On May the 26th European citizens will vote in what seems to be the most crucial elections in European Union’s history. The economic crisis, austerity measures, Brexit, the rise of the extreme right, all synthesize a situation far from ideal for the European endeavor.
During the last ten years Europe had to deal with some quite serious criticisms on a variety of issues that gave rise to Euroscepticism. The economic crisis revealed the nakedness of the European edifice bringing to the surface what everybody knew, that the EU is actually a two-speed Union with Germany playing the leading role, and it further revealed the distance between the EU bureaucratic apparatus and its citizens.
Beyond that, the failure of EU countries to agree on a common plan on how to deal with the large numbers of immigrants and refugees arriving in Europe since 2015 was another crucial factor, leading to the rise of the extreme-right that exploited this burning issue in order to gain electoral support.
According to the existing evidence Euroscepticism and the extreme-right will be the winners in the approaching EU elections. From Salvini in Italy, Marine Le Pen in France and Nigel Farage in the UK to Nordic countries, but also in Spain, Greece, and Cyprus, existing poll findings show that the extreme-right will be the second strongest group in the European Parliament, although actually not a homogeneous one.
It is assumed that such a success will put pressure on the leading European People’s Party in to incorporate more strict rules with regard to economy, immigration, and security. This could have a crucial impact on social and human rights and political liberties and jeopardize the whole European project.
But behind all these matters, a crucial question lies. Does anything close to what is called a European identity actually exist? Is it feasible to create what many call the United States of Europe?
As I was conducting a study on young Greeks who emigrated abroad during the years of the economic crisis one matter usually discussed was their identity and whether they feel Greek or European.
Despite the fact that these young people aged between 19 and 35 years old were far from any extreme-right or nationalist ideology, they unanimously argued that they first feel Greek and then European.
This finding becomes more interesting because almost all of them expressed a positive view about Europe – although criticism was also raised – as a free space where mobility is open to everyone for either studies and/or work and also almost all of them already had or would like to take advantage of this openness. This means that despite this positive EU acceptance, national identity still came first in young people’s self-identification. What does that tell us? National identities and nation-states are still quite strong within Europe and regardless of any common characteristics huge differences are easily found among EU countries. To construct a European identity seems a utopian plan that seems to be fading if one recalls the total failure of approving a European Constitution back in 2005.
Those who speak of a possible United States of Europe tend to forget that one of the main elements of the nation-state is soil, the territory it controls, and here lies another major difference.
Rivers of blood were spilled for the nation-state building process throughout European history, and the Second World War is not so far away to forget. In addition, as we have learned from history and sociology constructing identities from the above is counter-productive and could lead to violent results.
A last point that we all need to keep in mind is that the EU was not established as a cultural or even a political Union but mainly as an economic union and this is not of minor importance because it means that when the economy goes well all other differences tend to be forgotten, but when economic crises emerge, as during the last few years, differences become more obvious and hard to avoid.
Recent results in national elections, like in Finland where the extreme-right True Finns lost by just 0.2 per cent, and Spain where the extreme-right party Vox entered the Parliament for the first time after the fall of the Franco dictatorship, add to this not so optimistic situation.
The 26th of May is approaching and we have to wait and see if this will be remembered as a landmark date in Europe’s history and whether Europe will still have a chance.
(Alexandros Sakellariou teaches sociology at the Hellenic Open University and as a senior researcher at Panteion University of Athens)