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The Bigger Picture(s) of the European Elections

Over the past three days, European citizens in 28 countries have been called to vote in what's considered to be the most important European election in history.

Chauvinist dreams of national grandeur have emerged from the shadows of liberal democracies, and nativists strive to take a center role in European politics. Meanwhile, the new European parliament and with it the new European commission will face existential challenges: Hard-power based competition has made its comeback onto the geopolitical stage, China and the US are entangled in a destructive trade war, the catastrophic effects of climate still loom heavy, while the advance of AI and Biotech are poised to uproot societies and economies alike.

In other words: there's a lot at stake. So, let us turn to a few readings that might help illuminate where Europe stands and where it could go.

1. How are Europeans across the continent thinking about the elections? Where do they put their hopes? And what might change in the parliament? Jon Henley, Angela Giuffrida, and Kim Wilsher investigated in France, Italy, and Poland. Read their article here (The Guardian).

"No longer a mere talking shop, the European parliament now has significant powers in the EU law-making process: the European commission proposes directives and regulations, but it is MEPs and the council of ministers – government members from all 28 countries – who amend and approve or reject them.

In the new parliament “the centre-right and centre-left coalitions that pass legislation will be smaller, and majorities more difficult to form,” said Simon Hix, a political scientist at the LSE. “As a result, populist, EU-critical MEPs will be able to shape the policy agenda. They’re also likely to win key policy-making positions in parliament, such as committee chairs.”


2. Two weeks ago, historian Timothy Snyder gave a speech entitled "Judenplatz1010", calling us to assume the lessons of history and to take responsibility for the future. Read his speech now.

«You, Europeans are responsible of where memory goes. Memory of war, Holocaust, and European integration can tend towards reasserting a myth about small, innocent nation states that bear little responsibility for the past or for the future. Or memory can flow into history in which you ran the world for half a millennium, created something new in the second half of the twentieth century and now bare particular responsibility for how things turn out in the twenty-first. »


3. European nationalists are hiding behind the vague ideal of a "Europe of the fatherlands" - desperate to conceal their many differences and their overlapping allegiances to regional, national & European identities. Jeremy Cliff sheds light on their contradictions. Read Cliff's article now (The Economist)

"If national identities are uniquely sacred, for example, then why were so many Lega supporters in the crowd flying regional flags? ... And why did several speakers wax lyrical about a common European identity? If Leonardo da Vinci and Joan of Arc belong to Europe as a whole as well as to their respective nations, as Ms Le Pen seemed to claim, then perhaps national identities are more fluid and intertwined than the nationalist ideal preached in other parts of the speeches allowed. “Viva l’Europa” said several speakers in accented Italian in their perorations, comparing the continent to a living being in a fashion they might have been expected to reserve for their precious nation states."


4. Stefan Zweig was one of the great European thinkers of the last century. With pain and disbelief the writer and poet observed how the continent succumbed to nationalism, fascism, and Stalinism, and how nations ended up butchering each other in WWII. Zweig would never see post-war Europe. Would he feel that today's Europe resembled his dream of unity? Read Gavin Jacobson's essay on Stefan Zweig's Europan dreams (The Nation):

"Zweig hoped that fraternity would define the postwar order, where out of the “fiery delirium” would emerge a peaceful world... Differences in language would be overcome by education and the mutual translation and exchange of ideas and intellectual traditions...

[His] message of fraternity is welcome right now. His dream of a united and more humane Europe has been realized to a degree in the exchanges of culture, goods, services, and people under the aegis of the European Union. But even this partially realized version is now under serious threat. At a time of monetary crisis and political disorder, of mounting border controls and barbed-wire fences, when refugees die on the EU’s borders or are subjected to racism and persecution within them, Zweig’s celebration of the brotherhood of peoples reminds us that there is another way.”


5. To continue with big visions: Ulrike Guérot is convinced that it is time for the foundation of a European republic, whose sovereignty resides directly with the European citizens and not with national governments. Read her proposal now (The Guardian):

"[A]s Europe ponders its future, the task of shaping it should be placed in the hands of people, not nation states. Of course, to achieve this would require a major shift – with citizens, rather than states, recognised as the sovereign actors of EU politics... [T]he citizens – taken as a whole, not divided into national subgroups – should be given a full and direct say. That will only ever happen if the notion of a European republic somehow takes hold: res publica europaea, the European common good."


6. "Do we really need to lose it all in order to find it again?" asks Timothy Garton Ash in a fiery defence of the Europe that's been been built since WWII. With all its imperfections, he argues, it's the best Europe we've ever had. Read Ash's essay now (The Guardian):

"In a long historical perspective, this is the best Europe we have ever had. I challenge you to point to a better one, for the majority of the continent’s countries and individual people. Most Europeans live in liberal democracies that are committed to resolving their differences by all-night meetings in Brussels, not unilateral action, let alone armed force...

Many and diverse were the nightmares from which [European] countries were trying to awake... Europe had no shortage of nightmares. But in all these countries, the shape of the pro-European argument was the same. It was an elongated, exuberant pencilled tick: a steep descent, a turn and then an upward line ascending to a better future. A future called Europe... " .


7. What future is there for European social democracy in light of the rise of the right-wing nativists across the continent? Cas Mudde argues that the European left must refrain from trying to adopt the frames and policy priorities of the right. Instead it should re-affirm its key ideas, including egalitarianism, social justice, and comprehensive welfare. Read Mudde's article now (The Guardian):

"The argument that a tougher stand on immigration will revive the social democratic parties – and arrest the rise of the radical right – is based on two basic errors... The first mistake is the widespread assumption that the rise of rightwing populism and the decline of traditional centre-left parties are two sides of the same coin – both caused by working-class voters abandoning the old social democrats for the nativist message of the new populist radical right. The second misperception, closely related to the first, is that the voters who now support the populist radical right are largely the white working class that used to vote reliably for social democratic parties....

By prioritising immigration as an issue – and reinforcing the negative depiction of migrants and migration – mainstream parties only help to boost the main issue and frame of the populist radical right."


8. Anne Applebaum is shedding light on the response of voters and parties to the rise of nationalism and argues that the broad centre of European politics - ranging from centre left to centre right - is in need of a common vision to assert its majority. Read Applebaum's article now (The Washington Post).

" [Those who fear the return of nationalism] are the majority — in most countries, the vast majority. But they are also center-right conservatives, center-left social democrats and liberals from many countries, and they don’t necessarily use the same political vocabulary. They lack a common set of heroes, a common set of themes — in other words, to use the now unavoidable phrase, they lack a common narrative... The question, of course, is how fast this reconstruction of European politics around common, positive themes can happen. There are a lot of obstacles in the way: the Kremlin, Islamist militants and a part of the Trump administration are all pushing for the re-division of Europe..."

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