Let’s face it…
When Alexander Van Der Bellen won the Austrian
Presidential elections in May defeating far-right candidate Norbert Hofer with a mere 50.3% majority, relief was the main reaction of the Brussels crowd and pro-Europeans citizens throughout the continent.
When Front National was defeated in the French Regional elections in December by only 30,000 votes in Bourgogne-Franche-Comté and only as the result of the withdrawal of the Socialist Party in Nord-Pas de Calais-Picardy and Provence-Alpes-Côtes d’Azur the same people celebrated: “The establishment is safe, no racists and far-right parties are in power!”In the early 2000s people reacted with fear when Front National reached the second round of the French Presidential elections, where it only reached 17.8% of votes, or when Pim Fortuyn’s LPF arrived second at the Dutch general elections with 17% of preferences only days after its leader’s assassination. Now it is considered the new normal to have Front National topping opinion polls in France, Wilders’ PVV almost doubling the second largest party in opinion polls in the Netherlands, or Farage’s UKIP finishing first in the British European elections in 2014.
Still, many signals of the growing dissatisfaction of European citizens with its establishment and main institutions were usually waved away, set aside as temporary, marginal phenomena. The Netherlands and France vetoed the European Constitution in 2005? Never mind, we changed its name to Treaty of Lisbon and we passed it anyway in a very slightly amended form. Ireland and Denmark voted against further European integration? Well, let them vote until they are choosing the right answer!
“We” all thought we knew better. “We” have studied. “We” know what Europe really is about. We won’t really want to listen to “them”, angry people!? What to “they” know about the EU? “They” don’t even know which countries are part of it, how can “their” vote be of any use?
Let’s be honest with each other, this is the talk that is often heard in pubs and restaurants in Brussels and other European capitals. Many university graduates and EU officials would think this way. More often than not I tend to think like this myself. Meanwhile votes for anti-establishment parties are being vilified, labelled as protest votes and therefore less important. Most people did not address the roots of these votes, no one reformed Europe in a way to make it closer to the people. Anti-establishment votes rose further. From 5%, to 17%, to 30%, up and up. People felt angry. Betrayed. More and more grand coalitions had to be formed, ideologies faded, politics became a game between consolidated interests versus the rest. An anti-establishment victory had become a matter of time…
Then Brexit came. After getting closer and closer in every election, the most radical of proposals was finally reached a majority of voters : the UK would have to leave the European Union. You could have seen it coming, yet talking about a possible majority for “leave” is one thing, “leave” winning the referendum is something else. I was shocked. So many still are. But most shocking is perhaps the reaction of many people – educated people with a genuine belief in a liberal, democratic, just and united Europe – to the Brexit vote.
“Voters are so stupid. We should vote again. It’s all Cameron’s fault. And Corbyn’s. How can people vote against our Europe?”
I recognize that I am myself squeezed between two feelings. On the one hand, I have the same reaction. On the other hand, perhaps it is finally time to face the truth: a growing minority is voting against the ruling establishment, including the EU, in each single European country. Yet Brussels has in the past 15 years not made a single move to really address the concerns of this minority, which has therefore continued to grow, and to grow, and to grow. Now, all of a sudden, the minority is a minority no more.
Self-criticism in Brussels? None. Juncker? Still on his seat. Tusk? Comfortably at the European Summit. Schulz? Running for reelection. Everyone is blaming the Brits, but no one is recognizing the faults of our system that has our electorate is clearly revolting against.
Now everyone wants change. But what change do we really want? What change can we agree on? The opinions are divided, again, and although people talk about deep reform of EU institutions, a two-speed Europe, fiscal unions and intelligence sharing, no common proposals have really come off the ground yet. Admittedly it is very early after Brexit, but with the same leaders that have not managed to address major problems of confidence for 15 years still in the driving seat, it is unlikely to foresee how people like Juncker, Schulz and Hollande might actually push through reforms that are addressing the anger of people. Even if they would be able to get through such reform, of whatever kind, and make the EU more inclusive and responsive to the fear of people, a top-down Brussels-driven approach would probably not turn the tide around and restore social peace around our continent.
If this scenario is right, we are in big trouble. Ignoring the Brexit vote would further increase the feeling of people that the establishment won’t listen to their vote anyway. The temptation to show their middle finger to Brussels would grow even further all around Europe, and the establishment would probably be swept out of power in one country after another. The UK might stay in the EU at first, but within few years the EU would crumble down through democratic elections, implode.
Accepting the result of the British referendum while blaming the UK for its silly decision, without actually addressing the problems at the root of the vote, does not look like a much wiser decision either. The painful path through which the UK has to go while leaving the EU might deter voters off in the short run, but would not resolve the underlying reasons for the widespread dissatisfaction of Europe’s alienated voters.
I don’t know how to reform Europe, nobody really does, but perhaps we should start by accepting the result of the Brexit vote and by addressing the concerns of hundreds of millions of Europeans. More likely than not an open debate between EU institutions, locally elected officials, academics, think tanks, sectorial organizations, businesses, workers will lead to ideas we haven’t heard before. Certainly someone that is not imprisoned by the Brussels bubble tunnel vision will come up with some smart idea, a reform of our institutions and representative democracy at the European level that will ensure people feel to be part of a story. We will certainly also hear a million of ridiculous proposals. But at least we will talk about ideas, visions. People will feel part of the European polis. And ultimately someone might come up with something new, out of the box. That is the essence of politics, of democracy. It is in fact the essence of what the EU claims to be and to project outside.
The civil society of Europe is strong enough to survive even after the EU. New forms of governance to protect our freedoms and liberties might arise. But I rather involve everyone in the debate now, rather than after a wave of dissatisfied citizens has swept the EU away and the discussion takes place in much direr circumstances.
Robert Zielonka (24), is a 2015 and 2016 Graduate of Democracy
Disclaimer: This Post reflects solely the author’s opinion and do not represent the platform as a whole