European elections tend not to excite most people. Last time, in 2014, only 42% of eligible voters turned out across the EU and among the under-24-year-olds, it was an abysmal 28%. But this year’s elections may be too important to sit out. While the European news agenda has been overshadowed by Brexit for months (and could continue to be, as the UK prepares to participate in elections it never wanted to be in), the European project is faced with a number of challenges from the outside – dealing with migration, global warming, a collapsing world order – and an existential threat from within: the rise of those who want to take the sledgehammer to over sixty years of European integration and dance on its ruins. If there was ever a time when everyone’s vote mattered, it’s now.
Europe’s enemies are united.
For a number of years now, the rise of right-wing populism could be observed across Europe – France’s Rassemblement National (formerly Front), Germany’s AfD, Italy’s Lega. Their levels of support varied, as did their radicalism, but broadly they pursued the same agenda: anti-immigrant, anti-EU, nationalist, frequently Islamophobic and socially conservative. But while one could almost be resigned to the fact that such narrow-minded loudmouths were now a fixture of the European political landscape, the most recent developments have been most alarming. In several European countries, the far-right is now governing (either alone or in a coalition). In Italy and Austria, coalitions including right-wing parties have shown that they mean what they say – in Italy’s case exemplified by the almost weekly dramas involving refugee rescue ships being denied permission to land and being stranded on the sea for days, actual human beings being used as pawns or bargaining chips. In Hungary and Poland, right-wing governments are busy dismantling the fragile institutions of democracy and civil society that have developed there since the end of communism three decades ago. As of this year, Spain, previously thought of as immune to the appeal of the far-right after decades of Franco’s dictatorship, once again has a far-right force in national politics: the Vox party. And what’s perhaps most troubling of all: the enemies of Europe are all about cross-border cooperation. Fully enjoying the free movement rights the EU affords them, Austria’s Heinz-Christian Strache jets to Budapest to meet his pal Viktor Orban, the AfD’s Joerg Meuthen visits his mate Matteo Salvini in Milan, and Marine Le Pen made time to see Santiago Abascal, now leader of 24 Vox MP’s in Spain’s Congress of Deputies, when he was in Perpignan in 2017. With the enemies of European unity so, well, united, so coordinated and integrated, those who believe the future does not lie in a return to narrow-minded thinking and nationalism must stand just as strongly together.
And there are things worth fighting for. The Second World War ended 74 years ago, but peace is not to be taken for granted – indeed, it is often said that Europe has been free of conflict since 1945, but this is not true: into the 1990s, the Troubles in Northern Ireland cost some 3,000 lives. The death toll from Yugoslavia’s bloody break-up in the 1990s is well over one hundred thousand, driven by the very forces of nationalism and hatred that the European project seeks to overcome. And for the past five years, Ukraine has paid a high price for the aggression of its neighbor, Russia. None of this means the European project failed – these were conflicts on the edges of Europe, where the developing European project’s reach was limited, while the central European nations that fought the gruesome wars of the first half of the 20th century and before – France and Germany, for instance – have been united in friendship and cooperation after 1945. What it shows, instead, is that peace is fragile, not guaranteed. The same is true for the increasing number of benefits that the people of Europe have accrued over the decades: the rights to travel, live, work, study and settle across an entire continent. The freedom of barely noticing when you cross a border – one which might have been marked by young men killing each other in trenches a century ago, or maybe one that thirty years ago was shut with walls, fences and armed guards. Compared to the rest of the world – indeed, to the European neighbours who are not yet Union members – this is a privilege that citizens of the EU now acquire by birthright. The risk is that we become complacent about what we have.
None of this means, of course, that everything about the Union’s current state is perfect. The low enthusiasm for participation in European politics can be attributed to Brussels being a major buzzkill: bureaucratism and the rules of the single market are neither what sparks people’s passions, nor what Europe is about at its core. There is much room for progressive critiques of the current model of European integration. If the project of ever-closer union is to be continued, it will at some point inevitably mean that the wealthier member-states commit to supporting the less fortunate ones in a serious way – solidarity cannot end at one’s national borders. Similarly, a Union cannot tout its commitment to human rights and show off its 2012 Nobel Peace Prize while people are drowning in the Mediterranean – or while it is funnelling money to Libya, where thousands of migrants are kept in detention camps under the most awful of conditions, subject to brutal abuse and exploitation, entirely rightless and now caught up in the most recent fighting (a scandal so depressing it ought to be on the agenda of everyone who professes to adhere to Europe’s most-loved values). Things do need to change. But there will be nothing left to reform if we let the enemies of Europe destroy this unique project. Europe has given us peace, it has given us freedom and rights, and it has given us a forum for cooperation – the only way to deal with the large-scale challenges of the future, such as climate change. In a volatile world, with a transatlantic partner we can no longer rely on, an increasingly aggressive Russia and unsolved conflicts in the Middle East, Europe is our best bet. Let’s defend it, and then let’s make it better. To take the first step in that direction, vote in these elections. One hundred percent of our generation will live in this future – so perhaps more than twenty-eight should come out and shape it.