Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat :
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Aswat Asharq Al-Awsatt since 1987

Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat : European Union: Testing Election Ahead

With the campaign for the election of the next European Parliament heating up it is becoming clear that the union of 27 democracies that together form the largest economic bloc in the world is not in good shape.

To be sure, the European Union isn’t quite on life-support as its arch-foe Vladimir Putin likes to claim. But nor is it in the robust, all-conquering health that French President Emmanuel Macron pretends.

To put it shortly, the EU is in crisis, deep and potentially life-threatening crisis.

A system is in crisis when it is hit by what in medical terms would be described as three “conditions”.

The first is a growing loss of public trust in the system as a whole.

This has been repeatedly illustrated in almost all member states by a persistent fall in voter turnouts in local, regional and national elections. According to several surveys average voter turnout in the past 20 elections in the union has hovered just above 50 percent, a dismal figure in a continent which, unlike the United States, going to the polls has always been popular.

Current surveys suggest that in the coming European Parliament elections next June fewer than 40 percent of voters would go to the polls.

Worse still, surveys show that next June’s elections could see a real killing by ultra-right and far-left parties, especially in France and Germany; a sure sign of falling trust in a system forged by a coalition of centrist, social-democratic and politically-correct outfits focused on environmental concerns and a range of niche issues built round real or imagined cases of injustice and victimhood.

In France the National Rally party of Marine Le Pen is forecast to collect 32 percent of the votes, more than twice what President Macron’s list is expected to win.

For the first time a coalition of right and ultra-right parties may come close to controlling the already challenged European Parliament and clinch a decisive say in the union’s other key institutions.

Marred by a low turnout last weekend’s presidential election in Slovakia led to victory for anti-EU pro-Putin factions.

The second “condition” is the sluggish state of the European economies. Even Germany, the EU’s wunderkind for generations may be hit by negative growth. Several EU members have tried to avoid that fate by spending money on a no-tomorrow basis. Gone are the days when a budget deficit above 3percent was regarded as a capital sin and a lower credit note from Moody’s a shaming punishment.

The second “condition” has had other unintended consequences. EU members are now competing against one another for new markets and sources of investment in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. This has led to diverse, at times fiercely competitive, approaches to relations with the “emerging powers”, notably China, India and Brazil.

Desperately searching for economic growth to avoid the looming specter of mass unemployment, many EU members are winding back some of the measures once lauded as great achievements of the globalization ideology of which Davos used to be the inner sanctum.

The latest session of the World Economic Forum heard some of those concerns, albeit in muffled tones.

The third and, perhaps, far more important is an unprecedented de-sacralization of political power and a sharp fall in the prestige of those holding the high offices of the state.

In France, President Macron is often referred to as “Macron” or simply “Emmanuel Macron”. In a recent state-owned radio debate one of the participating “experts” had difficulty remembering the name of the new Foreign Minister, a gentleman named Stephane Sejourne who had served as presidential adviser for years.

Unscientific research through chatting with Parisians at the café would quickly show that few people know the names of more than three or four Cabinet ministers-or even care to know.

Approaching politics with disdain, not to say cynicism, has also led to a record fall in the number of people joining political parties and/or trade unions. Disraeli who believed political parties played a vital role as an interface between state and society at large, would have been dismayed by the current political landscape. (Remember that membership of his own Tory Party, too, has fallen to around 60,000 in post-Brexit Britain.)

Replacing the fading political parties and trade unions are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of circles, pressure groups, one-issue outfits and outright crackpots that, thanks to cyberspace, achieve a profile in a jungle of profiles. Their cumulative effect is a further de-sacralization of the state, the “cold monster” designed to prevent “everyone against everyone” chaos.

The European Union leaders, both at parliamentary and executive levels, bear a big share of responsibility for the current poor image of an institution that once appealed to European idealism with such messages as peace, fraternity, clean government, economic growth and a fair sharing of its fruits.

Scandals about foreign powers buying influence in the European Parliament and possibly corrupt deals by the executive in bulk purchasing vaccines for Covid-19, vaccines that may have not even been needed, have dealt severe blows to the prestige of the democratic alliance.

Weird ideas such as European boots on the ground in the current war in Ukraine at one end and seeking to appease Putin at the other have also been divisive as were earlier kites flown about creating a European army to replace NATO or forming a monopsony to purchase arms for all EU member nations.

If the war in Ukraine revealed divisions in the EU the war in Gaza has revealed even deeper ones with some senior officials, notably Josep Borrell, the foreign relations spokesman, adopting a radical anti-Israel position in contrast to the more pro-Israel positions held by Germany, the Netherlands and, in a different context, Hungary and Slovakia.

It would be no exaggeration to suggest that right now the EU lacks a recognizable foreign policy as members pursue different goals with at times conflicting interests towards China, Russia, the United States, the Middle East and increasingly Africa.

Instead of moving towards a European super-state or a federal outfit, the EU’s current trajectory seems to be back to the nation-state model. The coming European Parliamentary elections will show whether that trend is set to continue.