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Uncertainty in Europe on Election Eve

Ivan Krastev (right) speaks with Kluge Center Director John Haskell (left) at the May 9 event on European politics and culture. Credit: Andrew Breiner

For the first time in decades, Europeans are looking fondly to the past, rather than to the future.

That was a key point made by Ivan Krastev at a May 9 public event at the Library of Congress focusing on European politics and culture, and upcoming elections to the European Parliament.

Krastev, the Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations at the Library of Congress, was interviewed by John W. Kluge Center Director John Haskell. The event was co-hosted by the Bulgarian Embassy as part of the European Union’s Month of Culture. Krastev is an expert on Balkan and European affairs. His most recent book is Democracy Disrupted: The Politics of Global Protest. A new book that he worked on while in residence at the Library, The Light that Failed, co-authored with Stephen Holmes, will be published in October.

Krastev, who is from Bulgaria, said that much of what has happened since the collapse of the Soviet Union came as a shock, in contrast to the great initial hope for the future soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The key word then, he said, was “normality.”

“We don’t need new ideas anymore,” Krastev said of the thinking at the time. “’We want to have a normal life.’ And normal life was life in the west.”

The Importance of Demography

We are seeing the importance of dynamics like changing demography and its psychological effects on Europeans, according to Krastev, in addition to more concrete factors like economic performance. Poland, for instance, has been an economic success story of the last 15 years, even remaining mostly unharmed by the global recession that began in 2009. “On the illiberal turn in Poland, theoretically speaking this should not have happened,” Krastev said. But demographic trends in Eastern Europe provide a clearer picture of what is happening.

One surprise that came quickly was the emigration of liberals from former Soviet states. After a revolution, typically the opponents of the revolution will leave, he noted, as happened after the French and Russian revolutions. But across Eastern Europe in the 1990s and 2000s, liberal revolution resulted in liberals leaving for the west.

According to Krastev, the turn towards illiberalism can be attributed in large part to this emigration. Paradoxically, he said, the failures are a result of the success of the European Union. Opening borders and allowing people to travel freely meant the liberal voters in Poland or Hungary could move to Paris or Berlin rather than changing their own countries. And those left behind are older, less liberal, and often living in emptying towns.

“A revolutionary wants to live in the future,” said Krastev, “so if the future of Poland is Germany, why wait for Poland to become Germany when you can go to Germany?” The division of Europe between imitated nations in the west and imitator nations in the east also created a lack of confidence. “When you imitate somebody,” said Krastev, “you basically accept your own inferiority.”
Since the end of the USSR, Krastev said, Baltic Republics lost one third of their populations, Bulgaria lost 20-25% of its population, and 3.4 million Romanians left the country, most of them younger than 40. As a result, those countries face a “major shortage of labor,” and even the resources spent to educate the emigrants, around 200 billion Euros worth, have flowed from east to west.

European Elections

Krastev thinks upcoming elections to the European Parliament (May 23 to May 26) will be dominated by nostalgia. Krastev pointed to polls showing that sixty-seven percent of Europeans think that the world was better yesterday, however, they cannot agree on which “yesterday” they are talking about.

The European Union was founded by a Europe that was afraid of its recent, violent past, and looked towards a better, more peaceful, future through international cooperation. But between aging and shrinking populations, Europe’s decreased importance in the international order, and the feeling that Europe doesn’t represent the future for the rest of the world, there is a sense that the future can only be worse.

Populists on the right, Krastev said, see a past that was more ethnically homogenous, and see it as superior. And Europeans on the left are nostalgic for the progressive era of the 1990s.
While elections for the European Parliament have typically been low in turnout and focused on national political issues, Krastev thinks the upcoming elections are likely to be more about Europe’s direction forward. The decision by the UK to exit the European Union means that the existence of the Union cannot be taken for granted.

Still, he said it was notable that Brexit seems to have made the option of leaving the EU unappealing to other nations, with even newly-unified Euro-skeptic parties promising to reform the EU rather than leave it. And while parties on the right might prefer to have the EU Parliamentary elections turn into a referendum on immigration, the number of migrants has decreased dramatically. Only 120,000 entered Europe in the last year, Krastev said, same as “the number of tourists landing in Athens’ airport in a single day in August.” The fact that no major European parties are calling for open borders has also lessened the importance of the issue for voters.

Moving in All Directions

Krastev expects the elections to be characterized by indecisiveness. Half of voters are undecided about who they will support, he said, and even those who have made a decision are open to changing their minds, with the dominant theme being dissatisfaction with Europe’s current path. Krastev likened Europe to the major square of a city, where the traffic lights have stopped working, with cars going in all different directions at once. “People are looking for change, and they can find it in very different positions,” he said.

For example, he pointed to the Netherlands, where the recent success of the new anti-immigration Forum for Democracy party initially gave credence to the idea of a general rightward shift. But just days after those elections, Slovakia elected “the most liberal, progressive president ever elected in Central or Eastern Europe in the last 30 years.”

Later, Spain held elections in which the mainstream Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party drastically increased its returns, yet the far-right Vox party also entered Parliament for the first time.

“From this point of view, it’s going to be very much a war of interpretations about what happens the night of the elections,” Krastev said.

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