The results of the European elections send at least one clear message concerning Europe: things cannot continue as they have been and cannot continue as they are.
Despite many factors meaning that the European elections remain partly enclosed in national discussions, there were European messages from the high results for the far-right in countries such as France, UK, Greece or Denmark, the high results for leftist parties in Italy, Greece or Spain and from the high abstention rate. These messages converge in demanding a change from a Europe of austerity politics and the politics of muddling through, behind closed doors, outside of public scrutiny and public comprehension of what is being decided and its consequences.
There is a strong danger that the European leaders in the Council will try to ignore these messages, finding more or less comfort in the fact that the centrist parties remain majoritarian in the European parliament and in Europe in general, and hope that in the national elections they are more used to the majority will continue to value stability over extremes. Such deliberate blindness is the most risky strategy, an arrogance which an increasing number of electors will find repulsive, the sign of an elite out of touch with the consequences of their decisions on the lives of people throughout the continent.
Even if some parties that have won the vote are xenophobic and backwards looking, that does not mean all those who voted for them are: many of them are people so frustrated with the political and social situation they find themselves in they come to support those who seem to be able to disrupt the status-quo.
A weekend where headlines were dominated by the rise of the far-right also saw two anti-semitic attacks, one lethal in Brussels, and one attack shortly after near Paris. Both attacks were surely timed to provoke a wider reaction and add to the feeling of fear which at once threatens minorities and can favourise the messages of the far-right. These events must instead be at once a wake-up to politicians and a wake-up for citizens: the same old politics leaves the initiative to those who promote hate, and throws open the closet of terrifying ghosts from Europe’s past. In face of this fear we need political and civic initiatives which reclaim a positive common European destiny and which demonstrate both in people’s daily lives and in the political institutions which structure them that solidarity, liberty, democracy and equality must become the real meanings of Europe, and not austerity, fear or division.
The new European Parliament must take the initiative to demand a new constitutional settlement which ensures the democratic functioning of the Union, and empowers the Union not to impose austerity but to invest, provide common social security guarantees and a coherent economic and social policy throughout the continent, an economic policy of collaboration not of competition. Above all the European Parliament must act as a space to rebuild the trust of citizens in politics, by welcoming citizens directly into the processes which decide on their future. Citizens do not trust the political leaders to take these initiatives alone, and those elected must show humility in welcoming much more occasions for higher degrees of participation than elections, otherwise they risk losing their democratic mandate altogether.
A first test will be if the Parliament forces its candidate for the President of the Commission on the Council, or if again the Parliament backs down and fails to promote the principles of a genuinely European democracy making itself prey to back-room deals and national manipulation.
Whether the political parties can be trusted with such responsibility remains to be seen. Concerned citizens must work to put pressure on the elected representatives on the one hand throughout the next five years, and simultaneously build a genuinely alternative Europe from the bottom-up: the events of the last weekend show we need to all work harder.