Low turnout in the Czech Republic may help facilitate a rightwing ‘Europe of nations’, despite the alternatives on the table.
Finally, the Czech Republic sent a representative of the nationalist Party of Free Citizens (renamed simply ‘Free’ since 2019) to the European Parliament in 2014, despite the party having no representation whatsoever in the Czech parliament at the time. This illustrates the danger posed by traditionally low turnouts in the EP elections, a factor that has never been more relevant than now.
Czech Republic: Saving Europe from its saviours
The stakes are unusually high in the forthcoming EP elections. This is because of the risk of long-term, multiple crises facilitating the success of forces bent on destroying the EU or transforming it into the ‘Europe of nations’ that Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland have both called for. Such a transformation is being encouraged by a range of players, from assorted post-fascists like Marine le Pen in France and the Northern League in Italy, to our very own Jan Zahradil of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), previously picked by the Polish Law and Order Party (PiS) as leader of the European Conservatives and Reformers in the European Parliament.
Traditionally low turnouts are beneficial to precisely these forces. Thus the Czech Republic was able to send a representative of the Party of Free Citizens to the European Parliament in 2014, despite the party never having made it into the Czech parliament. Nevertheless, its wayward ideology, which blends cartoonish market fundamentalism with nationalism, is a delightful intimation of what can be expected following European elections this May.
The EU’s defenders
No wonder, therefore, that devotees of the European Union in its present form have been mobilising – albeit with little success thus far. Some thirty writers and intellectuals have signed an impassioned appeal to save Europe from the ‘wreckers’ (the term used in the English version of their manifesto suggests ‘subversion’, a word which in post-communist Europe carries ominous echoes of the Stalinist trials). Although undoubtedly wellintended, unfortunately this initiative rings rather hollow: overflowing with fervour in an attempt to mobilise public opinion to save Europe from nationalists, it has nothing specific to say about what this defended Europe is supposed to look like.
“The party system of individual states reflects the divisions that mattered in the 19th and 20th centuries, such as the conflict between capital and labour. But the cleavage that matters most today is between pro- and anti-European forces”
— George Soros
Of more interest is a recent article by George Soros, a man who has direct experience of being on the losing side, whether in World War II or, more recently, in Hungary. He sees today’s EU as resembling the USSR in 1991 and believes it to be on the verge of collapse. While anti-European forces are capable of organising effectively and looking convincing, the EU’s defenders are hampered by minor issues that prevent them from being effective. ‘The party system of individual states reflects the divisions that mattered in the 19th and 20th centuries, such as the conflict between capital and labour. But the cleavage that matters most today is between pro- and anti-European forces’, Soros writes.
The fact that he of all people is of the view that nowadays the conflict between capital and labour no longer matters is not without a certain unintended charm. Were the opponents of rightwing populists to adopt the same approach, they would be shooting themselves in the foot. For it is precisely by blurring the conflict between capital and labour that anti-European forces have achieved some of their success. This is what enables Viktor Orbán to make Hungarian workers cheaply available to multinational companies and force them to do overtime to boot, by adopting what has quite aptly been dubbed the ‘slave law’, while at the same time presenting himself as a champion of the national interest against the power of big corporations.
Most importantly, however, the flaws inherent in the EU lend themselves to being exploited by nationalists. Its critics on the Left have long, and justifiably, called it a ‘Europe of businessmen and bureaucrats’, a neoliberal Europe without any of the requisite social welfare, a Europe of inequalities turned debtors’ prison for an entire country (Greece). It makes sense to defend European unity against the onslaught of nationalist forces. However, such a defence will be toothless unless it is accompanied by a clear vision of what kind of EU is to be defended and what steps should be taken to ensure that it will change in the manner desired.
Proposals for change
Sensible proposals for change are already on the table. Last December, a group of economists led by Thomas Piketty published a ‘manifesto to save Europe from itself’. It suggests several straightforward measures: a tax on top incomes and wealth that would be democratically controlled and used to fund key investments (for example, in education and research, and the tackling of climate change and social inequality). Some of the funds would be distributed to individual governments to foster greater active engagement on the part of national parliaments. This, they suggest, would also put an end to individual countries competing in a tax race to the bottom.
Of course, not everyone need agree with Piketty’s solution. But it is somewhat naive to believe that the nationalist mobilization against the European Union can be kept at bay merely by warnings about ‘incalculable consequences’. Those wishing to defend Europe ought to articulate how they propose to overcome its flaws. Posturing in the role of being on the right side of history and fearmongering about extreme rightwing ‘wreckers’ may well not be enough in the forthcoming European elections, let alone in the longer term.
First published on 2 May 2019 at Eurozine. Read a more extensive version of Ondřej Slačálek’s commentary in Czech in Eurozine partner journal A2 where it first appeared.