Last week there were a bunch of posts at various blogs about the nature of EU Parliament elections. The EU Parliament, everyone remarked, has gained power within the EU institutional structure, and MEPs have even begun behaving increasingly as transnational voting blocs, but voters have continued treating the election campaigns as referenda on national politics, if they cared at all. In other words, European voters are apathetic about Europe at a time when the European project is maturing but could use a gentle nudge.
Truth be told, I found this a compelling narrative last week, myself. But there are a few things about the actual results that, gladly, offer something of a counternarrative.
First, as Jean Quatremer notes, the French parties that did best in Sunday’s voting — the UMP and the Greens — are the parties that actually ran a European electoral campaign. Those that fared the worst — the Socialists and center-right MoDem — were those that ran on national referendum planks. (Those that fared even worse than the worst were the Euro-skeptics, who received what Quatremer called a “claque,” or a smack.) Now you could argue that the French results reflect a satisfaction with the national status quo, but given French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s abysmal approval ratings, you’d probably be wrong.
Second, and admittedly more conjecture than observation, Iwonder if part of the apathy that was flagged in the election’s run-upwasn’t actually an apathy towards national politics, rather than towards European politics. In France, that would mean, as noted by Art Goldhammer,that the Socialist party simply no longer exists as a credibleopposition. Anecdotally, I was with some acquaintances Sunday morning,and a few traditionally Socialist voters were either struggling todecide which of the other parties to vote for, or else grudginglyvoting for the Greens. In either case, it was a foregone conclusionthat the PS had nothing relevant to say, on either France or Europe.
Which leads me to the third, and perhaps most significant, point: The European center-right, led by Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, ran on a platform of Europe as a protective agent in times of crisis. And it paid off. Think about that. At a time of historic uncertainty and deep economic distress, the European electorate did not abandon the center-right, which itself had embraced Europe. Now the European center-right is arguably the equivalent of the U.S. center/center-left. But for diverse reasons that vary around the continent, Europe seems to be increasingly comfortable with a hybrid model of liberal market mechanisms protected by a regulatory EU, so long as the regulation is directed outwardly. (And I don’t think the gains made by the Greens are inconsistent with this argument.) In other words, Europeans seem to be slowly but surely making peace with the EU as their political skin vis à vis the outside world.
I was very skeptical about the EU’s ability to hold, in the face of what appeared last fall like a potentially cataclysmic crisis. But it’s a testament to the Union that, whether or not it lived up to expectations, it was the first line of defense to which everyone turned once the gravity of the situation became clear. As the joke went a few months back, the difference between Iceland and Ireland is three letters: r, E and U.
Whether or not people will remember that when the crisis passes is far from certain. But I, for one, am a bit less gloomy about Europe today than I was last week.