In May 2019, elections to the European Parliament will be held throughout the European Union. It will be a smaller body after Brexit and the departure of British members. There has also been concern in the media and public opinion that the EU’s legislative arm will feature a strong lineup of “populist” or “nationalist” parties, whose growing influence in Strasbourg and Brussels could potentially damage or even destroy the bloc.
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To prevent this dire scenario, many politicians, intellectuals and journalists are urging a continued boycott of these groups – excluding, marginalizing, defaming and fighting them as much as possible.
This approach can already be seen in the campaign being waged against certain member countries for being “illiberal” and not complying with “European values.” Hungary has traditionally been singled out for such accusations, but the list has now lengthened to include Poland, Austria and, lately, Italy.
In other countries as well, successful political challengers have been labeled as nationalistic, xenophobic and undemocratic. This includes the Sweden Democrats, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the National Rally (formerly the Front National) in France and many other parties.
Concern for Europe’s future is justified, but the focus on these groups is misplaced. In many European countries, nonvoters have already become the strongest party. Besides those who have dropped out entirely, the fastest-growing political constituency is for the so-called (but often wrongly named) “protest parties.”
The question is whether attempts to combat or marginalize these movements will prove effective.
The alternative is to take a long, self-critical look at the inadequacies of the current political system. Even though Europe has many dedicated politicians and public servants who work hard for their countries, we know that politicians in general are not highly respected anymore. The stigma of being a politician results in negative selection, a vicious circle that prevents able people from entering politics.
Many voters in Europe believe their opinions or concerns have become irrelevant to professional politicians
This process opens a deep rift between those who govern and the governed. Many voters believe their opinions or concerns have become irrelevant. Unfortunately, in most countries members of parliament are professional politicians. Their livelihoods depend on reelection and party favor, limiting any exercise of independent judgement.
A basic human need is physical security. This is the main function – along with delivering justice through law enforcement and the court system – that states fulfill. Yet security against physical attack is in decline, as can be seen in many European countries, including Germany. This is due not to any inadequacy of the police, but to the limitations placed on them by a misguided political correctness.
However, in some large Central European cities such as Warsaw and Budapest, this is not the case.
Besides the grave security situation, centralization and overregulation on the national and Union levels are alienating European citizens. Declining respect for the principle of subsidiarity and growing “harmonization” does not respect the variety that has traditionally been Europe’s strength.
In general, both Brussels and the national governments have assumed too much power, while neglecting basic responsibilities like local security. In many instances, rules devised by national and European authorities – such as the arbitrary allocation of migrants – are even detrimental to those responsibilities. This does not mean that Europe should not accept real refugees if their lives are in danger, only that they must fully respect the rules and culture of their host country.
Instead, we are observing a shift from decentralized democracies – where individuals and families can feel involved – to centralized bureaucracies on the national and EU levels. This process intensifies as national governments shuffle awkward problems off to the Union authorities in Brussels.
Nonvoters form Europe's largest party; their disinterest is the truest gauge of the political system's failure
It is therefore likely that nonvoters will continue to form the largest party. Their apathy and disinterest is the truest gauge of Europe’s political failure.
At the same time, across the continent, people sense that the welfare state is in trouble and likely to fail. The mirage of social and economic security it provided was the basis of populist politics in past decades, when it was offered as a substitute for personal responsibility and freedom of choice. Now it has become obvious that these oversized promises can no longer be paid for. Centralization, overregulation and the bloated bureaucracy they require have simply become too expensive.
Since existing “liberal democratic” parties are unable or unwilling to remedy the malaise, it is only natural that voters turn to new political movements. That is why the “protest parties” can justifiably expect strong support in the coming elections.
Instead of marginalizing these newcomers, their political energy and strength should be harnessed to tackle Europe's underlying problems. The main weakness of these parties is some lack of managerial talent and people to implement political and administrative tasks. This helps explain the disagreeable rhetoric and occasional excesses that the media are only too eager to report. But with time, these skills will surely develop.
However, if the mainstream parties were to accept rivals such as the AfD as legitimate competitors, it would widen the political spectrum and open new opportunities to address the issues that matter to Europeans on the local, national and EU levels.
Today’s predicaments were caused by Europe’s political practices over the past 20 years. An infusion of new blood into the European Parliament – especially of groups focused more on regional interests – would be more conducive to fruitful debate. In politics as well as in economics, competition is healthy. It is more likely to produce good decisions than to destroy Europe.