Opinion European Voters Know What They Don't Want

Was it a swing to the right -- or just a return to reality? The result of the EU elections is not some terrible portent of doom. Instead, it is evidence that voters reward populists like Geert Wilders, who are not afraid to address issues that other parties don't want to touch.
Von Henryk M. Broder

There is always a certain amount of risk associated with any election. It is a truth recognized by dictators around the world -- leading them to prefer predetermined results. In the last elections for the North Korean "parliament," for example, the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland got 100 percent of the vote and all 687 seats. It was a result that was difficult to misinterpret -- and met the expectations of those involved.

The outcome of the European parliamentary elections  was different. It was a disaster that became apparent as early as Thursday, when the results from the Netherlands  became public. The right-wing populist Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party ended up as the second strongest party in the country behind the Christian Democrats.

Many were horrified. The correspondent for German public radio station ARD even called Wilders a "peroxide blond blowhard," a "sleazy provocateur" and a "petty patriot." In his commentary, the ARD correspondent went on to say that "his political program is focused entirely on demonizing Islam" and finished by saying that the Dutch should be ashamed of themselves.

Disdain for the Voting Public

But what looked on Thursday like a one-time lapse on the part of a single journalist had, by Sunday evening, become the mainstream message. The evening news wasn't just talking about a rightward shift in European politics. Rather, one got the impression that right-wing extremists were about to take over power. The presenters seemed not only to have expected a different outcome but saw no reason to hide their disappointment -- and expressed their disdain for the voting public accordingly.

On the German public television station ZDF, anchorman Claus Kleber spoke of the "renewed strength of the extreme right in Holland" as if it represented the reincarnation of the Nationaal Socialistische Beweging, the country's pre-World War II fascist party. Another ARD reporter, speaking of the 15 percent achieved by the anti-Semitic Jobbik party in Hungary, slid effortlessly into a report on Wilders' party in the Netherlands, as if the two results were somehow linked. Indeed, as the coverage focused on those parties that made gains, it was difficult to ignore the subtext of sympathy for the losses suffered by the center-left across the continent. How, the media seemed to be asking, could the social democrats have fallen so far?

Maybe like this. Germany, and a large part of Europe, has in recent decades incorporated vast swaths of social democratic values into their societies. The Social Democrats have lost their unique selling point.  With the exception of the business-friendly Free Democrats, Germany's parliament is full of politicians who are, in some shade or another, adherents of the social democratic worldview. The Christian Social Union (the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union) is to the left of the SPD on some issues. Merkel's CDU is sometimes greener than the Greens and the far-left Left Party continues to cozy up to Germany's mainstream parties.

Lidl Instead of Aldi

When almost all the parties on offer are center-left, there is no longer a compelling reason to vote SPD. On the contrary, there is nothing wrong with taking a look at those who offer something a bit different -- not unlike the way loyal Aldi shoppers take an occasional look at what rival supermarket chain Lidl is offering.

The European shift to the right,  which is being decried across the continent, isn't one. Rather, it is a signal for a return to reality. The established centrist parties -- in Germany, in the Netherlands, in Sweden, Austria and elsewhere -- are busy with crisis management, with the nationalization of ailing banks and bankrupt companies. They are neither able nor willing to attend to other problems.

They aren't thinking about the consequences of immigration, about the loss of cultural identity that many people with "non-immigrant backgrounds" sense -- people who do not want to be labeled as xenophobes, right-wing extremists or neo-Nazis as a result. This omission benefits so-called "populists" like Geert Wilders, who are not afraid to tackle politically incorrect issues and provide answers to questions that nobody else wants to pose.

Geert Wilders of the Netherlands: Europe's supposed shift to the right is really just a signal for a return to reality.

Geert Wilders of the Netherlands: Europe's supposed shift to the right is really just a signal for a return to reality.

Foto: AFP

In this regard, "xenophobia" is a term which should be used only where it is really appropriate. For example, when the residents of the eastern German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania campaign against Poles who invest in the economically weak state, open businesses, create jobs and pay taxes. Or when foreigners get chased through the eastern German town of Guben and no locals come to their rescue.

Surprisingly Good Elections

On the other hand, the word "xenophobia" should not be used when immigrants are asked to observe the customs and laws of the country in which they want to live and work. This includes, in addition to the obligation to send children to school, the renunciation of family traditions which end in bloodbaths.

And finally: The "stupid" voters have recognized that they are supporting a parliament whose primary task is not to oversee the EU's executive arm but to take care of politicians who their parties want to reward for their loyal support. Those who, for whatever reasons, have failed at home, or who need to take a time-out from national politics, get sent to Brussels. The ex-chair of the German Greens, Angelika Beer, was disposed of by sending her to the EU capital. After the Greens failed to re-nominate her, she left the party. Now it's the turn of another ex-chair of the Greens, Reinhard Bütikofer, who, like many of his colleagues, can not imagine a life after politics.

The Christian Democrats' Joachim Zeller, the pleasant former mayor of Berlin's Mitte district, did not achieve much in that position and has now been rewarded with a seat in Brussels. Sahra Wagenknecht of the Left Party's Communist Platform can often be seen on TV shows -- but few people can remember her ever making a relevant speech in Brussels. And anyone who had witnessed just a single appearance by the Social Democrat's leading candidate in the European elections, Martin Schulz, could have predicted that not even SPD chancellor candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier could help him.

Seen from this perspective, the European elections went surprisingly well, especially in Germany. There, turnout was slightly higher than last time, the far-right were ignored and the far-left Left Party only received single-digit support. The populace does not always know what it wants. But mostly it knows what it does not want. And that's a good thing.