Across the EU, radical parties—including anti-EU and xenophobic parties—have made significant electoral gains. In France, the National Front, once on the extreme racist fringe, will have 24 seats in the European Parliament, as will the UK Independence Party, which wants to dismantle EU laws that protect the most marginalized people in Europe. I spoke with Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy Institute, about the results.
What do these election results mean for the European Union and for open society?
The danger of the populists’ success is that it will be interpreted as a vote for xenophobia and anti-EU sentiment. In fact, recent research on first-time voters for radical parties shows that there are much deeper trends at work here—economic pain, a disillusionment with politics in general, and concern about how representative our democracies actually are. I’m concerned that if these results are interpreted to be referendums on immigration and the EU alone—which they are not—then mainstream parties will be tempted to move in the same direction, to co-opt xenophobic agendas in an attempt to become more populist than the populists.
And what might happen then?
To try to out-populize the populists is a dangerous strategy and it rarely works politically. It creates a demagogic atmosphere that allows for hate speech and xenophobia and threatens to accelerate the growth of intolerance that is already present in some European societies. The EU’s real achievements would be jeopardized if it becomes the scapegoat for everything that is going wrong in Europe. If it’s unable to work to help to find solutions to the legitimate grievances that voters have, then its added value will wither away.
The aftermath of an election is a good time to remind ourselves that democracy does not stop at the ballot box. What can European citizens do to continue to exert an influence on the shape of the European Union and the decisions that it makes?
Beyond elections every five years, there are many ways that European citizens can get involved at the EU level. The European institutions are increasingly open: As a citizen, I can get information, lodge complaints, even launch a legal action if the institutions aren’t doing their job properly. I can also get involved through European citizens’ initiatives, and there are many fora at different levels of government. It’s important to take advantage of those opportunities to give democracy life through participation.
Can the EU do a better job of making people aware of these opportunities?
There is a lot the EU can do. It’s important that the EU becomes less complex and more transparent—and national politicians have an important role to play. They should ensure that citizens understand what’s at stake with issues such as digital freedoms, food safety, and animal rights. These are issues that people care deeply about, and the EU needs to be very open to citizens’ concerns, whether they are about mobile roaming charges or fees for bank transfers across borders in the Eurozone. These are things that materially affect people’s daily lives—and their wallets. The EU needs to listen, and not just every five years. It’s vital that the political debates within the EU are as pluralistic and open as possible.
Which brings us back to the elections.
My concern about the European Parliament after this election is that a large and noisy group of populists could cause the whole parliament to listen to a narrower range of interests, too busy dealing with gimmicks rather than real issues. If the populists drive the mainstream parties together in a grand coalition, there will be deals done behind closed doors. What we need is an open public debate that engages the citizens of Europe.