be proud of in its success in catalyzing change through its transformative power on the European continent, as proved by the success of its eastward enlargement ten years ago. It’s easily forgotten now that the EU can give its member-states unique advantages over most countries in the world.

No single country, not even the largest or most powerful member-state, can achieve as much as the EU acting in concert. No single country can manage globalization or trade negotiations the way that the EU can. Now it’s time for Europe’s politicians to explain these advantages to their peoples.

See further coverage of the EU elections on our Instagram account. Starting this Sunday we will be following the presidential elections in Ukraine.

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