It’s a fact of political life in the European Union that most Europeans eligible to vote at EU elections don’t vote. And yet, curiously, the EU’s leaders are not anxious about people’s lack of participation. No, they are seemingly more worried about those who are participating – in short, they’re worried about populism. So the big story of May’s EU elections was not that Europe-wide turnout fell to 42.54 per cent; rather, it was the alleged threat to democracy posed by the success of populist parties such as the Front National in France and UKIP in Britain.
Even in mature parliamentary democracies like Germany, Holland and the UK, the majority of the electorate didn’t bother to vote in May’s elections. But instead of asking why the elections failed to engage the interest of the majority of the European public, the EU oligarchy preferred to concentrate its energy on attacking and pathologising populist and Eurosceptic movements. When Germany’s vice chancellor, the Social Democrat leader Sigmar Gabriel, denounced Eurosceptic parties on both the left and right as ‘stupid’, he gave voice to a sentiment that is widespread among Europe’s political elites. They genuinely believe that these ‘ignorant’ parties are the real threat to democracy. In other words, it’s okay that millions abstain – after all, it means they’re not voting the wrong way. The EU establishment is clearly quite comfortable living with an electorate that is switched off and detached from the political process.
The exhaustion of European political life
The high level of abstentions in the European elections is symptomatic of the exhaustion of conventional political life in Europe. Since the late 1970s, and especially since the 1980s, the traditional parties of the left and right have experienced a profound crisis of identity. Many of the right-wing and centrist parties that dominated the postwar political landscape – such as the Italian Christian Democratic Party – have lost the capacity to motivate their dwindling support bases, losing votes and influence. The mass Communist parties of the left have all but disappeared, and social democracy has declined dramatically in influence. In response, mainstream party policymakers have embraced a self-consciously non-ideological, technocratic and centrist approach. In turn, the emergence of so-called Third Way technocratic governments has deepened the cultural chasm that separates the elite’s own worldview and interests from those of the electorate. Arguably the most significant manifestation of this development has been the disassociation of left-wing parties from the politics of class. And it’s this erosion of the historical relationship between the working class and parties of the left that has provided the ground on which populist movements are now flourishing.
Support for populist movements is not confined to the disenfranchised core of the old working class. For example, in the recent state vote in Saxony, the Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany Party won a surprise 9.7 per cent of the vote. Although a portion of its support came from former supporters of parties of the left, most of it came from people who had voted for the Christian Democratic Party and the liberal Free Democratic Party. What recent elections in the EU and elsewhere demonstrate is that populist movements represent an attempt to construct a political community that is otherwise absent in public life.