European elections, European democracy?
The last time European citizens voted for a European Parliament was in 2009, five years ago. Since then quite a few things have happened, which have changed the European conjuncture widely. The first question we should ask ourselves is whether it's enough to vote only every five years? A minor question, but one that steers us towards the waters of real democracy: to consider what are the deep political and institutional changes necessary at the European level in order to assure social and economic justice on the continent.
We'll try to give a general overview of the major changes we are facing after years of multiple crises. In the second part, published next week, we'll try to lay out some proposals in order to face it.
The last five years have been characterized by an increasing destruction of the European project. The core elements of post-war Europe – overcoming the war as an endemic condition and relieving, if not overcoming, the framework of the nation states – have been dismantled by neoliberal policies and competition between territories and social groups. This competition is active in almost every sector of the society, from career planning to care services, from education models to public debt.
What we have as a consequence is the German press saying that Greek people are lazy and unproductive; violence against migrants in Greece; media blaming unemployed in all of Europe; an increasingly scornful glare at the southern populations from the northern countries; rising hate against Germany in the south; the explosion of euroscepticism, etc. These are all effects of the competition between territories, nationalities, ethnicities and social groups, created by austerity and the artificial scarcity of wealth.
The issues that we would like to address in regard of the European Elections, arising from this conjuncture, are the following:
– There's a clear and unstoppable fall of the bipartism of the two main political groups that emerged in the post-war period, the conservatives and the social democrats. This decline is not specific to these elections, but rather a tendency linked with the structural crisis of representation, of labour and of the Fordist institutions. It implies that the new deal between capital and labour will be increasingly broken, and new governance mechanisms will be needed by the elites in order to assure governability.
– Very linked with the first issue goes the rise of ultra right-wing parties. The major reason for this is, in our opinion, neoliberal austerity politics. They provoke increased competition between social groups: employed against unemployed, unemployed against migrants, etc...
– The European Left coalition, led by the charismatic figure of Alexis Tsipras (SYRIZA) has risen moderately. In spite of this rise that undoubtedly derives from the cycle of European struggles against neoliberalism and the Troika, the coalition faces a clear glass ceiling. It won't be able to serve as the electoral articulation of the huge refusal towards neoliberal Europe if it remains within a merely leftist framework. That's why we consider fundamental the emergence of new electoral forms of expression capable of a more severe dissociation (and the then indispensable, yet always unforeseen production of new ways of doing things) from the classic party form.
– There's a detectable emergence of that kind of formation, mainly Spanish Podemos and Red Ciudadana-Partido X, but also the Italian 5 Stelle movement, the Pirate Party and – finally, in a certain way – the Greek SYRIZA. These are parties - some of them more than others - but parties that are somehow challenging their internal structure and their relations with the composition and the demands of the movements.
This is the overview of the major changes and tendencies that we are expected to see in these elections.
What will happen then? Would there be a vast majority of parties such as these who have set their agenda against neoliberalism, advocating the demands of the movements? Would they be able to divert the course of the continent's future away from the Strasbourg seats of power? How would they receive and due to what mechanisms would they be bound by the demands of European society (not to talk only of citizens) and the social movements? What accesible, effective democratic mechanisms of distribution of power and resources are there? How to guarantee their use as well as the possibility of their continuous regeneration by the needs of civil societies?
Let's see. What we mean is simple: the European Parliament could create a debt pool and schedule the unpayment of a part of it, for example. Still the defense and imposition of this measure would be required. We mean to say that democracy doesn't reside in the parliaments. Counterpower and a deep regeneration of the mechanisms of political participation – or, better said, change in the structures of the political institutions – are needed in order to duly defend social wealth and distribute it in the form of income and social institutions, to guarantee rights from below and to build #Europe4the99.
The lead-up to the European elections in Bulgaria: how not to do politics
There are ten days left and the campaign here in Sofia is just heating up. The situation in the countryside is very different and the level of political foul-play is almost ingenious. Some days ago, Dimitar Berbatov, who is a footballer at AS Monaco FC, wrote on his official Facebook page that he was shocked and dismayed at the news of his name being used (without his consent) for the regional campaign of the ethnic Turkish Party – The Freedom and Rights Movement (DPS). The party had been giving out calendars with his picture and their bulletin number in Svilengrad, a south-eastern town near the Bulgarian-Turkish border.
Image supplied by author. Source: NovaTV
In a similar fashion, another scandal emerged with regards to the election campaign, this time involving the pseudo far-right party Ataka. One of their videos had used footage from a private wedding ceremony without the consent of the individuals filmed. The married couple filed an official complaint after seeing their video shown on national television, while the official response by the Ataka campaign manager was that this was simply a ‘technical glitch’.
Not far behind these two front-runners on how not to do politics is the newcomer party Bulgaria without Censorship, headed by former TV anchor Nikolay Barekov. Currently, he has become the biggest anti-hero in Bulgarian politics and has even attracted the attention of student activists, who have filmed a mock rap video of Barekov and his ‘dishonest’ and ‘corrupt’ approach to the upcoming elections. His party’s campaign is as populist as it goes: Barekov promises free tablets to every student and free dental care to the elderly.
Barekov’s party is also shown to have spent the largest amount of money on media campaigning – around 300,000 Euros - and has toured the country relentlessly in the past few months, staging mass cook-outs and speeches. There is an increasing debate in the (independent) media outlets as to where his party has managed to acquire such donations, with speculations revolving around the role of the Russian lobby and the infamous Corporate Commercial Bank, reflexive of the oligarchic model of Bulgarian politics.
Nikolay Barekov as Conchita Wurst. Image supplied by author.
In recent weeks, the lead-up to the EP elections has been marred by a series of anti-European demonstrations. On May 9, the Bulgarian Socialist Party staged a rally in front of the Soviet Army Monument in central Sofia commemorating ‘Victory Day’ (the capitulation of Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union) rather than what is known and celebrated around the continent as ‘Europe Day’ (also known as Schuman Day, after the historic declaration by the French foreign minister Robert Schuman). There, a European flag was burnt by a small group of demonstrators calling on Russia to protect Bulgaria and assist the nation in joining the Eurasian Union.
Image supplied by author.
According to recent polls, a growing number of individuals have voiced their support for the Russian annexation of Crimea and its role in escalating the Ukrainian crisis. Not long ago, Ataka publicly denounced the EU imposition of sanctions on given individuals in Russia and kicked-off their European election campaign in Moscow.
Image supplied by author.
The only openly pro-European contender in the race is the Reformation Block, which represents a coalition of five centre-right and right wing conservative parties. On the eve of 9 May, they also held a rally at the Soviet Army Monument, upon which a large EU flag was projected. The speaker of the Reformation Block, Radan Kanev, emphasised the ‘increasing danger’ that Bulgaria may be drifting ‘East’, away from Europe and its core values. One of the examples given was the strong Russian influence in domestic politics and the energy sector – where their push for the construction of the Belene Nuclear Power Plant and the South Stream pipe-line would effectively increase Bulgaria’s dominance on Russian foreign investment and fuel.
The elections are an extremely important benchmark for assessing the nature of the political situation in Bulgaria. The #ДАНСwithme (pronounced dance-with-me) protest movement, which erupted last June, has been largely ignored. The main culprit of protest movement, Delyan Peevski, whose appointment as Head of the National Security Agency ignited the entire process of civic reengagement, looks likely to be elected as the second Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) candidate. Ataka’s controversial leader, stripped of his political immunity for assaulting a foreign attaché on a plane, also has a favourable prospect of going to Brussels; the same goes for Bulgaria Without Censorship’s Nikolay Barekov.
These three individuals are deeply disliked by the majority of the population, especially in more urban areas, and their presence in the European Parliament as representatives of Bulgaria is seen as deeply humiliating and dangerous to Bulgaria’s national interest.
The elections will also affect the domestic political situation in the country. The candidacy of the above mentioned individuals has once again sparked a growing wave of protests in Sofia in the last week, growing as the annual anniversary of #ДАНСwithme approaches. The delicate coalition government, currently with a single-digit approval rate, will suffer even further if it once again does badly at the polls. While a resignation seems unlike, it seems that May 25 will lead to a steady increase in public dissatisfaction and outrage at the state of politics.
A postcard from Malta
It’s that time of the year again, where mainstream Maltese politicians have the opportunity to inflate their egos further with the help of another electoral campaign.
Since Malta joined the EU in 2004, this is the third time that the country will hold elections for the European Parliament. From these elections, Malta elects six seats. The current six seats are unequally shared between the Labour Party which has four, and the Nationalist party (PN) –a Christian Democrat Party-, which has two.
Malta can be easily called a particracy. The bi-polar political system awards our politicians unmerited attention in everyday life. Therefore, elections in Malta are very tense and often lead to petty bi-partisan rivalry.
Unfortunately, MEP elections do not discuss European issues, but stick to local issues which are mostly irrelevant on a European level, and must be tackled through Maltese institutions only. The future of European integration, the European economic crisis and the role of EU institutions are not even mentioned from the two mainstream parties. From what I have followed in this election, it seems that the main focus of the campaign is centered on the Labour government’s track record, a year after winning the national election. The main issues discussed in these last weeks were employment, utility bills and quality of life. The government was also accused by the Christian Democrat opposition (PN) of not keeping its promises on meritocracy because top positions were given to well-known people who had strong links with the Labour Party before the last national election. Spokespersons from the Labour Party deny such claims. Of course, the debate was also characterized by the usual infantile mudslinging tactics between the two main parties.
But apart from the two main political parties there are also two other parties in Malta. Alternattiva Demokratika affiliates itself with the European Greens. The party was established twenty five years ago, and has yet to win just one national parliamentary seat in its history. In the local council elections, the party elected councilors in some localities. Alternattiva Demokratika was close to winning an MEP seat way back in 2004. However, in the last MEP election it only garnered 2.3% of the vote. In the 2014 MEP campaign, the party is focusing on the green economy, civil liberties, and intensified the campaign against spring hunting. Alternattiva Demokratika- the Green Party will field two candidates for this election.
The other party, which is contesting these elections for the third time is Imperium Europa. This New Right party is not yet officially affiliated with any party in the European Parliament. Imperium Europa only contests the euro elections and it has heavily increased its votes with each election. For this election, Imperium Europa will present three candidates. The party has a staunchly anti-immigration agenda, calls for the ban of Halal and Kosher products due to animal cruelty, and seeks Malta’s sovereignty status to be respected within the EU.
During this euro election campaign in Malta, two of the candidates for the Presidency of the EU commission visited the islands. Jean-Claude Juncker attended the activities of the Nationalist Party (PN) on behalf of the EPP, while Martin Schulz took part in the events held by the Labour party on behalf of the S&D group. For the first time, the EU commission President will be elected depending which group elects the most seats in the European Parliament.
The euro elections in Greece - measuring the temperature in recent days
A recent poll conducted by GPO for Mega Channel news reveals a tightly fought contest between Greece’s two leading parties, Syriza and New Democracy, with the main opposition party currently in the lead in both local and European elections.
In the voting intentions for May’s elections to the European Parliament, Syriza gets 25.2%, New Democracy follows with 24.6%, the River 10%, Golden Dawn 8.8%, KKE 8.2%, Olive Tree 7%, Independent Greeks 4.3%, and the Democratic Left 3.5% while 8.3% of voters still haven’t made up their mind.
However, Greece’s anti-austerity opposition held a two-point lead over the ruling conservatives in the latest opposition poll before European elections in May that are being viewed as a test of support for Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ shaky coalition. Polls so far had shown the two parties running neck and neck, or with the opposition party Syriza slightly ahead. The Pulse poll for the newspaper “To pontiki”, published on Thursday, also showed that the political party, the River, a movement launched barely two months ago, had shot up to third place, alongside the far-right Golden Dawn party.
Leftist Syriza, which opposes Greece’s EU/ IMF bailout and the tough conditions that come with it, would get 25.2% of the vote if European Union elections were held now, one percentage point ahead of Samaras’s New Democracy, the poll showed.
The Golden Dawn party, many of whose lawmakers are under criminal investigation following the killing of an anti-fascist rapper by a party sympathizer last September, is the fourth most popular political force with 8.8%. Tied with them is the River, a party launched by a popular television journalist Stavros Theodorakis at the end of February, which has won strong support from voters disgusted by the political establishment.
Greece’s two bailouts since 2010, worth 240 billion euros, have come at the price of wage and pension cuts and tax rises. Thousands of businesses have closed during a six-year recession and unemployment has hit 27.5%, more than double the euro zone average. Dozens of state high school teachers marched to Parliament on the second day of a 48-hour strike by public sector workers against planned layoffs, holding banners which read “No to firings”. Earlier, about 30 people occupied an office belonging to the minister in charge of overhauling the public sector, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, in a symbolic protest.
We are looking forward to see what is going to be the result. These elections will be really important for the future of Greece and Europe.
Has German politics suddenly got interesting?
The European elections are ahead. Only two weeks more and Europe can vote. This time indeed, voting makes more sense in Germany than ever before. The German Constitutional Court decided to abolish the minimum threshold clauses which prevented minority parties from gaining seats in the European Parliament. This will make the Parliament probably more colourful, while voter turnout may increase significantly as well.
However, the political parties have led a highly boring campaign. Their posters are even more meaningless than in national elections. So meaningless, an insurrectionist German satirical party has gained much popularity. "Die Partei" ("The Party"), which is led by the popular TV comedian Martin Sonneborn, makes the march towards the elections much more endurable. Their slogan "Yes to Europe, No to Europe" teases the monotony of other parties' campaigns. Now, without the threshold clause, they have a serious chance to gain seats in the European Parliament. In this case, they already promised to abdicate every week in order to give all their members the possibility to experience the advantages of an EU-politician. They may make watching the debates of the European Parliament a prime time TV event.
The ascendance of both radical left and right political parties, and their increasingly strong chances to gain seats in the European Parliament, will lead to much more controversial and fun discussions. There won't be only one Nigel Farage anymore. This, of course, may be funny for some audiences, but for the work of the Parliament it is not.
What else to say about Germany? Actually, all established parties are more or less united in favoring more European integration. Their only serious opposition comes from the Eurosceptic party "Alternative for Germany", which sees itself as a liberal alternative, but is closer to becoming a right-populist protest party. Slogans like "Washington spies, Brussels dictates, Berlin obeys" or "Gender, Gherkins, Megalomania. Stop Brussels!" announce this quite clearly. Although they are opposed strongly and have to endure comparisons with the national socialists, which even in their case goes too far, they will gain some seats in the new European Parliament after narrowly failing in the German national elections.
More cheerless is the situation for the Free Democrats who also failed narrowly in the national elections. They still have not recovered from their disastrous election results, still following their old path of European politics, which seems to be the main reason for their decline. Although their new programme for Europe is not too bad, they fail to communicate it clearly. Whether their new candidates can ameliorate this is doubtable.
For the bigger parties, apart from their ideological differences, there is not much debate. Interesting, however, will be the vacancy of the new President of the European Commission. With Jean-Claude Juncker on the conservative side and the German Martin Schulz on the socialist side as most promising candidates, this has and will spark some controversy. Major German newspapers already headlined the incompetence of both, while the Bavarian CSU have attacked their coalition partner Martin Schulz. For example they called him "director of criminal African emigration agents", because he, in one good proposal, advocates receiving more boat refugees from Africa.
To be honest, I have not really followed the news concerning the European elections much. I will go voting, but am unsure what. Helping the satirists gain one or more seats seems to be an option because there is no party I can seriously vote for. Only the secessionist "Bayernpartei" ("Party of Bavaria") has a programme worth reading, but is too regionalist in the end.
Germany will have many parties in the new Parliament. I guess there will be at least eight different ones. Combined with the developments in other countries, this will make decision-making much more complicated. Whoever will gain the majorities, either in the transnational parties or for the presidency of the Commission, they will have to endure much more than before. This can, but will not necessarily, make Europe more democratic. It will also cause new frontiers which will make the future of an united, democratic European Union much more difficult. This is sad, because the challenges for Europe are huge. What to do in my opinion? I will divulge in my last blog before the European elections. Just let me tell you one thing: if you care for Europe, go voting!
The last chance to create a united Europe?
Reading the news this week, I was hit by one article saying that “Norway’s leaders snub Dalai Lama in deference to China”. Of course many Norwegian citizens protested against their own government for this, especially as the Dalai Lama’s trip to Norway was meant to celebrate the 25 year anniversary of the Nobel Peace Prize he won. And it is exactly the Nobel Peace Prize which created this story.
As known, the Nobel Peace Prize is run by a Norwegian committee and the ceremony is held in Oslo. In 2010, the prize was won by Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese human-rights activist who was imprisoned in that same year for "inciting subversion of state power". Of course China was not happy about that and since then, its diplomatic relations with Norway became quite cold and rare.
This situation led to the “Dalai Lama” case: China would not have appreciated an official meeting between the spiritual guide of the rebel Tibetan people and the already provocative Norwegian Government; therefore, the latter decided to sacrifice its tradition and reputation as a bastion of tolerance in order to try to get back to normal diplomatic relations with China. Many Norwegian people felt betrayed, but the Prime Minister Erna Solberg confirmed the pragmatic approach: improving relations with China will mean having the possibility to engage in discussions about important world issues like environmental protection and human rights.
Under this point of view, the situation is clear: the Norwegian Government decided to face embarrassment in order to have some - small - possibilities to influence globally important issues.
I’d like to be pragmatic too: nice try Norway, but I don’t think you’ll succeed. You are too small to debate with giants like China, India, Brazil, USA, and Russia.
It can be said that if Norway was in the EU, maybe something could have changed… But we all know that this is not true, because there is no common foreign policy. At the international level, the EU member states are always representing just themselves. And they are all, too small to have a say against those continent-sized countries. And you cannot begin to solve problems like global warming if you cannot talk with them. You cannot try to understand what really Russia wants to do in Ukraine nor try to have an influence in that specific case.
The globalized world that came out after the second world war has always been ruled by few powers, expressed at the beginning by the USA and USSR, and now, after the fall of the latter, by USA and China (that have already started talking – alone – about the future of the whole world in their G2 meetings), with rising “big powers” like Russia, Brazil and India ready to take their share.
As seen, in this framework there is no space for the EU or any European Country. The EU had twenty years (1990-2010) to become one of the first two world powers, between the fall of USSR and the rise of China. But nothing happened, because nobody saw the necessity of making the EU a single country, with a single government, a single army and a single foreign policy. But that would have been one of the biggest and most powerful countries in the world, able to discuss on equal terms with everybody and able to protect its and also others’ citizens.
Maybe we’re not too late, but we have our very last chance: next week, go vote for the European Parliament elections and think about which kind of EU could guarantee you a better future: a divided one, going backwards into nationalism, or a more integrated one – going toward a federation. It’s up to us to choose our future.