Today I voted for the European Parliament. I love voting. I am filled with surprising joy when I cast my vote. It’s a moment of freedom and pride. We all should do it. It’s scary to note that it is likely that one of the victorious forces to come out of this election will be the far-right parties all over the continent. So abstention must be overcome, it’s a non-starter at this point. We must all vote. After I cast that bulletin in the ballot I came home and went over an unpublished article on Europe I wrote a couple of years ago and found it very current and still encapsulating my ideas. So here are some of them.
Today, it’s a cliché to state that the European Union and all its History since the foundation of the European Community of Coal and Steel in 1952 allowed for a particularly long period of peace and prosperity. Military campaigns in Europe were until recently not only frequent but extremely costly. After the disastrous World Wars and following Montesquieu’s idea that commerce leads to peace, European integration has arguably benefited the whole world.
The path, however, has not been easy, with challenges at every corner over decades. The lightning-fast fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, for instance, took everyone by surprise. Suddenly, countries just beyond the border of Germany wanted to take part in this great experiment of modernity and liberty. Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, and several other States were released from the tight fist of communism and everyone rushed to welcome them. Everyone seemed eager to take them in. Country after country. And no-one seemed happier than the US, who lobbied endlessly for countries to join the Union. Even Turkey and Ukraine were considered.
Through it all, the European leaders have always responded with steps forward: they promoted rampant enlargement and flourishing bureaucracies, brought down borders, unified currencies, created High Courts and Banks etc. Treaty after treaty, what the European Union is today was almost unimaginable at the beginning of the 1950s. I was 15 years old when my country, Portugal, joined the EU in 1986. The Union was then called EEC, European Economic Community, entertained 12 member-States and was ruled by the Treaty of Rome. Now, the EU has 28 member-States (27 once/if the UK leaves) and is ruled by the Treaty of Lisbon. And no-one ever asked me what I thought of it. Actually, no-one ever asked most of the 500 million citizens of this great behemoth what they thought of these immense changes even though most aspects of their lives are now commanded by European rules. And many of them were not ready.
These citizens have been increasingly showing concerns. European countries are democratic countries, with a solid tradition of legitimacy based on popular vote. However, the European institutions themselves do not follow this principle. The European Commission is nominated without elections and wields considerable power. The European Parliament is elected but in a strange and diffuse way. When I vote for the European Parliament I vote in a national election, and for national parties. But these parties are grouped differently in the European Parliament. So I may vote for Portugal’s Social-Democratic Party in a European election in my country. But this party will be integrated into the European Popular Party in the European Parliament. I know what the Social-Democratic Party stands for in Portugal but, unless I’m very educated and knowledgeable, I will have no idea what the European Popular Party stands for in the EP. And I never actually voted for the European Popular Party anyway, and never will – the system doesn’t work like that. Besides, the European Parliament doesn’t have much power anyway.
So, in the end, it’s the Union’s Council of Ministers that remains the most powerful body, deciding the most important matters behind closed doors. In the Council, the ministers and representatives of the Governments of each member-State trade in influence and big ideas. And some dark and pernicious little monsters start to unveil: the fear of Germanic hegemony, the looming Franco-German axis, secret and selected summits, etc. Maybe all of them illusions or exaggerations. Still, that’s what we see in the Council. The remains of Old Europe, a Europe of greedy Sovereign States, working in the shadows of the diplomatic elites, with arm-wrestling deals and fragile alliances.
If the European Union were a Federation like the United States, the Government would have to satisfy even the weaker states. A Presidential Candidate in the US wouldn’t dream of campaigning only in Texas or California, ignoring all the other states. And even though many of the candidates come from big states like New York or Illinois or Texas, some of the Presidents were born in smaller states. Bill Clinton came from Arkansas, John Kennedy from Massachusetts, Jimmy Carter from Georgia.
In Europe, however, a Spanish citizen or a Slovenian or a Greek knows that Angela Merkel has incredible power over his or her life. But she is not elected by either of them. She must only satisfy the Germans. The same for Macron, the French President, who only serves the French. And the same for any other national leader.
The European Treaties go to great lengths to prevent offending the sovereignty of each member-State. They establish the Principle of Subsidiarity, for instance, determining that what can be decided by individual States should not be decided by the Union. And they force many matters to be decided by unanimity or qualified majority, or even voted in the individual Parliaments of each State. But that’s how the quagmires begin. These principles were easier to comply when there were only 12 States at the table. They become a nightmare when there are 28 States voting. That’s why crisis like the migrations from Northern Africa, the collapse of Libya or Syria or the frailty of Greece have been so difficult to react to.
For many European citizens, the feeling is one of skepticism. What in reality is a problem of «not enough Europe» is felt in the streets as a problem of «too much Europe». If the Union doesn’t work, why are we investing in it? Remember that scene at the end of «Goodfellas» when Ray Liotta’s character is running around cooking pasta, getting high, trafficking drugs, managing his family and lover and trying to escape surveillance as everything crumbles all around him? That’s how I sometimes feel when I look at the Union struggling in the mud with all these geopolitical events. When will it be too much to handle?
Oh, but it gets worse…
As if on cue, enter the National-Traditionalists. These barbarians have been preparing their ambush for twenty or thirty years. They are not Conservatives. Conservatives want to preserve the status quo. Traditionalists want to radically return to the values of the past. One of the strategists of this line of thought is the American Steve Bannon, so active in today’s European elections, another is the Russian thinker Aleksander Dugin, influential within Vladimir Putin’s circle. He says that the major countries listening to him are Russia, Iran, Turkey and the United States, but we can see it as well in Saudi Arabia, Israel, Brazil or the Philippines. For them, globalism, progress and modernity are evil ideas. «There is no global flag», says Donald Trump. They are very suspicious of international organizations as the UN or NATO, and of free-trade, international conventions, immigrants and, of course, the EU. Even more, they are suspicious of liberal western values. Says Dugin: «If we reject the laws of modernity such as progress, development, equality, justice, freedom, nationalism, and all of this legacy of the three centuries of philosophy and political history, then there is a choice.»
These strange people have been gathering strength all over Europe as well. They’ve been biding their time, waiting for the right moment. The moment when the weaknesses of the Union becomes apparent. Figures like Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage even turned themselves into European Members of Parliament, vowing to destroy the system from the inside. Elections in Austria, the Netherlands, Italy, France, Germany and other countries now feature nationalistic and traditionalist parties that show increasing power. Recently, a far-right member of the Austrian government was caught on tape dealing with the Russians and had to resign… Is it the first of many?
And then… there’s Brexit. Remember «Goodfellas»? Ray Liotta turns to the camera and says: «And now… it’s all over.» That’s how Brexit felt to me. It’s a game-changer. It’s exactly what the Traditionalists wanted. The older citizens of the UK made the decision. Nostalgia won. Let’s just go back.
But what does that even mean? The old traditional values they talk about led to unimaginable catastrophes in the past. World wars, genocides, economic turmoil. When, some time back, I watched the video of Adolf Hitler asking the Germans: «Do you want Total War?», and heard them reply «Yes!», it made me shiver to my bones. Is this the kind of world the Traditionalists are working for? A divided, xenophobic, warmongering world? In the words of Gudin himself: «One of the first, simplest movements in the direction of the Fourth Political Theory [his movement] is the global rehabilitation of Tradition, the sacred, the religious, the caste-related, if you prefer, the hierarchical, and not equality, justice, or freedom. Everything that we reject, together with modernity.» Scary stuff!
Winston Churchill himself was the one who suggested a united Europe – a United States of Europe, as he put it. He warned: «The Dark Ages may still return». Liberal values are stronger values. But they are under siege because we have been too timid in defending them. We relied too much upon their intrinsic worth. So we need to get back to the ballots and the streets. Today at 4pm only about 23% of Portuguese electorate had cast their ballots. 77% was no-where to be seen. Political absenteeism, both real and emotional, is the genesis of all totalitarianism. So our first duty, our first commitment, must be to voting.
Go get them, fellow warriors. This is our fight! As Kennedy once said: «First of all, we’ll be judged by our courage.»