We launched this Democracy Watch column last year to follow “the battles between the EU elites and the peoples of Europe.” If you ever wonder what we are talking about, look no further than the contrasting battleground scenes in Brussels last week.
While all the EU heads of government were locked in secret talks in the Council chamber about how to run the continent from above, farmers were outside the European Parliament protesting against the impact of their rulers’ destructive Net Zero policies on Europeans’ everyday lives.
It was a stark illustration of the clash between the elites and the peoples of Europe. A civil war between the two constituent parts of democracy, as originally defined by the ancient Greeks; on one side demos—the people—on the other kratos—power and control.
Some 2,500 years later, the stage is set for a struggle over the future of democracy in Europe, in the run-up to June’s European elections.
Inside that European Council summit meeting in Brussels, the heads of government of every EU member state were meeting behind closed doors to discuss how to give another €50 billion to embattled Ukraine, without ever considering that they might consult European taxpayers. They were pressing Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary to withdraw his veto and agree to the huge hand-out, despite recent polls that show most Hungarian voters don’t want to get involved in the Russia-Ukraine war.
Meanwhile, just around the corner from the power summit, crowds of furious French farmers blockaded the square outside the European Parliament with their tractors, lit bonfires of tyres, and clashed with water cannon-wielding riot police.
Remember, these were hard-working farmers who rarely take a day off, not the leisure class of professional green protestors who normally bring chaos to Europe’s cities. They were moved to come to Brussels to protest against the green austerity measures imposed under the EU elites’ irrational Net Zero policies, which mean lower incomes for farming communities and higher food prices for the rest of us.
One banner on display in Brussels, as reported by The European Conservative on Thursday, captured the underlying complaints of farmers who are now protesting across Europe, and of the millions of other Europeans who back them. It declared: “This is not the Europe we want.”
No, this is not the Europe we want. It is the political Europe built by EU elites who believe that they know better than, and what is best for, the rest of us. Elites who prize their ‘ever-closer Union’ over national sovereignty and democracy; who impose high-minded green austerity policies to ‘save the planet’ with no thought about the damage they will do to the lives of millions on the ground; who force Europe’s nations to accept mass migration, not so much because they love migrants, but because they hate national borders and the notion of a sovereign people having control of their own destiny.
This is the Europe that has led many Europeans to reject the old political parties that built it. It is why populist and national conservative parties have been surging in elections almost everywhere and are predicted to do well in June’s elections to the European Parliament.
Outside that monstrous Parliament building in Brussels, briefly illuminated by the farmers’ bonfires last week, huge adverts earnestly call on Europeans to “Use Your Vote” in June. Inside its citadels, however, the EU political establishment is not so sure about that, increasingly worried that millions will use their vote in the ‘wrong’ way, by voting for anti-migration, EU-sceptical upstarts.
The response of the EU elites is to attack the revolting voters of Europe, by branding them as ‘far right’ or, when that is not considered extreme enough, ‘ultra far right.’ This is a thinly coded way of saying that these people are outside the narrow confines of ‘respectable’ debate.
Instead of being engaged with, the ‘far right’ should be censored, cancelled or banned altogether, as many now want to see happen to the populist and increasingly popular Alternative for Germany (AfD). In the double-speak of the elites, this assault on democratic rights is all justified in the name of ‘saving democracy’ of course. Thus, in order to save the people from themselves, woke elitists would deny millions of Germans the right to vote for the party of their choice.
The EU elites’ response has exposed the fact that the real threat to European democracy, to the ability of people to control their own destiny, comes from above.
You might imagine that many are now voting for populist parties because of the failings of the EU establishment. Apparently not. To pillars of that establishment, it is because the voters are irrational, over-emotional children, afraid of the dark. This was what Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, spelt out to an elite audience at an Italian five-star hotel just before Christmas.
Fresh from his efforts to sell out Israeli democracy in its war against Islamist autocracy, Borrell had a message about the dangers of too much democracy in Europe today. The ‘extreme right’ could do well in the European elections, he admitted. Why? “I’m afraid that Europeans will vote based on fear,” prompted by scaremongering about migration. “Fear in the face of the unknown and uncertainty,” the EU’s top diplomat continued, “generates a hormone that calls for a security response.” This fear may cause ‘hormonal’ Europeans to vote for ‘the extreme right.’
Never mind that worries about mass migration are entirely real and rational, based for example on the fact that the EU received more than a million claims for asylum in the first 10 months of 2023. In Borell’s view the real problem, as captured by Bruno Waterfield of The Times (London), is that “populism has an irrational biological basis.”
The genuine ‘fear’ on display here is the EU elites’ fear and loathing of the people, which they feel in their bones. They are terrified that voters are out of their control, that the demos are slipping free from their kratos. For the likes of Borell, this is the wrong kind of democracy, something verging on madness. And they will go to any lengths to prevent the ‘lunatic’ electorates from taking over their personal Brussels-based asylum.
Here the battle over democracy in Europe becomes part of a far wider struggle across the world. In 2024, some four billion people across more than 60 countries are due to vote in national elections, and the ones for the European Parliament. We might imagine that the world’s biggest-ever carnival of democracy is something to celebrate. But not, apparently, for the political and media elites atop our alleged Western democracies.
Instead they greeted the new year with doom-laden headlines such as “2024 is the year of elections and that’s a threat to democracy” (Bloomberg), “Can democracy survive 2024?” (Financial Times), “Democracy is in peril in the world’s bonanza year of elections” (Politico) and “Make or break for the EU … with far right on the rise” (The Guardian).
These elitists are terrified of the prospect of billions of people refusing to do as they are told and instead voting as they see fit. ‘Democracy’ is all very well so long as it suits the interests of those with the kratos; but if the demos take democracy too literally seeks to assert their will, that’s an entirely different matter. As one former member of President Barack Obama’s administration put it, they believe that you can have “too much of a good thing” and that Western society “might be a healthier democracy if it were a slightly less democratic one.” For some liberals in high places these days it seems that, where popular democracy is concerned, less really could be more.
It should now be clear that, yes, democracy is indeed under threat in 2024. But the danger to European democracy comes from above, not below. The Brussels elites are determined to hold back the democratic tide.
That’s why they have spent years politically threatening and financially blackmailing democratically-elected conservative governments in Hungary and Poland, hiding behind talk of the ‘rule of law’ to disguise the attempt to enforce the rule of unelected judges and bureaucrats. Having played their part in installing EU lackey Donald Tusk as Poland’s prime minister, and turned a blind eye to the new regime’s purge of its political opponents, Brussels officials are now making plans to wreak havoc on the Hungarian economy in order to bring its prime minister Viktor Orbán to heel; and if that fails, to strip Hungary (and any other dissident nation) of its democratic right to vote ‘no’ in European Council meetings. In the eyes of the high priests of EU conformism, Mr. Orban has committed the cardinal sin of repeatedly winning elections on a platform of ‘illiberal democracy’ that refuses to accept mass migration at Hungary’s borders or LGBTQ ideology in its schools.
Nor are the EU elites about to give up this year’s elections without a dirty fight. They have passed their Digital Services Act as part of a crusade to counter ‘hate speech’ and ‘misinformation’ online, particularly around election campaigns. These are code words for containing freedom of speech for anybody they brand as ‘far right.’ As Democracy Watch has already warned, in the run-up to the elections, Big Brussels is watching you.
For all that, however, democracy is today our best hope of bringing change to the Europe we don’t want. Despite all of the conspiracy theories about dumb voters being manipulated by the media and social media, the electorate remains smart enough to make up its own mind. The elites may control the institutions of the European Commission and the courts, but they cannot force the democratic genie back into the bottle. The European elections are a key battleground for the future—and one we can win.
A footnote. In between worrying about the death of democracy, Europe’s anti-democratic elites have been mourning the death of former European Commission president Jacques Delors, praised as the architect of the European Union. Hearing all the eulogies here in the UK reminded me of a famous speech by left-wing Labour MP Tony Benn from back in 1991, during the parliamentary debate about the Maastricht Treaty. Benn, a veteran of the time when the left still believed in national sovereignty and democracy, dissented from the cross-party support for the coming of the EU. “Some believe that we shall never get justice from the British government, but we shall get it from Jacques Delor; they believe that a good king is better than a bad parliament. I have never taken that view.” And nor should anybody, whether left, right or ‘far right’, who pays more than lip service to democratic politics.