Things have to change in Europe but they may not

The European elections of May 26 are keeping many European citizens breathless but at the same time reality tells us that the voting will be a waste of breath. The epochal charge of the sovereign nationalistic forces that threaten Europe from its eastern gate will not disrupt the orderly democratic course of united Europe, no matter how disruptive the preaching of that modern carpetbagger Steve Bannon, the prophet of a populist revolution in Europe. The reason why the liberal democracies will prevail is a simple one that political commentators are prone to overlook: the voters of the illiberal democracies, led by that new friend of President Trump, the autocratic premier of Hungary Viktor Orban, are notoriously those who desert the polls. There is another aspect of this phenomenon: the voters who abstain are from those countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) that are the largest recipients of contributions from the European Union. Five years ago, the abstention rate was 57 percent. It is quite probable that it will remain the same on Sunday. One more depressing fact: the Visegrad countries – as that illiberal foursome is referred to – are the same ones that refused to comply with European policy that called for redistribution of refugees among the member countries of the European Union. They kept each and everyone out with police barriers, walls and barbed wire.

It seems that a principle is at work in the Visegrad league: the more you get from the Union, the less you are interested in Europe. Take the Czechs: on average, each of them gets a check for 523 euros (a little less than 600 dollars) but only 1 out of 6(15 percent) bothered to vote in the 2014 European elections. Hungary, led by the anti-immigration strongman Viktor Orban, gets 462 euros per capita from Europe but no more than 30 percent of eligible voters go to the polls.

Italians, swept away by that populist firebrand Matteo Salvini of the nationalist Lega, are still among the most reliable voters (58 percent in 2014) and yet they lose money to European institutions, rather than cashing in, giving 59 euros to the union, which is more than what they receive. What is puzzling about the European elections in Italy, France and Spain is that the political fight in these countries has very little to do with Europe per se and a great deal with the fierce struggle for dominance in their respective political arenas. In Italy, Salvini’s Lega is hell-bent on passing the 30 percent threshold while its government partners, the Five Star movement, threatened by a score of disappointing administrative results, is desperately trying not to slide below 20 percent of the vote. Less than 20 would push the Five Stars into oblivion. For many Italians, it would be a welcome respite, given its inability, and the incompetence, that has condemned Italy to be the laggard of Europe’s economy. In France, President Macron is pushing back with his federalist ideas against the rightist forces of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National. For him, it is truly a struggle to survive.

As things stand on the eve of the European elections, the considered opinion of many is that a majority of Euro-skeptics is extremely improbable. In other words, which should calm the prevailing fears, there is no way that an unholy alliance of nationalists, populists and euro-skeptics will prevail. However, it looks like Salvini’s Lega may become the fourth strongest party in the new Euro Parliament as the major partner of the rightist coalition, named “European Alliance of People and Nations”, comprising the Rassemblement National and the German Alternative für Deutschland. Another forecast calls for the European Peoples Party and the European Socialists to lose seats from their 2004 line up but to retain the majority with the contribution of the liberals of ALDE. In sum, the game of alliances will defeat the ambitions of the ultra-nationalists of the European right. The outcome may look like a reprise of the famous dictum in Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel “The Leopard”: “Things have to change to remain the same.

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