The European Elections and What They Mean for Turkey

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June 5, 2014

The reaction of the world press at the results of the EU Parliamentary elections  have so far been dominated by hyperbolic and catastrophist headlines, heavy on (highly repetitive and after a while a bit tedious) tectonic metaphors (“EU Elections = Policical Earthquake”, etc.).

Notwithstanding the media’s sensationalism for commercial purposes (drama sells) and also a somewhat paranoid, pervert taste for scaring oneself with “threats” that often do not exist (i.e. the “islamization” of Europe, the coming of “Eurabia” and that sort of things), the anti-EU europhobic, eurosceptic, sovereignist, etc. populist parties, most of which from the nationalist far right and in some cases such as Hungary’s Jobbik party (15%) or Greece’s Golden Dawn (over 9%), frankly neo-nazi, racist and openly antisemitic,  have indeed accomplished a spectacular and even a historic breakthrough. They have been on the rise across Europe (Western Europe in particular)  for decades now, and this was expected. Yet, there is no denying that looking at the often stunning figures, the shockwave is justified and the established government parties have cause to worry.

In France, the second biggest EU economic power after Germany, its second biggest financial contributor, one of its postwar historical founders and to this day a major driving force of the E.U., the winner is the (so far) underdog Marine le Pen’s National Front,  at nearly 25%, well ahead of the center-right UMP (nearly 21%) and the Socialists (14%). This is the first time in the history of France’s Fifth Republic since the late 1950s that a far-right party wins a nation-wide election, therefore becoming in this particular election France’s first political force.See here two interviews of Marine le Pen, a formidable, immensely charismatic leader and without a doubt one who is transforming European politics in depth. The British political establishment is equally shaken by the triumph of UKIP, the UK Independence Party led by its flamboyant and charismatic leader Nigel Farage . A 27,50% score made even more impressive by the fact that very young party, founded in 1993, is only 20 years old. It is now considered possible that Britain will soon leave the E.U. altogether following the coming 2017 popular referendum on that question.

Despite the cold shiver many across Europe are now feeling running down their political spines, one needs to put in perspective all this hype about the far-right. There are four trends at work here, and the two main ones are not the victory of anti-EU parties.

1. Abstention. First, by far the main winner of this election is, so to speak, the invisible party of the absentionists: 57%, the vast majority, of eligible European voters did not bother to cast a ballot, a trend on the rise since the late 70s. In Eastern European countries, the abstention rate is staggering  : 68% in Romania, 71% in Hungary, 77% in Poland (despite the fact this country has benefited enormously from joining the EU both economically and politically in terms of democracy and civic liberties, and one may have expected a little more gratitude there), about 80% in Slovenia and the Czech Republic, 87% in Slovakia, etc. This very high abstention rate is due to a mix of indifference (“Nothing will change no matter what”), incomprehension about how the E.U. works and what exactly it does (after half a century of existence, the media still need to add pedagogical inserts on the basics of the major institutions such as the Parliament and Commission), and resistance, possibly defiance towards the whole enterprise.

2. Same old, same old. Despite the fact the europhobes and eurosceptics from the far-right or the far-left gain significant ground in 2/3 of the countries and even come first in 3 countries out of 28 (France, the UK, and Denmark, with the radical left colaition of Syriza number one in Greece), they actually do not win the day by any means, not even close: contrary to what the headlines suggest, it is the pro-EU parties who have very largely won the elections in most countries  . The European Parliament will remain overwhelmingly dominated by the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the leftist Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D). These two largest “old” ruling blocs still own nearly 54% of all seats, even without their traditional allies such as the center-left Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE, 8,66%) and the Greens (nearly 7%). This means that just with those four main blocs, nearly 70% of all seats remain firmly in the hands of resolutely pro-EU europhile parliamentarians.

The anti-EU parties, who will send to Brussels at most 140 MPs out of a total of 750, are therefore no match. They will not in any way be able to set the agenda. At best they can be a force of nuisance, intimidation regarding certain projects (such as the enlargement to other countries), and possibly, partial paralysis on some issues. That is, assuming they can present a united front, which they will most likely not be able to do either, considering the substantial differences of all sorts, from historical backgrounds and origins to political cultures and ideologies, that separate them and in many cases make alliances impossible. For example, Nigel Farage has already stated repeatedly he will never forge and alliance with France’s National Front  because of its roots in the antisemitic far-right. Right there, the main two populist nationalist forces within the European Parliament are already divided. Marine le Pen herself rejects the idea of a coalition with several other groups such as Hungary’s Jobbik and Greece’s Golden Dawn, accusing them of being too extremist and racist. Furthermore, the electorates of many of those nationalist europhobic parties do not see an alliance with certain other potential allies favorably at all. Thus, the poor results of Geert Wilder’s anti-immigration, anti-Islam Dutch Freedom Party (13% while he was hoping for the first position) are largely attributed to his siding with Marine le Pen, a move that has strongly displeased his ultra-liberal, pro-gay marriage, and largely libertarian electorate, often a polar opposite of le Pen’s far more conservative, anti-neoliberalism, and anti-gay marriage voters. The chances are thus slim to see a strong, unified anti-EU coalition emerging, except on the one issue common to all: immigration.

3. Contrasts. An examination of the results country by country reveals a great diversity of situations, showing the voters’ choices can not be explained entirely by European problematics but need to be understood largely, perhaps even essentially, through the prism of the national politics and situations of those nations. For example, if France’s ruling parties have all been severely punished by a disillusioned, bitter, and angry electorate who consider them complicit with a EU they hold responsible for the economic stagnation, impoverishment, and high unemployment, in Germany, the ruling CDU-CSU coalition of Angela Merkel has been reconducted and wins the election, due to a much better economic situation and voters’ satisfaction with her work at the national, far more than European level. In other words, people have turned those European elections into national ones. Furthermore, while many predicted the ruling parties would severely be sanctioned and rejected in those countries who have suffered the most from the economic crisis and the austerity measures imposed on them by the EU to redress the deficits and reduce the debts, this has not been the case everywhere: in Italy, it is the pro-European party of the current prime minister Matteo Renzi  who takes the first position, despite the fact Italy has enormously suffered from the crisis and the austerity cure that came with it. Finally, the notion that the economic crisis and impoverishment constitute a perfect terrain for the surge of ultra-nationalist, xenophobic, anti-immigration and anti-EU right-wing forces is to a large extent disproved by the case of Greece. No other country has been suffering so much and for so long from the crisis and the austerity cuts imposed by the EU, to the point a fifth of its population, 20% of all Greeks, now lives below the poverty level, with an unemployment rate above 27%, and a horrific youth unemployment rate at a staggering 57%  . Yet, last week, despite the breakthrough of the neo-nazi Golden Dawn at 9%, it was the radical left coalition of Syriza who won the day with 27%. In general, in the Southern states such as Greece, Spain, and Portugal, the economic pain has been translated as a vote for leftist parties, not for the nationalist and xenophobic far-right. There thus seems to be a regional logic to the vote as well as a national one, as confirmed also by the record abstention rates, which as noted earlier peak in the Eastern European states of the former Soviet Union.

4) Surge of anti-EU populisms. The gains made by the various europhobic/eurosceptic left and right populist parties may not be the continent-wide tsunami suggested by media headlines, yet there is no denying their breakthrough in most countries is spectacular, and as in France and the UK, historic. Furthermore, even in countries where the government parties continue to lead, the results show a significant regression from previous elections. For example, the score of Angela’s Merkel’s CDU is inferior to both the previous 2009 EU elections and the national legislative ones of 2013. In Spain, the two main Popular Party and Socialist Party also come ahead, but together they gather only 49% compared to 80% in 2009, a brutal loss of 5 million voters. All ruling government parties are severely weakened at both levels, national and European. In the case of France and the UK, it is clear that the bi-party system that had dominated their politics so far is now a tri-party system. In the new EU Parliament, the largest center-right PPE coalition loses no fewer than 60 MPs (213 now compared to 273 so far), while the second largest group (the Alliance of Socialists and Democrats) loses 17 (189 as opposed to 196). And they will now have to compose with up to 140 anti-EU MPs determined to fight them tooth and nail.

What are the causes of this anti-EU populist vote, which at this point represents at least a good third of the electorate, more in certain nations?

First, it is obviously both a protest vote against “the system”, a punishment against the national governments who have proven unable to solve the extremely long and severe economic crisis that devastates much of the EU working and middle classes, as well as a rejection of the EU itself, held responsible for the crisis, the impoverishment of those populations, and a slew of other social ills of a more identitarian nature. The extra-European Muslim immigration, allegedly caused by a laxist EU immigration policy and perceived as a threat to the values and “national identities” of those countries (see the never-ending debates about Islamic outfits, “the rise of Islamism”, the “Islamization of Europe”, the “invasion” of halal, etc.)  looms large on that existential horizon.

More specifically, it is the austerity measures (budget cuts to curb deficits) as well as the un-democratic and for many, anti-democratic nature of the European construction, increasingly lived as a technocratic project imposed from the top (Brussels, the EU “Kommissars”, the “elites”, etc.) to the bottom (people and nations), which generate enormous frustration, resentment and rejection. For decades now, those sentiments have been exacerbated by both the crises themselves (there are many and not just economic) and the populist parties such as the National Front, who thrive on those crises. Leaders like Marine le Pen have skillfully managed to mobilize all that pain and anger, giving it an explanation, an outlet, and a scapegoat—giving it a name: “Brussels”, the “euro”, “Schengen”, the “EU technocratic caste”, now all dirty words, demonized entities in the very effective discourse of those populist parties, whose leaders (le Pen, Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders, etc.) are often on top of that frighteningly brilliant orators, smart strategists, and charismatic leaders. In addition, they offer fresh faces and new political blood in a context marked by an immense fatigue with the “old” established parties and their tired, powerless, ineffective leaders, now largely discredited for having failed to bring growth to the eurozone, solve the crisis, and resist the ruthless financial markets by putting people first ahead of investors’ profits. In this process, for many, the whole EU dream is no longer credible, no longer a source of hope. Those two capital letters , instead of signifying prosperity, security, protection, growth, and progress both material and spiritual, are now largely synonymous with stagnant growth (at best) or recession, budget cuts, cruel austerity measures, impoverishment of those who already suffer the most, and loss of identity. The EU has become a sinister, desperate, and frightening horizon.

Those widespread popular sentiments are now being taken to their point of red-hot incandescence. The frustration, economic pain and social despair, which is real and can be observed everywhere in Europe even in the richest countries like France, have turned into boiling anger against “the elites” and seething rage, even hatred, against an EU increasingly lived as a nightmarish, evil, inhumane and cold megamachine that crushes nations and people in order to better serve the oligarchic global elites and the “financial markets”.

The protest vote is therefore also an act of resistance against what is lived by an increasing number as a new but real type of oppression and tyranny. It is a vote of rebellion. But it also a vote of adherence to the programs of those populist parties. The electorates of the National Front, UKIP, or the Freedom Party do not just vote against the EU, they vote for the political projects and visions those parties carry: a reassertion of national independence and sovereignty, reclaiming control of their countries borders, ending immigration, leaving the eurozone and going back to national currencies, stronger, more protective states, protectionist economic policies against Brussel’s deregulated “ultra-neoliberalism”, etc.

But what does all this mean for Turkey?

Clearly and sadly, no good news.

As explained above, many of those emergent or fully emerged parties are politically and ideologically incompatible with each other (i.e. Italy’s leftist Five Star Movement of iconoclastic comedian Beppe Grillo  has little to do with the racist Golden Dawn). It is not even certain Marine le Pen, who is actively seeking to federate those parties in order to constitute an official group within the EU Parliament, will manage to bring around her MPs from seven different countries, one of the conditions to have a group.

Yet, despite the fact it is quite an eclectic colorful bunch we have here, they are all united on one issue: immigration. Meaning, of course, the hatred and rejection of it. Their main target is the presence on European soil and in their nations of extra-European foreigners and immigrants. Especially the brown-skin and Muslim type. Geert Wilders publicly promised during this campaign that he will, quote, “take care of the Moroccans” present in the Netherlands; his co-lister, the party’s number two Anders Vistisen, swore to end specifically Muslim immigration; Jussi Halla-aho, the leader of Finland’s xenophobic True Finns Party which gathered over 12% of the votes, has been condemned for insults to Islam; several of Golden Dawn’s leaders are in jail for incitement to racist violence, and so on and so forth. With the one possible exception of the leftist-humanist Five Star Movement of the warm, jovial Italian comedian Beppe Grillo, they all agree on this. France’s National Front, the Dutch Freedom Party, Austria’s FPO, Italy’s Northern League of former PM Sylvio Berlusconi, the True Finns, Denmark’s Popular Party and more have even started to establish trans-national, inter-party contacts with the view of creating a united bloc and crafting common anti-immigration (and other) policy proposals and close the borders, their top priority.

Four facts need to be highlighted to get a better picture of how Turkey computes in all this: a) those parties now represent a real force within the EU Parliament b) immigration is the one issue on which they all profoundly agree and as such it is bound to become an even more important one, if only for strategic reasons c) most of those parties’ xenophobia translates first of all as an intense rejection of Islam d) many of those political forces are bound to do well too (or already do well) in the coming national elections and increase their presence in their domestic institutions, thus taking the anti-immigration fight at the national level as well. Granted these four facts, it is hard to see how the opposition to Turkey’s EU membership will not seriously increase in the years to come. Especially since the trends outlined here are structural, not merely related to the conjuncture. It would be wishful thinking or self-delusion to think all of this will evaporate, say, if the economic situation gets better. Which is not likely to happen anyway.

And now that the political establishment of the ruling governmental parties has seen beyond any doubt that at least a good third of the electorate violently rejects both extra-European Muslim immigration and further enlargement of the EU, it is very hard to see how they will be able to support bringing in a nation of nearly 80 million, 96% of whom are Muslims, furthermore a country located outside of what most EU people consider to be Europe. A politician with a death wish and willing to commit political suicide may want to advocate that, though.

As a matter of fact, anti-immigration sentiments have become so radical that increasingly, those electorates reject intra-EU immigration as well, feeling that the right given to the workers of the newer, poorer Eastern European countries to go work in any other EU member state undermines their social standards, threatens their jobs, creates unfair competition, and endangers their safety. (The semi-nomadic Romas are abundantly stigmatized and vilified as well, as is the archetypal “Polish plumber” or the Hungarian construction site worker who will supposedly work for a fraction of the natives’ salary.) Hence the will to abolish the “Schengen space”, the EU zone of free circulation.

In that context where even white, Christian, European immigrants from other EU nations are increasingly rejected too, let’s imagine how the idea of letting in 70 million Muslim Turks fares, and who will have the courage to defend it.

The second commonality in those parties’ ideological DNA, whether they are leftist like Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, far-right like Golden Dawn, or simply sovereignist like Britain’s UKIP, is the will to “defend” what they deem to be their nations’, and Europe’s, “traditional values” and “identity”. “Our” culture, “our lifestyles”, usually narrowly defined in an exclusionary manner—i.e. Christianity, laicity, gender equality, etc.—, professed values, lifestyles and identities that would be threatened by immigration, the invasion of Islam, capitalism, ultra-neoliberalism, open borders, multiculturalism leading to the dilution of national identities in a cosmopolitan magma, all things permitted by the EU. Needless to say, this now dominant structure of feelings, which has crystallized into a true European ideology as well, is absolutely inimical to a Turkish EU membership. With those elections, that horizon has receded much, much further.

Turks now have at least three more solid reasons to question further, as many are already doing, the value of pursuing EU membership.

First, clearly, sadly, they are not wanted by an increasing number there. Just follow the European political debates and see how attacking a politician on the ground (s)he supports Turkey’s membership has become a weapon of choice, and an effective one, to discredit her. Wanna kill your adversary in a debate? Just shout “(S)he wants Turkey to be part of the EU!!!” Second, Turks should wonder about the wisdom of having a eurozone that for decades has been utterly incapable of bringing growth to its own countries, enforce its failed economic model on a nation (Turkey) who has fared economically infinitely better than any EU country or the EU as a whole. While Turkey has had a growth rate between 5% and 8% for well over a decade, the pitiful eurozone has been either nearly stagnant, sluggish (during the better years), or in a recession,  as has again been the case for the past three years. Let’s not even mention their horrendous unemployment rates, especially for the youth. Logic and common sense should dictate it is the EU that should apply for membership in Turkey and take economic lessons from the AK Party, not the other way round!

Third and finally, Turkey seeks membership at a time when so many Europeans, and in increasing numbers as this election proves, desperately want to get out since the whole EU thing has turned for them into a nightmare of epic proportion. That odd situation of trying to get in when so many fight desperately to get out should also give pause for thought.

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