27 May 2014

Apathy, not rage, is the EU’s biggest threat

The Thalys train from Paris to Brussels (lasting an hour and 15 minutes) glides effortlessly through the flat landscape of northern France crossing the border with Belgium without even a jurisdictional ripple or the disturbance of border guards. The joys of Schengenland.

It is a reminder of the pleasant practicalities of Europe that we had all got somewhat used to – that get completely ignored in the current storm but that might be downgraded or thrown out if the populist anti-Europe insurrection isn’t stopped.

The pile of newspapers competing for space on my small table scream headlines in different languages. Most of it is seismically geared. “Erdbeben, terremoto, earthquake” etc.

But after a whole day of licking wounds and tearing out hair, the voices of caution are beginning to reassert themselves. The centre-right and left parties still dominate the European parliament, they assert. The far right and far left are hopelessly divided amongst each other, they point out. The Euro project is facing some serous detours but our train will not be derailed, they reassure themselves.

The op ed in the respected German Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung predicts that under the steady guiding hands of Angela Merkel, who triumphed in Sunday’s poll, the emphasis will now be on more, not less, Europe: circling the wagons against the populist hoard and not losing one’s cool.

In Brussels, Jean-Claude Juncker, the former prime minister of Luxembourg who heads the centre-right bloc, confidently predicted last night that he would still be anointed to the EU’s most powerful position as president of the commission. He may be right.

But as the FT pointed out today, the greatest danger now is not hysteria but complacency. President Francois Hollande knows this. When he addressed the nation last night he looked terrified. It’s not just about losing power and spending his remaining years in office as a lame duck president. He doesn’t want to go down in history as the man who handed the keys of the Elysée Palace to the far right. Like so much else these days, it is no longer inconceivable. Just imagine the headlines in 2017: France elects first female president, Marine Le Pen.

We have mostly focused on the radical right in recent days. The sudden rise of the radical left in Greece or Spain is equally unsettling to the established parties. The voters are lashing out in different directions. Their fists are flying in all directions.


But the message is the same: politics as usual doesn’t do it for us. The language of power, as President Hollande said last night, has become opaque and incomprehensible. He should know. The populist howl of indignation comes from the gut. As the EU’s battered and bruised heads of government meet in Brussels tonight to squabble over which unpopular unelected insider deserves to get the EU’s top job, the public’s eyes are bound to glaze over once again.

And here, arguably lies the biggest danger: not the deafening howl but the hollow silence. The sound of apathy. With more than 400 million voters, the EU is the biggest community of democrats on the planet. It has earned this prize of liberty after centuries of bloodletting and failed political experiments.

The enlargement of the EU to 28 members, many of them former vassals of the Soviet Union, has embedded a large chunk of middle and eastern Europe in the democratic system. It is a huge achievement. It is what Ukrainians are prepared to die for today. It upsets Vladimir Putin.

And yet the turnout overall was less than 50 per cent. In Slovakia it was a pathetic 13 per cent. More people probably vote in the Eurovision Song Contest.

Complacency from the top, rage from the wings and apathy from the bottom. A dangerous mix.

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5 reader comments

  1. Tim Waller says:

    I think part of the problem in the UK and seemingly across Europe, is that fact of a huge detachment between the general populace and the politicians.In the UK a combination of apathy and disgust at those in the main parties who repeatedly seem to be looking after themselves and their mates without helping the less well off. I’m not sure that the vote was about Europe but wanting to give Westminster the finger. Unfortunately other than the apparently disgraced LibDems, Labour and the Tories seem to be dithering over Europe and are losing out to UKIP who have a strong message albeit one that could create more problems than solve them. UKIP have taken over the mantel of the party of protest now the LibDems have been in Government.
    I can’t really comment for the rest of Europe, but from here in Switzerland, but it would appear that the EU needs to reengage with the people of Europe in much the same way as Westminster does.

    1. Karen Law says:

      I completely agree with you Tim, politicians in the main parties in Westminster fail time and again to engage with the general public and to take on the views of the masses they are supposed to represent. It’s a very “old boy” group at the top, Labour no longer (haven’t for years) represent the working classes, the Lib Dems haven’t done anything except stand in the Tories shadow since they came to “power”. So it’s no wonder the general public feel apathetic towards what their usual choice of politician, is touting. The only people who actually have a bee in their bonnet just now are UKIP supporters. Terribly worrying for UK politics. I’m hoping Scotland take the opportunity to try something else, as the democracy being whittled by Westminster is getting more farcical by the day.

  2. Philip Edwards says:

    When you say “…It is what Ukrainians are prepared to die for today…” you ought to note that the pro Washington unelected Kiev neoNazi junta are the ones doing the killing – the ones who have refused a neutral international investigation of the shootings in Kiev, the ones who carried out massacres in Odessa and who have launched air and artillery attacks against East Ukriainians..

    Nor did Putin, whatever his defaults, invent the financial collapse of the EU and the theft of US national wealth by the usual gangsters.

    Odd you didn’t mention or report that.

    But then again, maybe not. Maybe you think your kind of dishonesty will hold sway in the media.

  3. alan says:

    The EU and it’s member administrations bear no criticism beyond their own rules. Their doors are locked to public scrutiny. Accountability is only recognised to shareholders, by legal means we are not allowed to know who those shareholders are. Regimes of this nature use terms like voter apathy as they are incapable of understanding why nobody likes them.

  4. Neil Craig says:

    No, the biggest threat to the EU is its own parasitic government. The EU is in recession while the rest of the world is AVERAGING 5.5% growth. This is not new – the EU has been growing far slower than the world economy ever since we joined which is why when we joined it was 30% of the world economy and now it is half that despite increased membership.

    No matter how hard the old parties and the state owned media spin (as in this example where we are invited to sympathise with the eurocrats) and try to suppress their abysmal record, this is not Airstrip One and people can get news from other sources and now know how badly we are being drained.

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