MADRID – The run-up to next month’s European Parliament election has been characterized by a stifling tension between pro- and anti-Europeans. Surveys show that the two main political forces, conservatives and social democrats, are still running close (and far ahead of the rest); however the rise of populism is deeply worrying to everyone who believes in European unity – not only conservatives and social democrats, but also liberals and greens.
Parties like the National Front in France or the United Kingdom’s Independence Party could become front-runners in their respective countries, and they are not alone. In Finland, Austria, Holland, Hungary, Greece, and elsewhere, anti-European parties and more traditional Euroskeptics are benefiting from growing disillusion with Europe’s institutions, the remedies used to combat Europe’s ongoing economic crisis, and the widening division between the European Union’s north and south. Despite a rapid succession of significant steps, citizens throughout the EU sense too little improvement where it matters most – in their everyday lives.
But the battle between pro- and anti-Europeans is masking what really is at stake – and thus what should be the focus of electoral debate: how Europe can generate sustained economic growth. This question, rather than an endless defense against Euroskepticism, should be the main item of deliberation for parties pushing for an improved Europe for all. Broad-based recovery – in investment, demand, and employment – is the best weapon with which to confront those who would destroy the European project.
The upcoming election will render the public’s judgment on the success or failure of the austerity policies that have been undertaken. But it will also determine whether Europe will be able to remain the world’s leading economic power, maintain its social model, and safeguard its framework of rights and liberties in a world that will not wait for Europeans to resolve their differences.