Traditionally uneventful and boring, European parliament elections are for the first time producing drama usually reserved for the national stage. With two months to go before the vote, a majority of Europeans share a sense that something important will happen, and that a special place in hell will be reserved for those Europeans who don’t bother to vote.
But who will have benefited once the election campaign is over? It’s too early to say. For the moment, politicians have managed to convince a majority of people that Europe stands on the edge of a catastrophe, but they have yet to convince them that citizens have the power to avert it. The gilets jaunes’ (yellow vests) brand of anger is felt across many EU member states, but the upcoming European elections won’t be a repetition of the Brexit referendum, for a simple reason: no major populist party (of either right or left) today openly advocates exiting the union or the euro. Nor will these elections be a repetition of the second round of the 2017 French presidential vote won by Emmanuel Macron.
An opinion survey soon to be published by the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank and YouGov shows that Europeans aren’t neatly divided into pro-Europeans and nationalists. The survey depicts four different categories of citizens. First, the “desperados”: a combination of “those who fear the end of the world” and “those who fear the end of the month”. They’re convinced that both the EU and nation states are broken. Statistics show this is the largest group in many member states, but not necessarily the group that includes the most likely voters.
Next comes the “things are better than you think” group: voters who look around and tend to believe that, despite all their failings, both the EU and the nation states work. Then there are fervent Bruxellians: those who believe the EU works but their national governments are broken (mostly found in central and southern Europe). Finally, representing a tiny minority, there are diehard nationalists: those who believe the EU is the problem and the nation state is the solution. These four groups are very unevenly distributed among EU countries.
The fear many pro-Europeans hold is that the current polarisation of European politics will work to the advantage of the populist right, and that Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban will manage to turn these elections into a referendum on Brussels’ failure to deal with migration. But that fear is overblown.
Orban’s intention to turn the elections into a referendum on migration simply won’t work for three reasons. First, while migration remains a serious concern for many voters, it is not the dominant concern in most countries. The number of illegal migrants who have entered the EU in the past year is equal to the average number of tourists who visit Athens in a single day in August. Even in central Europe the migration theme has now lost its centrality. The survey shows that Poles, Hungarians and Romanians are much more worried about government corruption than about a hypothetical influx of foreigners. And in Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, voters primarily concerned with corruption are more likely to vote than those who fret about migration.
Contrary to widespread opinion, countries such as Slovakia, Poland and Romania may well bring good news for pro-Europeans in these elections. Survey findings suggest Orban has a weaker grasp on what issues truly matter today to central Europeans than the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk — a staunch critic of Poland’s nationalist government.
The second reason 2019 won’t be a repeat of 2015 is that in today’s Europe no major political party advocates open-borders politics. The new consensus among progressives in Europe is that a well-protected border is “a vaccine against the epidemic of walls”, to quote the French thinker Regis Debray.
Third, Orban’s migration-centred campaign will fail because of the best-kept secret in the EU today, which is that in central Europe and parts of southern Europe, anti-migration anxiety has less to do with immigrants than with emigrants.
An estimated 3.4 million Romanians left their country for western Europe in the eight years after the country joined the EU in 2007. And the number of Hungarians who have emigrated since Orban came to power is now higher than the number who left after Soviet forces crushed the 1956 uprising.
The greatest challenge in east-west relations within the EU is this: how to prevent mobility in Europe from being a one-way street from east to west, and how to compensate central European societies for their investment in the education of their nationals who then move to Germany or France. Yet that’s not a problem right wing populists talk about.
Ivan Krastev is a political scientist and chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria