As the European parliament elections have gathered pace, hard-right politicians in Europe are banding together.
The far-right surge in Europe we’ve witnessed since is not solely the product of Middle Eastern instability, but it is intimately connected to it.
There is currently a record high level of support for EU membership across the continent.
The EU can regulate while preserving essential freedoms. It has the tools and a scale that others lack.
These elections will in many ways define what Europe can or can’t be — the story Europe want to tell themselves and the rest of the world.
Sometimes, when it comes to Europe, things are clearer from afar. Take Viktor Orban’s encounter with Donald Trump last week: a love-fest perfectly timed. Ahead of the European elections, here was Hungary’s self-proclaimed “illiberal” prime minister — a man teaming up with Italy’s far-right strongman Matteo Salvini — receiving his long-awaited anointment from the US president who has called the EU a “foe”.
Meanwhile, in Syria, barrel bombs and Russian military ordnance continued to rain down on Idlib’s hospitals and schools, as the noose tightened on 3 million civilians trapped in the last rebel-held area that the president, Bashar Al Assad, wants to reconquer.
Anyone who cares to join a few dots will note the wider picture: the Hungarian would-be autocrat, who rushed to capitalise on the 2015 refugee crisis to promote delirious “population replacement” theories and other anti-Brussels paranoia, gets the red carpet treatment in the White House, while orders given by the Kremlin lead to yet more war crimes in Syria, producing yet more refugees. Remember how the exodus of refugees from Syria’s civil war upended Europe’s politics in 2015-16? The far-right surge in Europe we’ve witnessed since is not solely the product of Middle Eastern instability, but it is intimately connected to it.
Now, as the European parliament elections have gathered pace, hard-right politicians in Europe are banding together, most of them legitimising the bombing of Syrian hospitals as part of the “fight against terrorism”. The silence of the hard left has been deafening, if not surprising — its leniency towards tyrants that are seen as “standing up” to the west is all too familiar.
Recently I attended a conference in Oxford titled What Stories Does Europe Tell? The challenge for participants was to find a single narrative for Europe, or figure out if one was even necessary. Politics these days is full of clashing narratives: “nationalists versus progressives”, defenders of “Christianity” versus “the 1968 elite” (to quote Orban), radicals versus social democrats — and, oh yes, “the people versus the elite”.
But the European project is also a personal experience. Surveys show there is currently a record high level of support for EU membership across the continent. To me, a French European who came of age in the 1990s “end of history” decade, the EU is not just about the single market or the freedom to work or live in another member state, it is about nations coming together to act and uphold fundamental individual rights — the legacy of the Enlightenment — which are now under attack.
Watching Europe’s impotence in the face of what is unfolding in Syria, and the indifference of European public opinion, has made me think yet again that we’re in danger of losing our way. Fake news has done a lot to foster confusion.
On climate breakdown, member states aren’t flawless, but the EU as a bloc is the only vehicle through which we stand a chance of weighing in on a global, vital issue.
Instead, from Brexit to Emmanuel Macron’s travails in France, we continue to navel-gaze. Public discourse bounces about the echo chambers of our national debates. Never in living memory have we shared so many common challenges, and never has the outside world tested us so forcefully; but for all the talk of a shared European public space, we have become more, not less, parochial. Again, the view from the outside is telling. American historian Timothy Snyder warned in Oxford that if Europe weaves a false story about itself, it won’t be able to face up to what’s lurking beyond its realm. “Empire is waiting,” he said — be it Putin’s Russia, Xi Jinping’s China, Trump’s “America First”, or the digital behemoths of Silicon Valley.
Is there still time, before we shrink further into our silos of domestic grievance, to remind ourselves of the cards we do hold? Europe’s democratic and welfare state model may be flawed, but to this day it delivers the lowest levels of inequality in the world (only Canada does as well). The EU is no military superpower but it is the only entity in the world “able to do something about digital sovereignty” (as Snyder puts it). The EU can regulate while preserving essential freedoms. It has the tools and a scale that others lack. On climate breakdown, member states aren’t flawless, but the EU as a bloc is the only vehicle through which we stand a chance of weighing in on a global, vital issue.
These European elections, the first since the refugee crisis, since Brexit and since Trump, will in many ways define what we can or can’t be — the story we want to tell ourselves and the rest of the world. The first European parliament elections were held 40 years ago. Simone Veil, a Holocaust survivor who became the assembly’s first president, said at the time: “By setting itself large ambitions, Europe will be able to make its voice heard and defend strong values: peace, the defence of human rights, more solidarity between rich and poor. Europe is the grand design of the 21st century.” Surely, it is time to rekindle that spirit.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd.
Natalie Nougayrede is a noted political columnist.