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May 25 is a day of reckoning for all of Europe

The elections across the EU and in Ukraine are pivotal for Europe’s future

May 23, 2014 12:30AM ET

By Sunday, May 25, approximately 400 million European Union citizens across 28 countries will have had the chance to go to the polls to elect a new parliament in Brussels. Farther east, Ukrainians will select a new president on the same day. There are no overlapping candidates, constituencies or, on the surface, issues in these two distinct elections. In fact, voting may not even take place in much of Ukraine. But the two polls, taking place simultaneously from Donetsk to the Canary Islands, are closely interconnected: Much about the future of Europe hinges on their outcomes.

The landmark presidential election in Ukraine is key to stopping the country’s further fragmentation and descent into war. A legitimate, popularly elected government in Kiev could begin putting the country back together and start a constructive dialogue between Russia and the transatlantic West. All of Europe, and Eastern Europe in particular, will benefit enormously from a stable, predictable Ukraine.

Russian speakers in Ukraine’s south and east don’t trust the current provisional government in Kiev. In recent weeks, separatists in eastern Ukraine have laid siege to government buildings and have staged self-styled referendum votes. Russia and most Russian speakers in Ukraine believe that the pro-EU Maidan leaders are diehard fascists bent on persecuting the country’s minorities. Russian President Vladimir Putin says he won’t even sit at the table with them. In theory, if a moderate leader, who had the trust of all Ukrainians, replaced the Maidan leadership in Sunday’s election, dialogue and reconciliation could begin in earnest. But, unfortunately for Ukraine, there is no such candidate at the moment.

Petro Poroshenko, a pro-European businessman who is currently leading in the polls, might be the second best option. Known as “the chocolate king” for his confectionery enterprise, the largest in Ukraine, the 48-year-old Poroshenko is considered one of the most influential men in Ukrainian politics. Over the past decade, he has served as the country’s foreign affairs minister, speaker of the Ukrainian parliament and head of the national bank. A graduate of Kiev University with degrees in economics and law, he started his own business selling cocoa beans just as the Soviet Union began to implode.

Poroshenko strongly supported the Maidan protests, but he is seen as a pragmatist and has a network that spans the country. If he’s elected, his immediate priority will be promulgating a constitution for a decentralized Ukraine that is acceptable to all stakeholders, including the separatists in the east. In the longer run, he will have to chart a path for Ukraine that is in essence European — focusing on liberal democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law. Since Ukraine’s membership in the EU is a nonstarter, Poroshenko will have to negotiate deftly with both Russia and the West, as well as the Maidan protesters, who want closer ties with the EU.

But this is a best-case scenario. The election won’t even take place at all in Crimea and probably in many cities in eastern Ukraine. The extremists may attempt to obstruct the polling stations and declare it a farce. While international observers will supervise, the question is whether Ukraine is stable enough to hold free and fair elections. German negotiators are working around the clock to pave the way for the vote. Berlin has pulled its top diplomat, Wolfgang Ischinger, out of retirement to lead roundtable discussions among government, parliamentary and regional leaders. But with no representative from the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, its accomplishments will be limited in the best of circumstances.

EU elections

Similarly, the results of the European parliamentary elections will reverberate well into the future. The eurozone is only now tentatively emerging from financial crisis. One of the roughest patches in postwar European history, the turmoil shook the very foundations of the EU, giving many Europeans pause about its benefits. Despite the battered economies of the Southern European members, and the expensive bailout packages financed by the north, most Europeans grasp that the continent’s relative prosperity, peace within its borders and border-free liberties are largely the results of integration. Pro-EU parties are expected to dominate the polls, but favorable sentiment about the union is less than a ringing endorsement. The next legislature will need more than a nebulous “yes to Europe” majority in order to move beyond the euro-crisis with confidence and resolution.

Political leaders from the member states often blame their countries’ problems on Brussels rather than explaining to citizens how the EU works and its relevance to them.

The size of voter turnout will say a lot about how EU citizens feel about their role in a pan-European democracy. The European Parliament is the crucible of democracy in the region. Since its inception in 1979, in an effort to plug Europe’s gaping democracy deficit, the powers of the European parliament have grown considerably and are set to widen even further. Ever more legislation passes through the parliament on its way to law, on such key issues as energy, consumer protection and data protection.

Nevertheless, the legislature in what Europeans call “far-away Brussels” still appears inaccessible and the decision-making process opaque to ordinary citizens. Most Europeans are not aware of the debates and legislation going through parliament. There are no Europe-wide public forums or media that can address pertinent legislative issues — for example, where the Spaniards, Irish and Poles could discuss policy measures that will apply equally to all of them. Moreover, most key decisions are still taken by the European Council, by the Commission or between state leaders behind closed doors — not by elected European MPs.

In past parliamentary elections, voter indifference resulted in increasingly lower turnouts. The first-ever European parliament elections in 1979 (under the EU’s forerunner, the nine-member European Community) saw a 62 percent voter turnout. Since then it has spiraled downward, in inverse proportion to its growing powers. In the last two elections, in 2004 and 2009, turnout hovered just above 40 percent.

Fight for legitimacy

A strong showing on May 25 would go a long way to confer legitimacy on parliament. Political leaders from the member states often blame their countries’ problems on Brussels rather than explaining to citizens how the EU works and its relevance to them. Moreover, election campaigns are conducted on a localized, national basis. For example, the German Christian Democrats have plastered posters of Chancellor Angela Merkel all over Berlin, even though Merkel is not running for the EU parliament. European voters don’t have the opportunity to cast their ballots for Europe-wide political parties. In fact, few voters recognize any of the candidates on the EU ballot.

To make matters worse, vehement anti-EU parties are expected to do well at the polls. Almost every country has one of these parties, which are on the far right and far left of the political spectrum. In recent years, discontent with the euro, the EU’s open borders and immigration, and the democracy deficit have helped far left and extreme right parties to grow substantially in Britain, Hungary, the Netherlands, Greece and France, among other countries. They hope to gain more ground within the EU parliament in order to make sure that it doesn’t function — capitalizing on their charges of an ineffectual, wasteful European bureaucracy.

As the EU and Ukrainian elections approach, Putin and the European extremists appear to be in an unspoken alliance. Some of these parties share a nationally minded vision with Putin. They are in awe of Putin’s bold, lightning-fast power plays in Ukraine, which have, at least in the short run, upstaged the EU’s soft power. Like Putin, they want to destabilize and undermine democratic Europe.

If the Ukraine vote fails to take place in large swaths of the country on Sunday, and poor turnout helps European extremists do well, it will offer further proof that Putin’s militaristic, authoritarian Weltanschauung has more takers in Europe than we imagine. The United States and its European allies will then have to rethink their geopolitical strategies. In order to remain relevant when Putin makes his next move, Europe’s traditionally soft power may, for example, have to embrace an element of hard power. 

Paul Hockenos is a journalist living in Berlin. He has covered the transformations of the EU for over 25 years.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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