After India, the European Union is the second largest democracy in the world, with 400 million people entitled to vote. While India just finished its several-weeks-long election process, many Europeans will cast their votes on one Sunday, May 25. By all projections, around 40 percent of the electorate will actually turn out to vote in what may be the lowest turnout since the first EU elections in 1979.

There are two big concerns looming around this election. One is the expected low turnout. The other is an infusion of new legislators representing splinter parties in their respective countries, many of which feel that the EU in general—and its policies in specific—are a danger to Europeans. They may not like the EU, but they want to be elected to its parliament to subvert it from the inside. Be it in the United Kingdom (UK), the Netherlands, France, Greece, or Germany, those with political pitchforks are storming the gates in Strasbourg.

New Voices in the Fray

In Germany, the pitchforks are hoisted by the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a group led by somewhat taciturn economist Bernd Lucke. Convinced that the euro policies have been harmful to Germany, the party has managed to mobilize a large number of people for many—sometimes contradictory—reasons, enough that the party almost made it into the German Bundestag in last year’s election. The 5 percent hurdle for the Bundestag, however, is higher than that of the EU Parliament. So there is a real prospect that this new upstart group will have seats in Strasbourg. The same is true for similar groups elsewhere in the EU. The question is, however, can these splinter groups work together as a party group in the Parliament? In order to do that, they need a minimum of twenty-five representatives. More importantly, they need to agree on a common platform, and that is far easier said than done. Yet, if they would band together, they could help to subvert a serious set of agenda items, including the current proposed trade agreement being negotiated between the U.S. and the EU, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Whether it be clashes over consumer policies (particularly food), cultural policies (like films and book production), the euro, or the ongoing flare-up over NSA surveillance, backlash against the EU has a good deal of traction around the continent.

The Alternative for Germany has managed to capture its message in a bumper sticker loosely translated as “Washington spies, Brussels dictates, and Berlin fudges.” Here, you have the full agenda shaped by anger over:

  1. NSA surveillance allegations,
  2. bureaucratic interference emerging out of Brussels telling what size cucumbers and light bulbs to use, and
  3. the alleged inability of Berlin to stand up for Germany’s interests.

A similar set of accusations is aimed at London, Paris, The Hague, Rome, Athens, and other capitals. Mixed in with these other attacks, one can find elements of anger aimed at immigrants; attacks against religion (particularly Islam); long-standing antipathy toward the United States; and even sympathy for Vladimir Putin’s policies both at home, cracking down on gays and promoting so-called Christian values, and in Crimea.

It is truly a motley crew, but that crew can—and probably will—make a lot of noise in Strasbourg after May 25.

The question is: will that noise make a big difference? The two major political camps have presented their leading candidates to lead the campaign; one of them is assured victory. Martin Schulz leads the Progressive Alliance on the left while Jean-Claude Juncker leads the conservative European People’s Party group on the right. Here again, there are similar questions: what difference will it make who wins, and how different would the EU be under their respective leadership? For all practical purposes, the campaigns are not that different in agenda or emphasis.

It is probable that either Schulz or Juncker may become head of the European Commission, but that depends on the consensus among the states represented in the European Council, which could theoretically name someone else to head the Commission. This will be part of a complicated negotiation after May 25, when different posts will be handed out in Brussels.

Building Domestic Pressures

This is part of the kaleidoscope of moving parts that makes the EU machinery so difficult to understand and also contributes to many Europeans’ frustration in trying to decide on what they need to do about it. The sad truth is that the majority of voters will probably stay away from the polls. Many do not know much about the candidates—let alone about their campaign platforms.

That underscores one dimension that needs to be understood by those political leaders trying to figure out how to cope with the growing voices of dissent across the continent. Although the EU has helped to create the most advantageous political, social, and economic framework for half a billion Europeans, citizens remain not only frustrated with Brussels, but also with their own respective governments. It is a frustration fuelled by a mix of fears about the future and a sense of being unable to protect themselves from perceived threats. The reality of these fears may be hard to follow for those looking at Europe from the outside, but they are clearly changing and charging the political atmosphere.

Especially in Germany, which has never had a better overall situation than now, the panorama of perceived threats cluster around the dangers of war in Ukraine, NSA surveillance, contaminated U.S. chicken, unstable energy prices, and a host of other forms of feeling vulnerable—or in German, Betroffen.

Elsewhere in Europe, domestic pressures are also growing. Blowback in the UK in the form of Scotland’s movement toward independence or the Independence Party’s push to leave the EU, are aimed squarely at the current government in London as much as at the Brussels bureaucracy. Prime Minister David Cameron faces elections next year in atmosphere that might lead to his defeat.

In France, weak leadership from Paris in coping with economic challenges has created anger among the public. President Francois Hollande is polling at a historically low level while the right wing movement picks up speed under the populist guidance of Marine Le Pen. Similar trends are visible in many other countries. In fact, many voters will be casting their votes on Sunday in local political elections as well.

Searching for Leadership

Although political leadership in Europe is lacking in many places, German Chancellor Angela Merkel remains strong, having just won a very convincing third term as head of a government controlling 80 percent of the Bundestag. But even that safety net does not prevent the appearance of cracks and controversy. She is campaigning against fellow German Martin Schulz by throwing her support to the Conservative party under the leadership of Mr. Juncker. But in Germany, it is the chancellor’s face—not-Juncker’s—on most of the campaign posters.

Governance is challenged not only by the nervousness of voters, but also increasingly by the fractured prisms through which they process their information and assessments. The constant drumbeat of crisis drowns out the ability to put challenges into context and avoid hysterical reactions. The impatience of voters with politicians and problems leads to demands that cannot be met, which in turn generates more frustration.

Jean-Claude Juncker once said that politicians might know the right thing to do, but they have not figured out how to do it and get reelected.

For some Germans, the EU elections may seem abstract, without immediate relevance. They may not know the person they are being asked to vote for in their respective party or they may seem to feel it does not really matter. The turnout on May 25 will only underscore that.

What is interesting about May 25 is that it falls two days after another German milestone. On May 23, Germany marks the 65th anniversary of its Basic Law—the framework that has given Germany its best experience with democracy and provided the platform on which unification was successfully carried out in 1990. Like all democracies, Germany has had to work on both exercising and improving its democratic system during these past six and a half decades. And by all measures, it has been a successful evolution.

We see another new evolution trying to unfold in Ukraine on May 25. It is a first step, which may be followed by not only serious problems, but also possibilities in building a democracy—just as it has evolved throughout the rest of the EU.

The European Union aspires to be a union of democracies, all of which have taken different paths toward a common goal. While there is still a long passage ahead, the common day of voting can be another step toward strengthening that union. It might be useful to remember that what Europe has become is or can be a benchmark for many outside of the EU. Despite all the moaning and groaning going on within the domestic arenas in each of the twenty-eight member states, there is a lot that should not be taken for granted. Whether one looks at where Europe started out several decades ago, or at those countries that today are still hoping to be part of what the EU represents, it is a reminder of all that has been accomplished as well as what needs to evolve further.

All politics may be local, as the saying goes. But occasionally the sum of politics can appear greater than its parts. It just needs time to evolve. As the sayimg goes in Brussels, we may have created the European Union but now we still need to create Europeans.

That will be a long passage in europe. Yet, it might be useful to draw a comparison with the evolution of the United States. It was only after the civil war in 1865 that the reference to the us began to transition from the verb ” are” to “is.”

The evolution of democracies is a continuing process. Elections are only one stage along the way.

  • Benjamin Fricke

    It was the citizen’s will to continue to build the U.S.A. after the civil war and left a government for the people by the people in power with individual and powerful states.
    The E.U. countries will have to get back to it’s citizens and represent their will, which lies in the nation state. A United States of Europe is hubris and will never evolve in a way the U.S. has eveolved.
    ” ..we may have created the European Union but now we still need to create the Europeans,” is a very dangerous statement. That sounds like social engeneering and a justification to impose rules on people which they do not want and agree to. It is exactly this Euro ideology of increasingly more European integration that makes people go to the polls and vote FN, UKIP and AfD. As a German who lived in the U.S. for many years I find it shocking how much democracy got lost with the E.U. and how political correctness has contaminated the atmosphere. If no one can propose the abolishion of the Euro backed with economically sound arguments without being discriminated against, it reminds me too much of the socialist politburos and their claim to have found the truth for peace.

  • K Bledowski

    An interesting question is whether we’re witnessing now a “passage to create Europeans” or a high water-mark in the EU’s relevance as a global power.

    Take Ukraine, which the author barely mentions. Ukraine has been a strategic partner of the EU going back years and the country lies smack on the Union’s border. One would have expected the Europeans to take center stage in vigorously intermediating on behalf of its partner in the conflict with Russia. Alas, it’s been the United States—a faraway and economically insignificant party —that took the lead.

    Several years after the Kosovo War, only 23 of the 28 EU members have recognized the new country. In the recent Mali conflict, just four EU countries sent military hardware, and only France has deployed force. During the Libya insurrection, 11 EU countries participated despite pleas for unity in a conflict very near the European continent. Going further back, during the Gulf War, 10 EU countries sent forces while others have criticized the very essence of involvement.

    I’m quite perplexed by statements (by committed Europeanists) that the “EU shines in times of crises.” To me it looks like “the more obvious the crisis, the less shine left behind by the EU.”