The 2019 elections for the European Parliament boil down to a war between supporters of EU integration, multilateralism and liberal values, and those who aim at a Europe of illiberal polities, often coupled with state capitalism and ethno-nationalism.
In both camps, initiatives are mushrooming. Both sides have political champions and corresponding visions: French President Emmanuel Macron’s deepening of EU integration and supranational cooperation, and the anti-immigrant right led by an incipient alliance between Italy’s Matteo Salvini, Austria’s Sebastian Kurz, France’s Marine Le Pen, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and others. While the former camp can count on mainstream media, business and philanthropic support, the latter – which has historically been supported more by Russian than European funds – is set to benefit from Steve Bannon’s yet-to-be established foundation, The Movement.
As the prospect of losing big spreads, a sense of urgency in the pro-EU camp is prompting an unprecedented number of initiatives to spring up. While of different natures, ideological inspiration and scope, they all appear united by the desire to protect our European liberal, democratic system.
Yet as none of these initiatives alone seems capable of countering the anti-EU camp, which meanwhile is rapidly organising transnationally, they are all facing the same dilemma on how to save Europe. Should they somehow embrace populism or continue acting with civility and self-restraint in protecting liberal democracy?
While the former avenue seems tempting (think of a Seehofer-like show-down on migrants or the newly-elected Spanish Popular Party’s youthful leader’s promise to quit Schengen), embracing the populist playbook might be misguided. Indeed, a populist-driven pro-EU messaging may reinforce the dynamics of normative erosion that helped the populists gain power in the first place. In short, it might paradoxically embolden further opponents. The counter-insurgency against rising, anti-migrant populism should restore and preserve norms of mutual tolerance and forbearance, rather than defy them. In other words, the populist insurgents must be defeated through democratic institutions, so as to strengthen those very same institutions.
But how? And who make this happen?
While coalitions of like-minded organisations and individuals, as they’re timidly emerging, may play an important role – both in the political and associational space – these are far too inadequate to defend European liberal democracy.
Remarkably, in today’s confrontation, there’s one voice that goes unheard. That of business.
While private companies also face an increasingly heated political climate, they are not coming out with their visions for the EU, at least not publicly. Despite the existential threat to Europe’s core liberal values, its constitutional and legal framework, the private sector confirms its historical pattern of behaviour: not taking a public stand on political issues unrelated to their bottom line.
Yet, in today’s politically charged atmosphere, inaction is no longer the safe haven it once was for multinational corporations. The new political leadership emerging in Europe may threaten not only the company’s bottom line, but also the overall value system in which they operate and have historically been thriving. A glance at the terms of the ongoing Brexit negotiations should suffice to demonstrate what might soon be at stake for companies benefiting from the EU single market. Moreover, in the Twitter era, silence is more noticeable and may be viewed as a sign of tacit approval of illiberal political leaders such as Orban and Kaczynski whose views on migrants, LGBTs and other minority groups clashes with the values many companies pursue in their CSR policies. More critically,these very same leaders did not hesitate to use their governments’ successes in attracting foreign investment as fig leaves for their illiberalism. In other words, big Western industrial groups are benefiting from the EU’s economic freedoms– by investing in countries, such as Hungary and Poland – without standing up for the political values in which those liberties are embedded.
That should lead some civil society, political and philanthropic leaders to devise a radical, inclusive model for engaging also the private sector into a pro-democratic coalition in the ongoing European debate. This should look like a European Super-PAC (i.e. Super Political Action Committee). In the United States, while a PAC is a group formed to raise and contribute money to the campaigns of candidates likely to advance the group’s interests, a Super-PAC raises and spends unlimited amounts of money from corporations, unions, individuals and associations to influence the outcome of a given election.
Breaking the silence
When translated to the EU context, the idea is not so much about establishing a new campaign financing mechanism (this is already a highly-regulated area), but to create a special-purpose vehicle, that would rally support and organizing power around one and only one bipartisan issue, such as how to preserve, foster and shape the public debate ahead of the 2019 European Parliament elections. This pro-democracy power-house would support, steer and monitor the many pro-EU voices across Europe across three areas: messaging, candidate selection and grassroots organization. A good model could be offered by the People’s Vote, the UK campaign coalition group calling for a public vote on the final Brexit deal between the UK and the European Union. Among its actions, the People’s Vote media team engages daily in successful counter-propaganda through social media aimed at offsetting negative messaging and correcting the public record. This is strengthening not weakening the incipient European public sphere.
A broad pro-European democracy coalition pursuing one, single aim would have important benefits. First, it would strengthen those acting in defence of European democracy by appealing to a wider sector of European society. We should not forget that, although largely silent, a majority of citizens still favour our European liberal democracy.
Second, an audience wider than the usual progressive, liberal pro-EU movements might open new channels of communication among sectors of society that no longer talk to one another, including the business sector and civil society. As such, it might help overcome extreme partisan divisions, such as the pro-EU versus anti-EU divide, which are not only fuelled by policy differences but by deeper sources such as identity and socio-economic conflicts. These divisions today represent the fundamental problem faced by our societies and, unfortunately, the electoral game is set to make them even further entrenched.
While increasingly depicted as a make-or-break moment, the next EP elections are set to go down in history as the first genuinely European elections. Europe needs to do something drastic and creative to survive and transcend this long-awaited moment; everyone has a critical role to play in this process, including the rich and the powerful.