Why turning the EP elections into a referendum on an open and liberal Europe is unhelpful

By Dr Luuk Molthof.

The Euro­pean Par­lia­ment elec­tions are usu­al­ly depict­ed as a fair­ly dull affair. Not this time, how­ev­er. The upcom­ing Brex­it and the rise of pop­ulism have turned this May’s elec­tions into a sig­nif­i­cant event. Europe’s main­stream politi­cians nev­er seem to miss an oppor­tu­ni­ty to stress the sig­nif­i­cance of this year’s vote and to reit­er­ate what’s at stake: Euro­pean democ­ra­cy, com­mon Euro­pean val­ues, and the Euro­pean project as a whole.

Frans Tim­mer­mans, Vice-Pres­i­dent of the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion and lead can­di­date for the Par­ty of Euro­pean social­ists (PES), for instance, stressed that these elec­tions were noth­ing less than a fight over ‘the soul of Europe’: “Because the choice that is put before us is whether we con­tin­ue to be based on democ­ra­cy, the rule of law and respect for fun­da­men­tal rights, or, whether we go back to the rule by pow­er.” Emmanuel Macron, mean­while, in an open let­ter to Euro­pean cit­i­zens, said that this year’s elec­tions will be ‘deci­sive for the future of our con­ti­nent’. It was up to the Euro­pean cit­i­zens, so the French Pres­i­dent, to decide “whether Europe and the val­ues of progress that it embod­ies are to be more than just a pass­ing episode in history”.

There is no doubt that the stakes for these elec­tions are high. A pow­er­ful pop­ulist block in the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment could do sig­nif­i­cant dam­age to the Parliament’s effec­tive­ness. It is there­fore only ratio­nal for Europe’s main­stream politi­cians to want to stress the sig­nif­i­cance of this year’s vote. How­ev­er, by fram­ing these elec­tions as a ref­er­en­dum about an open, lib­er­al Europe, Tim­mer­mans and Macron are effec­tive­ly con­tribut­ing to an already polarised debate. They are turn­ing these elec­tions into a bina­ry choice – for or against an open soci­ety, for or against lib­er­al demo­c­ra­t­ic val­ues, for or against Europe. Yet the fact of the mat­ter is that many vot­ers aren’t eas­i­ly clas­si­fied into bina­ry ‘tribes’ and hence risk being alienated.

Tim­mer­mans and Macron are count­ing on the fact that a major­i­ty of Euro­peans will want to live in an open, demo­c­ra­t­ic Europe. And they appear to be cor­rect. Accord­ing to our Voic­es on Val­ues research, a project by d|part and the Open Soci­ety Euro­pean Pol­i­cy Insti­tute, con­duct­ed in 6 dif­fer­ent Euro­pean coun­tries, only very few peo­ple out­right reject an open soci­ety. An over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of Euro­peans con­sid­er such prin­ci­ples as the free­dom of expres­sion, free­dom of reli­gion, and the pro­tec­tion of minor­i­ty rights as impor­tant for a good society.

How­ev­er, many of these ‘open soci­ety sup­port­ers’ also val­ue a degree of ‘closed­ness’. This means, for instance, that some Euro­peans simul­ta­ne­ous­ly val­ue the equal treat­ment of new­com­er­san­da restric­tive immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy, or the pro­tec­tion of minor­i­ty rights and the pro­tec­tion of the inter­ests of the major­i­ty group. Our research fur­ther found that many ‘open soci­ety sup­port­ers’ do not auto­mat­i­cal­ly pri­ori­tise demo­c­ra­t­ic free­doms and rights above eco­nom­ic well­be­ing and phys­i­cal secu­ri­ty. One senior offi­cial at the Euro­pean Commission’s Sec­re­tari­at Gen­er­al explained this as fol­lows: “Essen­tial­ly, peo­ple just want to feel they are being pro­tect­ed. They want an open soci­ety, cer­tain­ly, but with the assur­ance that the open soci­ety does not abol­ish itself.”

Our results, then, demon­strate that sup­port for and com­mit­ment to an open soci­ety – as for the Euro­pean project – comes in dif­fer­ent shades. The fram­ing of the EP elec­tions as a bina­ry choice between an open, lib­er­al Europe and a closed, nation­al­ist Europe, risks alien­at­ing a sig­nif­i­cant group of vot­ers who, whilst gen­er­al­ly sup­port­ive of an open and demo­c­ra­t­ic Europe, don’t define them­selves as exclu­sive­ly open, lib­er­al, and pro-European.

This is not to say that the cen­tre (-left and right) should refrain from mak­ing the case for a lib­er­al demo­c­ra­t­ic Europe, or should even avoid mak­ing it a cam­paign issue. On the con­trary. Now, more than ever, should politi­cians be defend­ing lib­er­al demo­c­ra­t­ic val­ues, an open soci­ety, and the Euro­pean project. But to pre­tend that vot­ers are faced with a sim­ple, bina­ry choice only fur­thers the cur­rent polar­i­sa­tion. Above all, it fails to do jus­tice to the com­plex­i­ty of the Euro­pean polit­i­cal spec­trum and the dif­fer­ent shades of open­ness it represents.

Dr Luuk Molthof is a Senior Research Fel­low at d|part.

This arti­cle has first been pub­lished on the New Euro­peans Blog.


The views and opin­ions expressed in this arti­cle are those of the author.

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