BRUSSELS - At 6 P.M. Belgian time, 7 P.M. Israel time on Sunday, European Parliament election results will begin to flow in from the 28 member countries to the Parliament building in Brussels. There they will be posted on huge screens with numerous analyses and commentaries.
The final outcome, after the hundreds of millions of votes are tallied, usually garners little interest in countries that are not members of the European Union. That is the case in Israel, where traditionally a great deal more attention is paid to election results in the United States. On the one hand this indifference is understandable, considering the complex and disaffected structure of EU institutions in the view of the public, even the European public. But on the other hand, it is surprising and dangerous considering the huge impact of European politics on contemporary life, even in Israel.
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The European Parliament, the lower house in the European Union, which represents the votes of almost half a billion people, has 751 seats, which are distributed among the various parties and carry varying weights for each member country. Together with the Council of the European Union and in keeping with the policies of the European Commission, they influence Europe’s laws, policy and international treaties. In addition, Parliament’s representatives influence the EU budget, supervision of its institutions and the identity of some of its members, the most important of whom is the commission president.
In line with the historic circumstances that led to the EU’s establishment, firstly the trauma of World War II, and in light of the values that led the EU in those years, the Parliament has so far been dominated by liberals who strongly support the principle of European cooperation. Moderate parties of both right and left have usually won most of the votes.
But the trend toward populism and more extreme Euroskepticism is threatening to reach new heights in these elections, and cast doubts on those fundamental values that have until now been seen as universal in the corridors of the institutions in Brussels and Strasbourg: Peace, unity, liberty, tolerance, human rights and the rule of law. The new Parliament is expected to be more divided and nationalistic, with greater opposition to existing immigration policy and, ironically, even the very existence of the European Union in its present form.
All of these trends will of course impact Israel as well. Our own populist politicians usually love to focus on the liberal nature of the EU, which also leads in financial aid to organizations that promote such values in our region; more simply put, that they help “the left.” But the future of the EU is more critical than this in terms of freedom of movement to tour our neighboring continent; for the Israeli economy, which enjoys trade relations with the EU worth 36 billion euros ($40.3 billion) a year; to the academic and research community, which receives grants, scholarships and exchange programs; and for our state agencies that take part in projects to coordinate with EU regulations. And yes, the EU also affects diplomatic issues, among them relations with Iran and the Palestinians. A more isolationist and conservative EU will not necessarily bode well for Israel in any of these realms.
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Not only Israel is indifferent
Indifference to the fate of the EU is a problem not only for Israelis, of course, but first of all for Europeans themselves, who look with growing concern at falling participation in voting rates for the European Parliament. Since the first elections were held in 1979, participation has plummeted from 62 percent to 43 percent in the 2014 elections. Experts blame the murky voting method, the inability to market the relevance of the European alliance to people’s lives, and the generational change, with young people having no memory of World War II and taking peace and prosperity on the continent for granted.
As a result, this time the EU launched what many Israelis will identify as “gevalt” campaign, with the aim of increasing voter turnout and awareness of the EU’s impact on voters’ lives. “This time I’m voting,” declared the slogan accompanying the efforts in various countries, largely addressed at young people. The campaign is in the best tradition of “the main thing is to get out and vote,” and of theories about the “silent moderate majority.” Without saying whom to vote for, Brussels believes that the higher the turnout, the less power will end up in the hands of populist parties “on both sides,” and the greater a vote of confidence will be given to EU institutions and their legitimacy to act.
At the basis of this belief lies the liberal worldview that most potential voters tend to be moderate. But this belief has no clear basis in research. Voting rates in various countries with various systems, including those where voting is compulsory, do not show the same results in terms of party preferences. That is, greater voter turnout does not always signal a preference for liberal values. This is even more the case when it comes to Euroskepticism, which indeed appears on both sides of the political spectrum.
The same issue came up in many conversations last week in Brussels: Stubborn insistence by leaders of the European project not to take a clear stand against those forces threatening to destroy the “common basis of values” they are so proud of. The EU emphasizes the importance of the democratic process itself, and believes that even increased Euroskepticism will actually show a desire to take part in the system rather than dismantle it. They grasp onto studies which show that when Europeans are asked about the issues themselves, there is still a majority for a liberal worldview, despite the growth of isolationist parties.
In a world where the right wing is celebrating in Europe and threatening its unity, where Donald Trump is president of the United States and Russia and China are becoming more aggressive, this optimism seems like proof of the elitism and disassociation afflicting the liberal establishment, as it labors under the dangerous assumption that it will always be in the majority, a majority that shares its values.