UCL European Institute


No 'Camembert Fascism': A View on the European Elections

27 May 2014, 12:00 am

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It is instructive to think of the European Parliament elections as not entirely unlike a pre-modern ritual that above all serves as a means to legitimise the political idea of the European Union. By any such standards, this year's European elections were an utter failure.
Dr Daniel Siemens
27 May 2014

The European Elections 2014 have passed, and the alarm bells ring as predicted. The main reasons are supposedly obvious: Firstly, there seems to be an erosion of the established consensus even in those states that look back at a very stable political history in the second half of the 20th century. For decades, all mainstream political parties in France, Britain and (West-)Germany alike at least agreed in that they wanted to prevent a comeback of nationalist populist parties on the extreme right, fearing not least that those would capitalise on negative emotions. Secondly, the turnout of this year's European elections was as bad as in 2009: Overall, just slightly more than 43 per cent of the voters used their right to influence the composition of the European parliament. Although the turnout was generally lower in the newer member states in Eastern Europe than it was in the long-time member states in the West, even here the figures were often poor, in particular given the enormous effort put into this year's campaign. In France, a mere 43,5 per cent of the electorate participated in the European elections, and in Britain the turnout was as low as 36 per cent.

There is no lack of attempts to interpret the alleged will of the European peoples these days. However, it might be useful to think for a moment on the significance of elections more broadly. Research on elections in pre-modern Europe has clearly established that the most important function of elections was not to choose between political alternatives, but to reproduce social hierarchies. In order to reduce contingency, elections were usually religiously framed. They were a procedure as well as a ritual: a ritual that served to legitimise those in power by reminding them on the bond between them and their subjects, a bond that contained mutual obligations. Dissenting voices were to be tamed (by money and other well-established means of persuasion) before the proper election took place, as any visible disharmony on election day would delegitimise the given social order.

Leaving aside the obvious differences to modern day elections, it is instructive to think of the European elections as a ritual that above all serves as a means to legitimise the political idea of the European Union. By any pre-modern standards, this year's European elections were an utter failure, and the (ongoing) crisis of legitimacy of the so-elected body is evident. Whatever can be rightly said about the reasons for the low turnout in many member states, a solid majority of Europeans denied the European parliament legitimacy by refusing to vote. And it would be naïve to think of the silent majority as apolitical. On the contrary: As opinion polls demonstrate, their non-vote is often a vote of non-confidence in the EU and its institutions, but also in the capacity of parliamentary democracy more generally.

However, one also has to be careful not to misinterpret this year's swing to the right in many European states as an indicator for a new popularity of fascism. Voting for the extreme right is still a minority phenomenon, inflated by the very low general turnout. Therefore, genuine warnings of a 'Camembert Fascism' in France (German journalist Nils Minkmar) or the repeated bashing of the 'Europe haters' in the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in Britain seem premature, to say the least. As much as many commentators rightly point to the many shortcomings within the populist right, they often overlook that no more than one out of ten British adults voted for UKIP, and only one out of nine voted for the Front National in France.

So no worries, after all? On the contrary: The main reasons for the ascent of the populist right in recent years (in other words: the growing estrangement between the European populations and their national political classes) are first and foremost related to real problems of real people. Admitted: At the moment, the EU is often a scapegoat for the growing anger and frustration of those increasing number of European citizens who struggle to keep peace with an ever quickly changing economic and cultural environment. But it is precisely on these economic and cultural issues that the established democratic parties have to address their potential voters: by genuinely tackling the widespread problems of social decline and the lack of upward mobility. Whoever fails to see that the current election results and the high numbers of those abstaining from it are related to the return of the social question in the early 21st century does not understand the full dynamics of a development that has the power to transform European and national politics alike.

  • Dr Daniel Siemens, DAAD Francis Carsten Lecturer in Modern German History, UCLSchool of Slavonic and East European Studies