It is still essential to stress the EU’s role as a guarantor of peace and prosperity following World War II. But today’s EU must foster additional sources of legitimacy if it is to appeal to today's post-postwar generation.
Every five years, the European Union engages in an exercise of self-awareness. The European Parliament elections allow us to look at ourselves in the mirror and take stock of the passage of time. The upcoming elections, however, are special: they will be the first since the refugee crisis, the Brexit referendum, and the election of US President Donald Trump. In these tumultuous years, our gaze has been perennially focused on the mirror. After this vote, our reflection will finally acquire the clarity for which we have been yearning.
European Parliament elections are usually labeled “second-order elections.” Low voter turnout, which has been falling steadily since the first election in 1979, seems to indicate that Europeans do not attach enough importance to them. Three months before this year’s election, only 33% of European citizens knew that it would be held in May, and only 5% knew the exact dates. A month ago, just 26% of Germans were familiar with their countryman Manfred Weber – the European People’s Party’s candidate for the European Commission presidency.And yet opinion polls paint a much brighter picture. The latest Eurobarometer survey shows that almost seven out of ten Europeans, excluding the British, believe that their country has benefited from integration – the highest share since 1983. Most British people, incidentally, now hold the same view.Yet a certain political estrangement has set in across Europe, and it is affecting all levels of governance. The problem is particularly pronounced in the countries that joined the EU after the turn of the century. Eastern Europeans tend to trust the political system less than Western Europeans; thus, it is not surprising that they turn out to vote in smaller numbers, both in European and national elections. Institutional disaffection and low turnout are also pervasive among young Europeans in general, despite the fact that they are more pro-European than the average.In addition, for the generations who watched hopefully as the European project evolved during the second half of the twentieth century, the honeymoon is over. The Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev has argued that, instead of reaching the “end of history” that Francis Fukuyama first described in 1989, we seem to have reached the end of most people’s interest in history. As Krastev, together with Mark Leonard and Susi Dennison of the European Council on Foreign Relations, put it, “The EU was created by societies that feared their past. Now Europeans fear the future.”Although it is still essential to stress the role of European integration as a guarantor of peace following World War II, the EU needs additional sources of legitimacy. Unfortunately, the economic and migration-related challenges of recent years – managed rather poorly by the EU and its member states – had the opposite effect. This created an opening for nationalist-populist parties to win support by promising to confront current and future challenges, like the growing demographic crisis, with strategies from an idealized past, such as national seclusion.
The chaos of Brexit, however, has sent the powerful message that the winds are very cold outside the EU. The United Kingdom is already shivering, and it has only just opened the door. Geographical distances, tight economic bonds, and the relatively small economic weight of European countries are all inescapable realities. European citizens have taken note of that, and it is no wonder that nationalist-populist parties on the continent have apparently ceased to contemplate an exit from the EU.These parties disagree on many issues, but they find common ground in their xenophobic anti-immigration discourse. In this regard, it must be emphasized that the right to asylum is internationally recognized, that migration in general can help counter our demographic decline, and that there are far fewer immigrants in the industrialized world than is generally believed. Opposing uncontrolled migration is reasonable; turning our back on our neighbors is not. Here, we are not only speaking of a humanitarian imperative: external and internal security, after all, are inextricably linked.In any case, the issue that most concerns Europeans today is not immigration, but the economy. One of today’s greatest challenges is inequality, which has been rising in almost all OECD countries. Meanwhile, the European north-south divide has also widened as a result of the economic crisis. Although member states cannot evade their responsibilities, European institutions must do more to promote cohesion through a new social contract, which should cover everything from technology-driven labor-market disruptions to environmental sustainability.However paradoxical it may be, the fact is that even as faith in the EU has been severely shaken, European integration has continued without pause over the last decade. There is, of course, a long road ahead. But the EU has never before had more effective tools for addressing the economic and financial challenges that may arise. If the union is to continue down this path after the elections, and if it is to preserve its role as a multilateral actor in a world increasingly marked by great-power competition, the relatively silent pro-integration majority will have to become vocal and mobilized.Through the introspection of recent years, Europeans have at least – and at last – managed to create a common political space. Rather than allowing nationalist-populists to use it against them, pro-EU parties must forge a transformative narrative focused on the future. Like the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, we may occasionally delight in nostalgia for the “world of yesterday.” But, also like Zweig, we must remain engaged in forward-looking projects, like the peaceful, integrated Europe he did not live to see. The best homage to the apostles of Europe’s unity would be to avoid being paralyzed by nostalgia, and to commit ourselves to building the Europe of tomorrow.