Every May since 1958 in order to promote postwar peace, Europeans passionately listen, debate, then vote in a contest that convulses the continent.
No, not on a political issue, but pop music, in the world’s biggest singing contest, called Eurovision.
But this year, competing visions of Europe are central to an election to determine the direction of another postwar attempt at peace — the European Union. And this vote is eliciting a somewhat similar response, as a usually placid electorate has become electrified about the European Parliament.
The twice-a-decade elections for the 751-member Parliament that helps sets direction for the E.U. has been jolted by the rise of far-right populists who have united against the union itself, or at least what they see as its heavy-handed ways.
Turnout is expected to increase for the election, which began on Thursday and ends on Sunday, reflecting the stakes for the E.U., the U.S. and indeed the world in the first parliamentary vote since the height of the migration crisis, the Brexit referendum and serial fiscal crises due to sclerotic economies.
“The forces of nationalism, the forces of populism and the forces of integrationism — are all at play in these elections, and that’s why they matter for the future of the E.U.,” said Célia Belin, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center on the U.S. and Europe.
“Anxieties at the global level — the rapid evolution of the world with financial globalization, and new technologies, and mass mobility, and increasing inequalities — all of this has deepened the sense in people of powerlessness,” Belin said. Added to that is the feeling of “losing control at all levels of government, national or European, and so by uniting in these national, sovereigntist, far-right parties they hope to reassert their local power and regain control.”
Those uniting against the union’s role reflect populist movements led by the likes of Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, the pied piper of populists who has rallied fellow travelers across the Continent. They include National Rally (formerly National Front) leader Marine Le Pen of France, the Netherland’s Geert Wilders, and the U.K.’s Nigel Farage — the Brexit Party leader whose push for Britain’s E.U. exit has now pushed out Theresa May, the prime minister whose inability to strike a Brexit deal led to her resignation announcement on Friday.
Some populists were popular enough already to move from provocateurs to president, prime minister or chancellor, as in the case of Austria’s Sebastian Kurz, whose government was rocked after a video surfaced of his vice chancellor promising contracts to a woman claiming ties to a Russian oligarch. This led to the resignation of Heinz-Christian Strache, whose Freedom Party, founded by former Nazis, left the coalition governing altogether. (Another far-right party with neo-Nazi elements, Alternative for Germany, is that nation’s official opposition party.)
Another populist leader, Viktor Orban, is prime minister of Hungary, one of the four central European “Visegrad” nations in the vice grips of illiberalism. Orban’s Oval Office meeting with President Donald Trump this month was considered a coup for him and the movement, which also takes inspiration from former Trump aide Steve Bannon.
During the obligatory photo-op, Trump said of Orban: “Highly respected. Respected all over Europe. Probably like me, a little bit controversial, but that’s O.K. That’s O.K. You’ve done a good job, and you’ve kept your country safe.”
Actually, because of his authoritarian nature and his efforts to pull Hungary closer toward Russia’s orbit, Orban is a pariah among responsible continental leaders. And if keeping his country safe means intolerance to immigrants, perhaps Orban should be equally concerned with emigration.
“Eastern and Central European countries who barely have any immigrants still feel the same type of identity anxiety, mostly because their young people are leaving,” Belin said. “So the reaction is sort of the same; reaffirming your values, reaffirming your own culture.”
For his part, Trump should be reaffirming the longstanding strategy of a strong, unified West. But the president, who called himself “Mr. Brexit” during his campaign, counterintuitively embraces intolerant leaders such as Orban while insulting more consequential continental figures such as Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron, who in particular is regarded as the kind of globalist that nationalist leaders want to defeat.
Europe’s insurgent surge “runs totally counter to American interests” in the long run, said Jörn Fleck, associate director of the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative. “There is this short-term temptation of dividing and conquering if the United States deals with 28 separate countries; in theory it gives the United States more leverage. But that’s very misleading. The European Union is the partner of first resort.”
Especially in countering the Kremlin, which has developed tight ties with several of the populist parties.
Russia’s rooting interest in disrupting E.U. unity is by now well-apparent. So is its election meddling, which is detailed in a SafeGuard Cyber report, “How Russia Is Deploying Misinformation on Social Media to Influence European Parliamentary Elections.” But increasingly, much of the malice is indigenously as well as internationally driven, according to the new report titled “Far Right Networks of Deception,” from Avaaz, an online activist group that has “uncovered that far right and anti-EU groups are weaponizing social media at scale.”
In fact, disinformation and “dodgy websites” don’t have to only be financed by Russia to be effective, said Tomáš Valášek, director of Carnegie Europe. For all the momentum far-right movements have heading into the election, Valášek said it will equally key to see if a countermovement is afoot.
“Will there be a popular response to the populist parties that have emerged?” he rhetorically asked, echoing Fleck, who said that “there’s more to this story than just the rise of nationalist, populist Eurosceptics who are anti-E. U. — there’s also the countermovement that this has triggered.”
Belin agrees, but said that “the election is very near; Given what’s happened in the past five years it’s still the sovereign, nationalist movement [with momentum]. And yet I see the premise of another conversation, but it’s still a bit too early.”
As for Eurovision, this year’s contest was won by the Netherlands’ Duncan Laurence for his song “Arcade,” which the New York Times described as a moody solo about a broken heart. Whether that matches the mood in Europe will be clearer when election results are announced.
At least “Arcade” beat out Iceland’s techno-punk band Hatari, whose song “Hate Will Prevail” has the lyric: “Hate will prevail/And Europe’s heart impale.”
Not exactly what postwar organizers had in mind in 1958.
Then again, the European Union’s founders probably didn’t anticipate a parliamentary election like this year’s, either.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.