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 : Europe Between Hope and Fear

The results of last week’s European elections have prompted two reactions from political analysts in the old continent.

One reaction could be described as the ostrich option, burying one’s head in the sand and praying that the storm will blow over. The other could be labeled apocalyptic pointing at the four terrible horsemen riding across the horizon.

The ostrich party points out that despite the successes scored by radical right parties, the next European Union Parliament will still be dominated by right-of-center and social-democratic outfits stuck in the past and determined to maintain the status quo.

The apocalyptic analysts, however, warn of looming mayhem, some even claiming that fascism is coming back to Europe.

Last week’s election was the latest of a series that have pointed to some of the EU’s structural problems without posing them as key issues in a broad debate about the future.

One such problem is the EU’s growing tendency towards federalism, a hidden but never admitted desire that has set the course for the union since the old days of Jacques Delors.

What started as a grouping of sovereign powers coming together to cooperate in economic and trade issues has morphed into a super-state expanding into new fields such as science, technology, human rights issues, the environment, and increasingly military affairs boosted by the current war in Ukraine.

The federal tendency runs counter to the European political tradition based on national sovereignty. In fact, Western Europe, the heartland of the EU, is the birthplace of the very concept of the nation-state built on the ruins of various empires, a model subsequently adopted by almost all other countries.

Europe, by which we mean Western and northern chunks of the continent, benefited from the diversity in political and cultural structures by welcoming different modes of thinking, believing, and doing things.

The eastern chunks of the continent, dominated by the Russian Empire, however, remained stuck in time by promoting uniformity in the name of unity.

While Western Europe welcomed persecuted thinkers, artists, and other immigrants along with foreign ways of thinking and foreign capital the eastern portion of the continent tried to retain a fixed identity through pogroms, as expulsions. The result was centuries of despotism and the democratic deficit that continues to this day.

Many critics of the European Union describe themselves as sovereigntists opposed to a European super-state as a new version of empire.

However, they forget a key feature of the classical European sovereign state i.e. its openness to immigrants and different ideas, cultural currents, and faiths.

Modern-day sovereigntists reject the idea of a closed empire but wish to rule the nation-state as a mini-empire closed on itself. In at least half of the 27 EU member states the sovereigntists based their discourse of fear of “the great replacement” on the claim that mass immigration is fundamentally altering the ethno-genetic composition of the European populations.

According to some studies, this fear is shared by many second and third-generation Europeans from immigrant backgrounds. In France, the rising star of the sovereigntist movement, the National Rally, is Jordan Bardella, a second-generation Italian immigrant. In Scandinavia, second-generation Turkish and Afghan immigrants are among the most active anti-immigration militants.

Paradoxically, the anti-immigrant upsurge comes at a time when net immigration to the European Union is at its lowest for more than two decades.

While anti-Islam and/or Muslim groups form part of the anti-immigration constituency we also witness the emergence of what might labeled Islamophilia among radical leftist groups.

Touring several polling stations in Paris last Sunday we saw groups of radical left militants with Palestinian flags and kufiyahs calling for support for pro-Putin The France Unbowed (France Insoumise) candidates whose campaign posters call for “Immediate Ceasefire in Gaza”.

In the first mass rally against the success of the National Rally in the election thousands of “progressive” militants gathered in the Republic Square to “defend French values”. However, there was not a single French flag in sight. Instead, we had a forest of Palestinian flags with slogans against the EU leadership, US President Joe Biden, and, of course, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Thus the European Union is under attack from both the radical right and the ultra-left while the center-left is shrinking and the center-right flirting with radical right groups.

European democracies face the danger that Hobbes warned against two centuries ago: the Leviathan, i.e. the state, being put to death with a thousand cuts. Political fragmentation, encouraged by the proportional representation system, creates scores of small but ultra-active groups wedded to niche ideas not to say obsessions.

In any normal democracy, those actively involved in politics represent between 3 and 5 percent of the population.

The PR system enables them to secure a seat at the table with a small portion of the votes.

The fact that almost half of those eligible to vote do not go to the polls makes it easier for ultra-active minorities to secure a larger chunk of power. In France, for example, the National Rally won 31 percent of the votes cast by half of the electorate but its victory prompted President Emmanuel Macron, recently trying to act as a one-man government to dissolve the National Assembly and call for fresh general elections, a decision that even his Prime Minister Gabriel Attal didn’t agree with.

The latest EU election showed at least one thing: The union is becoming increasingly unpopular. Under growing pressure from the fringes both of right and left it is doubling down on some of the policies that occasioned its unpopularity.

The seemingly endless war in Ukraine, the unnamed flames of inflation, the failure to redefine globalization, the temptation of economic nationalism, the question mark that hangs over the alliance with the United States, the inability to decide whether China is a promise or a threat, and a series of recent corruption scandals have led the union into deep waters.

Almost five years ago a combination of the same factors led to Brexit in Great Britain with the results we know. In most 27 remaining members of the EU, Brexit is seen as a warning. French supporters of leaving the EU collected just over one percent of the votes last Sunday. However, the only enthusiastically “European” list, led by the Socialist Raphael Glucksman didn’t reach 14 percent- something to write home about.

All in all, not a good day for the aging union.