Europe prepares to vote: Right relies on apathy and anger

Those who believed that Donald Trump might not be a good president for America or an inspiring, reliable partner in the alliances that have sustained the West for decades may feel vindicated. Those who opposed the inevitable chaos of Brexit equally so. 

Those affirmations, not by any means universal, lead to some reflection and the conclusion that voter apathy played some part in both votes. Once upon a time, the idea of President Trump or Britain quitting the EU seemed so implausible, so counterintuitive that some of those who might have voted against those proposals stayed at home and left the heavy lifting of democracy to others. 

Bad call. 

However, Trump supporters or Brexiteers can dismiss that argument as wishful thinking, especially in the case of Brexit where 72.2% of those entitled to vote did so. Trump’s presidency was endorsed by a process involving 55.5% of America’s voters.

If those figures showed deep dissatisfaction, indeed simmering anger, with the status quo, the turnout in 2014 European elections was so low — 42.5% — that it showed a dangerous disconnect. 

It was the fabled democratic deficit writ large and a vacuum exacerbated. Europe’s political equivalents of Trump and Brexit surged; populist and right-wing candidates made considerable gains. 

This week, Italy’s deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, leads a Milan pre-election conference of Europe’s far-right parties to try to consolidate 2014 gains. 

The meeting will be energised by polls from several EU states showing the right surging ahead of what might loosely — but all too accurately — be called the rearguard of social democratic/Christian democratic Europe.

To give that 42.5% figure (2014) context; in our last general election over 65% of those with a vote used it but a fragmented parliament was elected. 

This, ironically, added to the loss of faith in politics and must at least fuel apathy if not anger. The significant commitment by so many young Irish people — only 21% of whom voted in the last EU elections — to recent climate protests over government inaction on the crisis suggests the latter. 

Unfortunately, there are far too many examples of government inaction or tokenism dressed as policy that justify protest on too many issues, especially those having a negative impact on the lives of younger citizens.

These figures show a trend irrespective of turnout — the right is in the ascendant. In just 44 days Europe goes to the polls and that rightward swing may accelerate. Or it may not. 

However, our half-cocked engagement with the issues and the candidates suggest a kind of hopelessness that is unlikely to turn a surging tide. 

It is a Nero-fiddles warning that the debate around a boycott of the Eurovision song contest, to be held in Israel a week before the elections, has generated more heat than the EU elections. 

That this is happening when Europe needs to be more and more united, more and more as one as a bulwark against growing threats — tech giants’ imperialism and China are two, the climate crisis is another — is a grave concern. 

We were told not so long ago that anger is not a policy but it is the wave the right is riding towards power. By preparing to vote next month, by informing yourself you may help turn that tide. By staying at home you will endorse it.

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