EU elections a step backward [Commentary]

This year marks the passage of one century since of the start of the First World War. It is the year that will mark the 75th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Poland, which launched the Second World War. It is also the year that will mark a quarter of a century since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The two world wars were catastrophic events in which Europe, motivated by parochial interests and fears, divided up against itself and unleashed the greatest violence ever known in history, resulting in the deaths of 76 million. The end of the Berlin Wall, which began with gates being opened to freedom at Bornholmer Strasse, was the result of long-oppressed people wanting to reach across the walls that split the continent toward a "Europe whole and free."

It was against this backdrop that the 28 European Union (EU) nations and Ukraine this past weekend held elections that will have a strong impact on the future of Europe and the world order. In the EU states, less than half of eligible voters went to the polls to elect members of the European Parliament, which meets in Brussels. But in Ukraine, itself the victim of partition by a foreign power, a record percentage of voters turned out to give a single presidential candidate (out of 21 choices) a clear majority despite threats of violence by militias in the eastern provinces of the country. In the 28 EU countries, extremist parties — some from the far right and critical of the EU — scored record results, while in Ukraine, where developing closer ties to the EU is the main issue, the most pro-EU candidate won.

There is a disconnect between the ideal of a united and free Europe and the reality of how that community has to date been administered. As Frank Jacobs wrote last month in Foreign Policy, "The bitter irony is that one of the only things uniting the 28 public opinions in the fledgling superstate is their common resentment of their common project." Or, more damning, in the words of London economist Phillipe Legrain, "We live in an era of technocratic (mis)management rather than political leadership. … Lacking sensible alternatives, voters who disagree with current policies are driven to the extremes."

Thus, the appearance of Eurosceptic, nationalist parties across Europe. They advocate for a wide range of policies driven by a populist resentment of effete bureaucrats in Parliament. Most ominous, however, is the possible dovetailing between some of these parties and the attack on the liberal, democratic order taking place in Crimea. For example, the Eurosceptic parties from France, Hungary and Austria (all of which fared well in the recent election) sent "observers" to try to dignify the recent annexation plebiscite in Crimea — an event so illegitimate that none of Russia's allies in its Customs Union, the CSTO or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization have recognized it. It is hard to understand how an EU bureaucrat seems more objectionable to these parties than violence organized by Spetsnaz troops wearing ski masks.

Europe deserves better. It deserves better from Brussels, which perhaps acted too fast on expansion but definitely too slowly in building legitimacy. It deserved better from this election, which should have offered a meaningful debate over real questions of austerity and growth and of the structure and powers of the Union. And it deserves much better from the opposition parties, which offer too much fear and resentment and not enough serious policy discussion. Europe: the idea of a common market and a common belief in the rule of law is precious and it is under attack.

Globalization does create anxieties — both cultural and economic — and it, unfortunately, also creates what Thomas Barnett has called "no fault separatism," a system in which particular groups have the luxury of dreaming of going their separate ways because they can free-ride on the collective security system that remains to protect them. That system, however, can only be chipped away so much before it is no more.

Voters in all 29 countries were right to be dissatisfied last Sunday, even angry, over the current state of affairs. But they should reject taking steps backward, toward the divided way Europe was during the world wars.

David W. Wise is a graduate of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a member of the International Institute of Strategic Studies (London). His email is

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