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Citizens are not stupid: looking at the European Elections from the outside in

, by Shimri Zameret

Seen by an outsider, the European Elections actually looked more like a success for Europe and transnational democracy - not a failure. Let me tell you why.


I do not doubt the dangers hinted at by the rise of ultra-nationalist forces in Europe or elsewhere. Most of my family died in the Holocaust. My grandfather spent a few years of his life undercover in Europe, organizing boats for refugees to leave the continent before and after World War Two. I have spent much of the recent years advocating transnational or global democracy (for example in the UK, Palestine and at the UN). It is precisely because I take the rise of ultra-nationalism seriously that I think we need to understand where it is coming from, and what it means for transnational, humanist politics. People are not idiots – if they vote for ultra-nationalism and against transnational politics, there must be good reasons.

Here, outside Europe, these elections were the first European elections common people like my friends and family cared about, at least since Europe became the quasi-federal entity it is now. Previous European elections never made headlines, these really did. In the Americas, in Asia and Africa, media reported, quite dramatically, about the rise of the anti-European far-right in Europe as the story of the day. In Israel, unsurprisingly, the tabloids front pages were splashed with “the rise of the neo-Nazis”-type headlines.

Now you probably think something like “OK, so papers reported the rise of the anti-European right, and people outside Europe are worried about the continent’s future. How does it make it a good thing for Europe?” Well, you know that saying “first they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then you win”[1]? These elections, and the widespread awareness of them, are indications that current European politics have been upgraded from “ridicule” to “fight”.

These elections are the culmination of a few-years process, a process in which we realize that pan-European, transnational, politics matter. That means that nationalists in Europe start to fight against European and transnational politics. It also means that across the world, and in Europe as well, people suddenly think of Europe as something we care about, something we worry about, something we might lose. And when you realize you might lose something – that’s when you start fighting for it.

True, the results saw the rise of ultra-national and anti-European parties in some countries, but it’s important to remember that a political divide on how centralized government should be is actually a strong feature of federal politics. Think of the divide between the Republicans and the Democrats in the US on how much power states and the federal government should have. The same could be said about immigration politics – resistance to immigration from outside a political unit (as much as I oppose it) is actually something that characterizes centralized political units. Republicans justify opposition to immigration with American patriotism. US Republicans are not seen as anti-American when they want more power to states and less power to the federal government. Similarly – wanting more power to national governments is not anti-Europeanism. Federalism is not about driving decision power upwards – towards the supranational level. On the contrary, as most world and European federalists will tell you - federalism is when decisions are being made by all those affected (democracy) and at the most local level (subsidiarity).

What we see in these elections is the rise of a European trend for decentralization. To succeed, politicians in the European Parliament will have to cooperate with each other. They will need to justify their position on decentralization and immigration with arguments that make sense in a transnational, cross-European sphere. So essentially, anti-European politicians in the European parliament have two options: unite and become a European political force for a more decentralized Europe, or stay divided along national lines – and fail.

But this vote was not just about federal decentralization; it was also about federal democratization. Some people are interested, even fascinated, with the question of how politicians and intellectuals become anti-European and ultra-nationalist. I am much more interested in the question of why common people turn to anti-Europeanism and ultra-nationalism.

My explanation is this: people are not stupid. If they turn against transnational democracy it is because transnational democracy does not work for them. Europe is not governed by them, for them. They do not feel Europe is a political system based on caring for their needs, but a political system working for someone else. Who that “someone else” is depends on who you ask – unaccountable Brussels bureaucrats if you ask rightwing politicians, unaccountable bankers and markets if you ask the left. Looking at European unemployment rates, it’s clear Europe is not taking care of its citizens. Looking at how little power the European parliament has compared to other complex, almost impossible to understand, mechanisms of European governance, it’s clear Brussels is not run by citizens.

Call me a utopian, but I believe that the least worst way to make political systems work better for people is to give more power to people. Democratize. And I am not really a utopian – history supports the assertion that when you take power away from citizens and give it to markets or unaccountable leaders, bad things happen to citizens. Look at the financial crush of 2008, which followed deregulation of markets. Look at dictatorial regimes throughout history. Global and European institutions follow the same rationale. So if Europe is not governed for the people, by the people, the answer is to democratize European institutions. These elections are good news, because they represent a warning and a chance for a correction, the potential for re-inventing and saving Europe and transnational democracy.

In these elections, people did not say no to Europe or to transnational politics, they said no to a certain Europe and to a certain kind of transnational politics. People said no to markets lacking any democratic control and to distant and undemocratic institutions. At a time when European and international institutions need more power to deal with increasingly transnational problems, voters said a simple thing: if these transnational institutions need more power, we want to make sure they are democratically accountable to us and to no one else. Citizens want transnational politics for the people, by the people - not the undemocratic European (and global) institutions that we have today. They are right.

[1] It’s popularly associated to Mahatma Gandhi, but probably more accurately to trade unionist Nicholas Klein.

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picture: @Mauro Biani

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