The results of the European elections on 26 May can be seen as a “blessing” for those who believe in the European project. The four largest parties – all pro-European – have totalled over 500 seats, representing two-thirds of the Parliament.
The rise of the Greens and, above all the Liberals, has brought in the political spectrum an element of freshness and opportunity. The very much feared tsunami of the populists and the extremes did not occur (although many of their parties have progressed and consolidated their positions). This offers the EU with a unique – and unexpected – occasion to reflect, evaluate and reshape its “Grand Design”.
- An irrepressible quest for protection
The harsh fall-back of the European middle class following the economic crisis has largely fuelled the rise of populism and the bashing of the EU for imposing austerity measures. This feeling was still very much present during the campaign in a number of regions, with sometimes significant results. In Flanders, the rise of the extreme-right (Vlaams Belang) was made possible by prioritising left-wing policies addressing the poorer and more fragile segments of the population with the purpose of “protection”.
One of the future priorities of the institutions will be therefore to better encompass citizens’ fears and reactions in their overall priorities. The optimism generated by the election will not stand long if we don’t address them. What is important here is that the fears are spread over all generations. By reinforcing the EU’s social and environmental pillars, “EU Protects” should become a motto for all EU priorities.
- Act on Climate – NOW
The unexpected outcome for the Green parties is a second issue from the electoral evening – a feature that was shared in many Member States, touching again upon all generations, even if the older ones seem happy to let the younger generations (supported by their parents) to fill the streets.
This is probably the next area that populists will target with false perceptions and fake news, where people will blame the EU for the situation of the planet, while it has a real record and a real story to tell. Taking action now would deliver a strong message that the EU is “on the ball” when it comes to global threats. However it is done, there is a feeling of urgency to profile the EU in this area, which is undoubtedly there to stay.
- Youth, a public to recapture
This third lesson is a less comforting one, as it raises doubts about one of the long-standing assumptions about the assumed “natural” inclination of the younger generations towards the European project. This feeling has long been fuelled by the success of Erasmus and other EU programmes. It has to be measured today in relation to the growing identification of young people with the ideas of populists and the extreme-right.
This trend can be measured in two ways:
a) by the age, first of all, of many of the populist and extreme leaders : Jordan Bardella – Rassemblement National – is 23; Thierry Baudet, leader of the Forum for Democracy (The Netherlands), 36; Luigi di Maio, Five-Star Movement, 32; Jimmy Åkesson, Swedish Democrats, 40; Tom Van Grieken, Vlaams Belang, 33, and many others;
b)by the election results, on the other hand, and the actual vote of the younger generations: Vlaams Belang, for instance, focused its entire communication on young people, investing over €400,000 in social media alone; and what to say about Greece, where the Prime Minister passed a law to bring down to 17 the voting age, hoping for a ‘”natural” recuperation of these new voters, while results showed 13% of them voting for Golden Dawn – the double of the overall percentage of the party.
This is a serious issue to consider, at a time when many young people consider Erasmus as an ‘acquis’, a matter of fact, and in many cases, an elitist instrument. In comparison, this might be a good time to revamp the European Solidarity Corps, the first EU instrument that touches potentially on young people in the suburbs and isolated areas, as it does not imply the element of mobility.
In this respect, it seems important, in our actions towards young people, to go beyond showing what the EU actually does for young people and to engage rather in a real dialogue aiming at listening to the youth’s fears and concerns and, above all, responding to them. This consideration must be met with new actions in the education area, based on the lessons of history and cultural heritage.
- Building on Europe’s image and profiling our international dimension
Entering the Parliament’s hemicycle on election night, which was turned into a huge press room, I could only be struck by the impressive animation and coverage coming from the media from all over the world. This was confirmed later in the evening by the live sessions on CNN and the BBC. Putting this in conjunction with the actual results, I truly believe that the EU’s image in the world is one of the strongholds of our story-telling, one where our attractiveness remains tangible, an where we can link our daily work to what still represents the essence and the originality of our project, namely the values listed in article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty. Faced, in my numerous encounters with citizens, with the normal attacks against “Europe”, I often reply, “And in which continent would you like to live and work? ”
We need, therefore, to build more on our power of attractiveness. And the international dimension is an area where new symbolic initiatives are currently discussed. The international dimension covers many areas where our reputation remains largely undisputed. Values (solidarity, in particular) are often used in the semantics of populist parties, but they figure more generally high in the references to which people (and particularly young people) can hook on.
The election of 26 May has offered a window of opportunities to engage more deeply in meeting peoples’ concerns. We cannot miss this moment.
This is a time where we need to place everyone in front of their responsibilities the institutions, but also national actors at all operational levels, stakeholders, associations, and most of all maybe, the citizens themselves. If we believe in the motto of Sibiu, that the European project is a matter for all of us, then we can find in the election outcome, some positive ground for new challenges and mobilisation.