Bread, Circus and More Europe

Few were the pundits who withstood temptation. On the one hand, soccer, on the other hand, politics. Crowded stadiums vs. empty voting stations. Roars for the goals of Zinedine Zidane, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, and Wayne Rooney as opposed to yawns in the face of the European parliamentary election lists of Gerhard Schroeder, Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair. The commentators refused to miss the right to highlight the irony: the nationalism of soccer had defeated the utopian supra-nationalism of the European Union, they all said.

Some 13.5 million French fans watched their team play against England. Only 7.6 million watched the European Parliament election programming. Even Christine Ockrent, the serious compere of a popular political television talk show in France, broke off her conversation with former prime minister Laurent Fabius to report the French victory over England. No one would have ordered "Zizou" to stop dribbling to announce the results of the European elections to the fans in the stadium, snickered the French newspaper Liberation.

"Nothing like a little sport to provide the European Union with a reality check," mocked The New York Times. The national flags are being held high in excitement, fans are booing the anthems of the rival teams, spitting in each other's faces, and hitting each other with fists and chains. Is political Europe in trouble? Perhaps.

Nevertheless, The New York Times' reality check is distorted. Presenting soccer as proof of the victory of nationalism is demagoguery. The fans of Manchester United and Arsenal, Inter and Milan, Real Madrid and Barcelona, and even of Maccabi and Hapoel Tel Aviv all swear to destroy their rival. However, no one ever saw this as a tendency to political separatism. No one ever defined a lost game as a causus belli.

The European elections had two main characteristics: low voter turnout (a nadir of 44 percent) and a massive protest vote of the few voters who did turn out that delivered a blow to almost all of the union's governing parties. Here, too, the message is much less anti-European than the impression the analysts sought to create. The voters' nose-thumbing of their governments was intended to punish them for their decisions or failings at the national level, not their European policies. The small voter turnout can be explained both by the continent's chronic ignorance of everything connected to the EU and its institutions, and by an intensive discourse on national issues: supra-national lists (except for the Greens) were not established ,and there was no discussion of burning European issues, such as the constitution, Turkey's membership and transatlantic relations.

The protest vote and low turnout contributed to the success of the nationalist and Euro-skeptic parties. However, here too, the commentators went overboard: Out of 452 lists that stood for election, 96 can be defined as critical of the union. Sixty-three of these didn't even get one representative into the parliament. Together with outstanding successes, like that of the Vlaams Blok (Flemish Bloc) movement, were outstanding failures, such as Joerg Haider's Freedom Party, which was almost completely wiped out. In the final analysis, the strengthening of the Euro-skeptics is marginal. These parties won about 16 percent of the votes compared to 14.5 percent in the last elections in 1999. The support of these parties among all eligible voters stands today at 7 percent compared to 6.8 percent in 1999. That is, a clear majority in the parliament still believes in the motto of "an ever-closer union."

A look at the European Commission's "Eurobarometer" reveals that the continent's citizens clearly support all the symbols of a federal, supra-national union: 60 percent support the single currency, 65 percent support a common foreign policy, 72 percent want shared defense, and 63 percent seek a constitution. The bottom line: the Europeans want bread, circus and soccer, but they also demand more Europe.