Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Why the bastards haven't spoken 

The European commentariat is still going through depression about the election results. It's the old "the people have spoken, the bastards" syndrome, except in this case it's more like "the people mainly haven't spoken, the bastards, and those who did don't like us very much."

The newly admitted East and Central European states have proved to be a particular disappointment to the EU establishment ("Brussels flummoxed"), with Slovakia generating a 16.7% turn-out, followed by Poland at 20.4%, Estonia at 26.9%, with Czech Republic, Slovenia and Hungary not far behind. Before regretting the EU expansion east, however, a few things to bear in mind:

1) While one would have expected that people who for so long were denied their democratic aspirations would be more enthusiastic about exercising their democratic rights, three caveats: firstly, trying to make ends meet in often difficult economic conditions tends to distract people from politics, particularly if; secondly, while democracy is respected, the political process isn't - politicians are widely seen as lazy, self-serving and corrupt, more interested in their own party games and own advancement than facing numerous economic and social challenges (and how much less relevant can Brussels seem then Warsaw or Bratislava?); and thirdly, the countries in question are "EU-ed out" at the moment, having only recently gone through their EU accession referenda.

2) Eastern and Central Europeans see the EU more as a free trade area (or less charitably, a huge safety net) rather than a superstate. Having recently liberated themselves from foreign influence they are not too keen to replace Moscow with Brussels, even if the new order is largely benign and beneficial by comparison. Patriotic and nationalist feelings run deep in the East, and people there see themselves as members of their own national communities first and foremost; there is little feeling of supra-national, European super-identity. Hence this BBC lament:

"[T]his election result has again thrown doubt on the prospects for creating such an international democracy on a continent with many different languages. There was almost no cross-border campaigning for the elections.

"Voters have again shown that they see the EU as remote. The result is a patchwork of party groups, chosen by less than half the EU's voters."
Exactly. Memo to Brussels: how about "the Europe of nations" rather than "the nation of Europe"? (on all the choices read this)

3) The experiences of many of the new EU members in the run up to their inclusion were far from positive. The EU negotiators were perceived as driving some very hard bargains against vulnerable East and Central European states. The new members are, and will for quite some time remain, second class European citizens, denied many of the benefits of EU memberships that the established members enjoy.

4) The Old European condescension is still remembered across the New Europe. Regardless how one felt about the war in Iraq, and the East was as split on the topic as the rest of Europe, the patronising attitude exhibited by some Western European politicians at the time was taken as indicative of the way France and Germany like to run the EU. For as long as the Paris-Berlin axis dominates the EU's affairs, the smaller Eastern and Central European states will remain stand-offish.


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