Here in Berlin—and across Europe more generally—the mood during election season has been a combination of existential crisis and calm indifference

Vote Struggle Time

May was election season in Europe. On May 25, Ukrainians headed to the polls with the eyes of the world upon them, to vote for a president who would resume the process of association with the European Union that had been stalled, in dramatic fashion, by Russian interference, a popular revolution, and an acute international crisis. Not too far to the west, citizens of twenty-one countries that were already member states of the EU cast ballots for the parties that would represent them at the European Parliament, joining the seven countries that had already done so on the three previous days.

Here in Berlin—and across Europe more generally—the mood during election season has been a combination of existential crisis and calm indifference. Depending on whom you ask, the EU is the last bastion of peace, tolerance, and enlightened civilization in an increasingly reactionary world; an anti-democratic neoliberal cabal of elites in thrall to lobbyists and global finance; an elitist totalitarian-bureaucratic structure whose aim is to destroy national sovereignty and purvey moral decadence; or a matter or trifling importance. As an American living in Germany, I watched the vote from the sidelines, trying to determine from the attitudes of my neighbors whether I was witnessing an event of great historical importance, or just another Sunday in the metropolis.

On every street, from the widest Allee to the narrowest Weg, sandwich boards and signposts featured posters for the twenty-four parties on the ballot, a truly diverse smattering of ideological positions beyond the ones represented by the five establishment parties with pan-European factions in Brussels: Christian Democrats (CDU), Social Democrats (SPD), Liberal Democrats (FDP), Greens and Leftists. There were posters for several stripes of Marxist parties, ranging from the lightest pink to the most lurid red; several variations on Euroscepticism; the notorious Pirate party, which advocates for internet privacy and freedom; a conservative ecological party, an animal rights party, a neo-Nazi party, and even a joke party called Die Partei led by German satirist Martin Sonneborn.

Surprisingly for a city known worldwide for its political graffiti, few of them were defaced. On one poster, affixed to a light post outside the Prater biergarten in Prenzlauer Berg, someone had given Angela Merkel a Hitler mustache. When I walked by it a few days later, the mustache had been lengthened to a hipster handlebar. Not long after, Merkel was sporting a full Conchita Wurst, in imitation of the beard worn by the trans-gendered Austrian singer who won this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. Depending on the political views of the artist(s), each style of facial hair could be read as a criticism or a compliment.

The posters seemed to exist in a strange apolitical vacuum, like thousands of advertisements for an event that no one would admit to attending. When I asked people I met at parties for whom they’d be voting, I was told that Germans considered this question rude. When I pressed them on it—American presumptuousness and persistence goes a long way here—they inevitably told me they didn’t know yet.

In a city where there traffic is routinely rerouted for political protests, I saw little on-the-street electioneering. A pair of well-dressed Christian Democrats handing out yellow flowers at a farmer’s market, a man standing beneath a red-and-white tent handing out SPD pamphlets, and that’s it. The only campaign literature that crossed my path was a flyer hanging on my doorknob the morning of the election opposing TTIP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a huge free trade agreement between the US and Europe that would increase growth and create jobs, according to its supporters, but would significantly weaken European regulatory standards for the environment and agriculture, according to its critics. (The truth is no one really knows what the effects of TTIP would be, since the precise details on the agreement have not been made public in Europe or the US, where few people have even heard about it.) My girlfriend and I tuned in to watch a few of Europe’s first-ever presidential debates, which were amazing feats of organization and translation, if not exactly exciting television. While no precise statistics about the number of viewers are available, judging from the number of tweets tagged #TellEurope, the old canard about American Idol and American elections probably applies to the relative popularity of the Eurovision and European elections.

Since the first parliamentary election in 1979, when the EU numbered eight nations, every five years has seen a decrease in voter turn out—until this year, when it increased by a measly .09 percent to just under 44 percent. (Still, voter turn out varies dramatically from country to country. In Belgium, where voting is mandatory, turn out clears 90 percent, whereas in Slovakia it didn’t even clear 15 percent.) When I accompanied my girlfriend to the polling station at the Thomas-Mann-Grundschule, where she went to elementary school, she was thrilled to have to wait in line to vote. She didn’t have to wait long: there were only two people ahead of her.

It’s hard not to be sympathetic to the majority of the European population that doesn’t show up to the polls, whether out of discontent or apathy. The inherent logistical difficulties of coordinating the opinions and interests of more than a half a billion people in almost thirty countries who speak over twenty languages notwithstanding, the EU has never done a good job of erasing the so-called “democracy deficit” between it and its citizens.

The reason for this is partially historical. The EU doesn’t have its origins in popular movements, but in an expanding series of trade and travel liberalizations undertaken over the heads of the people by ministerial elites from the large Western European nations over a period of fifty years. However integrationist they may be on principle, the heads of the member states jealously guard their decision-making prerogatives, meaning that at best a European citizen’s relationship to EU legislation remains largely indirect, mediated by his or her national citizenship and national identity.

Another reason is ontological. Despite all the breathless endorsements of the “European project,” no one, from the man in the street to the bureaucrats in Brussels, seems to know exactly what the EU is. Is it a federal state like the US? An intergovernmental organization like the UN? A regional free trade and travel zone like NAFTA? A new superpower like China? It is all of these and none of these, and which one it ends up being, if any, is a matter of debate and political contestation. On top of this, its borders are both conceptually vague—the EU grew from a series of enlargements to a six-member coal and steel community in 1951 to encompass the twenty-eight member states of today—and have the potential to remain permanently undefined—at present five more nations are candidates for EU expansion, and a handful of others have been identified as potential candidates. Conceptual vagueness is normally of little consequence; but as recent events in Ukraine have shown, in the case of borders, too much of it can be dangerous.

To make matters worse, the EU has evolved into one of the most Byzantine structures of governance since, well, the Byzantines. The institutions of the EU are spread across the continent, and the capitol packs up and moves on a regular basis between Brussels, Strasbourg, and Luxembourg City, wasting billions in the process. There is a Council of Ministers, which is not to be confused, but is often confused nonetheless, with the European Council. The European Commission, the so-called executive branch of the EU, produces a Commission President who is proposed and confirmed by parliament, but is ultimately selected by a unanimous vote of the heads of state. The Commission President is not really a leader of the EU, but rather the chief bureaucrat of the EU, unless, as sometimes happens, he is a person of ambition who extends his powers beyond what is normally implied by the word bureaucrat. The parliament itself is currently 751 members large and comprises seven major party affiliations, not including the dozens of non-affiliated parties often represented by a single MEP. Parliamentarians, especially the ones from non-establishment parties, are often more concerned to use their election as a platform to launch themselves into office in their home countries than with managing the budget and deciding on legislation proposed by the Commission, their ostensible responsibilities.

The policy-making powers of the various institutions are equally complicated. They are also in perpetual flux, since the EU is governed not by a fixed constitution but a series of treaties. The most recent of these treaties was signed in Lisbon in December 2007, after French and Dutch voters used a referendum to put the kibosh on a proposed EU constitution that ran the length of a novel. (Unfortunately, the constitution was not, in this respect, atypical of EU legislation: the room filled to capacity with binders containing regulations on the legal length of the European cucumber has become a continent-wide joke.)

In response to the failure to get the constitution ratified, measures were taken to increase the democratic legitimacy of the EU and to incentivize electoral participation. Among its other reforms, the Lisbon Treaty strengthened the powers of the parliament, the only directly elected EU institution. For the first time, the pan-European parties would be allowed to field Spitzenkandidaten, or top candidates, for the Presidency of the Commission, and the heads of state would be forced to take the electoral result into consideration when making their choice. When parliament approved the treaty in February 2008, they were no doubt looking forward to this year’s elections as the next step toward the consolidation of a more perfect European Union.

Then, in late 2009, the sovereign debt crisis hit.

The response across Europe was as predictable and understandable as it was depressing and unfortunate. The citizens of poorer southern nations resented the harsh austerity measures imposed upon them by the troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF. Their resentment has been returned in kind by the citizens of the richer northern nations who perceive themselves as shouldering the burden of bailing out their profligate-spending neighbors.

Economic discontent soon bled into a worrisome Kulturkampf. Immigration from south to north has spiked as a whole generation of Spaniards, Italians, and Greeks search for jobs wherever they can find them (mostly here in Germany, which, as of this year, is the second most popular immigration destination worldwide after the US). Xenophobic backlash and complaints about “social tourism” to the north on the one hand, and fears of demographic depletion in the south on the other. Better known for their discrimination than their ability to discriminate, the extreme right in Germany has doubled down on the traditional targets of its prejudice. In Wedding, a working-class immigrant neighborhood in Berlin where a friend of mine tends bar, you could see the black and red posters of the German National Party (NPD). One depicted a racist caricature of a Turkish family sitting on a magic carpet above the caption, “Go Home.” Another read, “Money for Grandma, not for Roma.”

If there was one thing the two groups in the north and south could agree on, however, it was that too-much-Europe was the problem. Both sides decried the violations of national sovereignty imposed upon them by their membership in the EU and the Eurozone. And instead of remaining home on election weekend, as they had largely done for the past thirty-five years, they threatened to come out in force to send Eurosceptics to parliament where they could stop Brussels from within, or at least put pressure on their national governments to start taking the idea of exiting the EU and/or the Euro seriously.

Euroscepticism is a diverse ideology, embraced by people on every part of the European political spectrum—in a virulent form by Marxist-Leninists and neo-Nazis, and in less radical fashion by populists on the left and particularly on the right, where it is a combination of nationalism, protectionism, anti-immigrant hostility, and patriarchy. Surveying the phenomenon from the other side of the Atlantic, American commentators have been quick to compare the phenomenon to the Tea Party. This is somewhat accurate, if also somewhat misleading, given that the calibration of the political spectrum is different Europe than in the United States: say what you will about Angela Merkel, but transferred to Washington, she’d be everybody’s favorite Democrat. And with the exception of the small libertarian parties, few on the European right are in favor of freer markets: they want to maintain most of the features of the welfare state, only they want to limit redistribution to their fellow Germans, or Brits, or Frenchmen . . . All you’d need to qualify is a valid passport and white skin.

Rechtspopulismus, as right-wing populism is known here, is probably the most temperate in all of Europe, given that Germany weathered the financial crisis better than other nations, is currently governed by a stable centrist “Grand Coalition,” and generally possesses an acute and well-earned suspicion of what can happen when right-wing populism gets too popular. The German face of Rechtspopulismus is surprisingly boyish, almost nerdy, with closely cropped chestnut hair, wide-set eyes, a weak chin, and thin rosy cheeks. It belongs to Bernd Lucke, a former Economics professor from Hamburg, and the leader of Alternative für Deutschland. The central plank of AfD’s platform is Germany’s return to the Deutschmark, though Lucke does not support exiting the EU entirely. AfD’s various candidates have campaigned against wage increases, against gender quotas in the workplace, for stricter controls on immigration, which it has called social tourism, and for family values, as opposed to what they call the “gender mainstreaming” of homosexuality. Lucke is popular with those like himself, upper-middle class conservatives, who have grown disillusioned with their traditional voting options—the libertarian FDP, which was trounced in last year’s Bundestag elections, and the CDU, which has moved to the left under Merkel—as well as with the discontented white-male lumpenproletariat, for whom Alternative für Deutschland is a politically viable version of NDP.

Lucke is a skillful manipulator of his message. At turns incendiary and conciliatory, he plays each part of his base off the other, letting everyone hear in his slogans what they want. In the run up to the election, as it became clear that his party had a good shot of winning seats in parliament, Lucke softened his positions on immigrants, gays, and women to give AfD more mainstream appeal. When asked if he would align himself with Eurosceptic parties like France’s Front Nationale (FN) or the UK Independence Party (UKIP), he implied that the two were too rightwing for his taste, and that, if elected, he’d affiliate with the European Conservative and Reform party, whose members include establishment groups like Britain’s Tories. It’s revealing, less as a sign of the malleability of Lucke’s convictions, than of his ambitions for AfD.

The left leaning newspaper Der Spiegel isn’t buying Lucke’s sudden change of heart, however. They’ve painted him as a dangerous demagogue, a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” whose party will let “the genie” of right-wing populism “out of the bottle.” Decoding the AfD poster visible from my window lends some credence to this view. Above a red Nike-style swoosh, it says, in white letters, “Die Schweiz is für Volksentscheide. Wir auch.” My girlfriend translates, with a barely suppressed look of disgust: Switzerland is for Referenda. So are we. “What’s wrong with that?” I asked her, observing that referenda are tools of direct democracy, and that Die Linke, Germany’s mainstream communist party on the opposite end of the spectrum from Alternative, were in favor of them, too. “The last time the Swiss used a referendum,” she reminded me. “It was to put quotas on immigration. And a few years before that, they used a referendum to make it illegal to build minarets.”

In the end, the prophesied Eurosceptical apocalypse did not come to pass. When voting closed on the night of the 25th, only two of four pale riders (Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage) had ridden their horses (the FN, UKIP) to first place finishes and the pro-European establishment parties were still on top, bloodied perhaps, but unbowed. The center-right Europe People’s Party, led by Spitzenkandidat Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, won the most outright votes, followed closely by the Party of European Socialists, led by Germany’s Martin Schulz.

Several other Eurosceptic groups had good showings though, including the rightwing Freedom Party of Austria and the something-for-everybody anticorruption, antiestablishment Five Star Movement in Italy, both of which took in about 20 percent of their national votes. Bernd Lucke’s AfD also did quite well for a first-time party. It took 7 percent of the German vote and earned itself seven MEPs, coming in fifth place, only a few thousand votes behind Die Linke. Exit polls suggested that about a third of AfD’s support came from new voters and another third had been skimmed from disaffected former members of the CDU and their Bavarian cohort, the Christian Socialist Union, both of which saw their totals decline relative to their performances in 2009. Nor is the AfD the only rightwing Eurosceptical party that will be sent for the first time from Germany to Brussels this year: the NPD also got enough votes to earn themselves a candidate in Parliament. (There Udo Voigt, the party leader of the NPD, will rub shoulders with Martin Sonneborn, of Die Partei. We’ll see who gets the last laugh.)

Although it wasn’t as bad as some had predicted, it would be wrong to minimize the result. Le Monde wasn’t exaggerating when it called the victory of Front Nationale and UKIP “seismic.” The effects on the European political process are already beginning to show. As always in a multiparty system, neither of the two main European parties has collected enough seats in parliament to win an absolute majority, so they must form a coalition. But this will be difficult as the mainstream parties and the Eurosceptics aren’t willing to work with each other, and no one is willing to work with the new parties on the far right. This may give heads of state a rationale for picking their own candidate for the position of Commission President, rather than one of the Spitzenkandidaten.

Even before the election, British PM David Cameron said he would not support a Schulz Commission Presidency. Now that he has been embarrassed on his right flank, he has proclaimed that he will not support Junker’s candidacy either, and is considering initiating procedures for an exit from the EU should Juncker get the job. He has been joined in his opposition to Juncker by French President François Hollande, according to an interview given to the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag. Hollande is rumored to want a Frenchman for the job, a venal bit of gallicisme he believes will placate the FN supporters back home. In order to salvage what’s left of his inept political career, Hollande is willing to throw Juncker to the wolves, the future of European democracy be damned.

If the heads of state choose someone other than Juncker or Schulz when they meet in late June, it would be a catastrophe for the EU, a betrayal of the promise of the Lisbon Treaty, and a breach of trust between the EU and its citizens that could take decades to repair. By picking their own candidate behind closed doors, the heads of state would only be confirming the worst criticisms of the Eurosceptics: that the EU is opaque, elitist, undemocratic, and out of control. It is a perverse irony that they were forced into this position precisely by the Eurosceptics themselves—but then, populist criticisms of government always end up being self-fulfilling prophecies. +

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