Standort: / Meldung: "A Europe For Everyone?"

Chris Cummins

Letters from a shrinking globe: around the day in 80 worlds.

9. 12. 2016 - 15:38

A Europe For Everyone?

Austria’s presidential election produced a sigh of relief in Brussels after a difficult year. But threats of bigger crises for the EU loom in 2017.

The election of Alexander Van der Bellen as Austrian President on a resolutely pro-European platform was a rare moment of respite for the EU in a year when a Eurosceptic tide seemed on the verge of breaching the levees and flooding the entire project. With elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany on the horizon in 2017, Austrian voters showed that the populist surge and the wave of Eurosceptic sentiment are powerful but not unstoppable forces.

“The Austrian election was very important for the EU on a symbolic level,” says Ulrike Lunacek, an MEP for the Austrian Greens, a vice-President of the European Parliament and, of course, a former party-colleague of Van der Bellen in his party politics days. “It showed that it is possible to win an election against the right-wing populists with a pro-European stance and a very liberal minded one.”

Europäisches Parlament in Brüssel

Chris Cummins / Radio FM4

Eurpean Parliament in Brussels

Half-hearted EU support

Pro-Europeans should be emboldened by Van der Bellen’s victory says People’s Party MEP Othmar Karas; “The election should encourage all the politicians who constantly fear speaking out for Europe.” Van der Bellen was the exception what appeared to me to be a culture of half-heartedness among pro-Europeans in 2016:

Former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi ordered the EU flags removed from his press conferences during his ill-fated constitutional referendum campaign for fear they would alienate voters. Maybe David Cameron wouldn’t have lost the Brexit referendum if he’d found the courage to argue that EU membership was good for Britain rather than that, all things considered, it was not all that bad after all.

Perhaps Van der Bellen’s victory could end the half-heartedness of the pro-Europeans?

That’s true says Angelika Mlinar, an MEP from the Austrian Neos, citing the often fiercely Eurosceptic coverage of tabloid newspapers: “We politicians have to stand-up for our ideas and not give in to the boulevard. That would be a really good step forward.”

Perhaps or perhaps not.

A flash in the pan?

The fear here in Brussels is the Austrian result will be a flash in the pan and we will see electoral victories for Le Pen in France or even Geert Wilders in the Netherlands.

If the EU wants to prevent that from happening it needs to act quickly. Many Europeans, from all generations, from the south, north, east and west of the EU, from the left and right, feel they are no longer socially or economically secure. Pro-European politicians have to reach out to them directly – convince them that they are working of solutions for their problems with clear projects that are easy to get involved in and concrete promises rather. Jargon and rhetoric produced at stuffy press conferences won’t be enough.

Honesty and Reality

It’s no use vilifying the clownish populist seducers either – that didn’t work in Britain with Farage or over the Atlantic with Donald Trump. The more mainstream parties have to convince those who feel currently disenfranchised that they understand their fears and will act to help assuage them. If the weapons of populists are simplistic fantasies, the mainstream weapons must be realism told honestly and graspable solutions that speak common sense.

“We need a change in atmosphere,” says Ulrike Lunacek. “People need to believe that the EU is capable of delivering results for them and not just for the elite classes.” She argues that this means investment rather than austerity. She wants to see investment in educational reforms that mean fewer children are left behind at an early age, investment in social projects, investment in green technologies and energy-efficiency could be huge employment motors of the future as Europe adapts to the threat of climate change.

Too Much Europe?

Harald Vilimsky, an MEP from the Freedom Party has drawn so very different lessons from the turbulences of 2016. He says voters have shown that they don’t want an overly centralized European model with a government in Brussels. He told me Europe must realize the importance of national diversity and that the EU is made up of many different states with different cultural and political stand-points who want to co-operate on an equal basis with one another.

He also says that 2016 has also shown that direct democracy is becoming an ever more powerful tool in Europe. He doesn’t see Norbert Hofer’s loss in the presidential election as a rejection of Eurosceptic ideas but rather as a result of all the other political parties, the "mainstream media" and the arts scene blubbing up against Hofer. “We are not against the European Union. We have a healthy critical relationship to the EU and we want to see a positive development of the EU.”

So criticism from within rather than from without. That is a sign of the times too.

United Kingdom-Schild vor einem Mikrofon

Chris Cummins / Radio FM4

UKIP’s Nigel Farage, who still haunts the corridors of the EU Parliament that he so derides, had predicted Britain’s decision would mark the beginning of a domino rally culminating with the destruction of the EU. He has spoken rather manically of his “wrecking ball.” Just ahead of the 4th of December Austrian presidential election Farage claimed on Fox News that Hofer would hold a referendum on Austria leaving the EU – the so-called “Öxit”. The FPÖ feels this lost them votes. After his defeat Hofer said Farage’s comments had been “crass misjudgment” saying that “it doesn’t fill me with joy when someone meddles from outside”.

Brexit: A warning not a model

Indeed, while Farage was still wearing that smug grin at a dinner event at Politico this week which caused a minor walk-out from Ulrike Lunacek, the truth is that the political earthquake he helped trigger in the UK has served more as a warning than an encouragement for voters with Eurosceptic tendencies. Life inside the Union might seem frustrating and sometime alienating but life outside can seem very scary indeed: a tumbling pound, the threat of business relocating across the channel and endless uncertainty for very little visible gain.

In Brussels many MEPs point a warning finger towards the mire Britain seems bogged down in six months after the Brexit referendum. “Britain faces more problems that the European Union,” says Karas. He says Brexiteers have broken all their election promises and created new problems rather than solving existing ones. “That should be a wake-up call for Europe to be aware of extremists and nationalists.”

Fear alone however won’t create a healthy European Union. It would be a negatively-minded political entity if it relied on its citizens voted to stayed in just because they afraid of the consequences of leaving. For all the skewed facts and sometimes barely disguised xenophobia of the Brexit campaign, the UK’s big decision in June asked some important questions about why so many people have felt left out of the course the EU has taken over the past years.

Confronting the downsides of globalization

The nationalists and nativists have come a long way in the past few months by exploiting feeling about the pitfalls of globalization.

Angelika Mlinar who sees the process of globalization as an historic inevitability, says these undeniable challenges are best solved through co-operation within the strength of European unity rather than every country fighting its own corner in a large and fiercely competitive world. The EU should be safety net against the negatives of globalization rather than a multiplier of the problems. “But it is up to the national governments not to come to Brussels, decide one thing and then at home preach against what they have decided just a few hours before at a table in Brussels.”

Many people feel alienated by EU-backed austerity policies, by its secretive deal making the behind-closed doors, by the obfuscation of its over-worldly commission spokespeople, by commissioners taking private jet rides with pro-Russian nuclear lobbyists. Unless this culture changes, the EU will fail to convince voters it is an institution of the people and for the people. And if, after a couple of years, it turns out Britain hasn’t sunk into the Atlantic, fear alone won’t keep voters in.

Europeans want to see positive action that has a real impact on their lives. And quickly.