"We have already said that the united Europe is far from true unity. Now judge for yourselves ... ". That was the approximate reaction among Russian Eurosceptics to the results of expanded European Union parliament elections in which for the first time 25 countries took part.
By the Russian Eurosceptics I mean opponents of Russia's EU entry in principle. Although no one calls Russia into the united Europe today, and Moscow itself views the issue as belonging to the remote future, every major event in European political life like Europarliament elections automatically provides here an occasion for a new flare-up in debates if Russia should be part of a united Europe.
Effectively this is an old argument between westernizers and Slavophiles, which are today called liberals and etatists. From a liberal point of view, closer contacts between Russia and the EU could help the country to share in the fruits of modern civilisation, to overcome its established principles of authoritarianism, and raise the quality of Russian democracy to all-European standards.
To be sure, this is a matter of the distant future, the liberals warn us. Thus, in the view of Grigory Yavlinsky's, Yabloko party leader, conditions for Russia's entry into the EU cannot emerge earlier than a quarter of a century hence. But they are bound to arise. The only preliminary thing that needs to be done is to make Russia look like Europe, believes Yavlinsky: to make the press freer, the courts more independent, and civil society able to control state authority.
Oh no, these are all devilish fancies, retort the etatists. In their view, which is represented in the State Duma by, for example, the Rodina party, Russia has nothing to do in the EU. Staying outside the European Union, Russia preserves the exclusive position of a major partner in line with its geopolitical significance. But once it joins the EU, it will be humiliatingly lost among nearly thirty members. One can learn from Europe, borrow from its experience what fits Russia, but to give up the national reins to Brussels? God forbid.
As a result, the outcome of the current elections to the Europarliament has unspeakably gladdened the Russian etatists. These elections confirmed, in their view, the long-held conviction of the Russian nationalist movement that the united Europe is actually split up, and largely hostile to its national governments and openly indifferent to the very idea of European integration and to existing all-European institutions like the Europarliament.
Indeed, the apathy demonstrated by voters seems to confirm such a radical assessment. Instead of 350 million people who could have voted in all 25 countries. this right was enjoyed by about 155 million, or 44.2 per cent. The Strasbourg Assembly has not seen such a depressingly low turnout since 1999, when the direct ballot was introduced.
Moreover, we have here a paradox, almost an absurdity. The most disregard for the ballot box has been demonstrated by residents of the 10 countries, mostly former members of the "socialist camp", who so enthusiastically entered the portals of the European club just six weeks ago. The average turnout index there fell to a pitiful 26 per cent. The newcomers failed their first examination held within the walls of the all-European house, which they had so long and passionately sought to enter. Why?
It is fatigue of EU membership referendums held in most of these countries, we are told. But this most widely used explanation seems rather artificial. They used to celebrate the joining of the European family with fireworks and receptions, and now feel the unconquerable decline in strength when the hour came to send their deputy to the highest legislative body of the united Europe. All of a sudden, they lost the desire to make a historical choice inconceivable under the accursed socialist system? A bit illogical.
Curiously enough, even appetising baits failed to help. In Estonia, some candidates earnestly promised to those who agree to vote for them free accommodation in the Canaries. And the Estonian Isamaaliit party - quite in the spirit of Soviet times - distributed free coffee at bus stops in exchange for a pep talk about the advantages of its candidates.
Russian etatists are offering different explanations for the electoral apathy in the former Communist bloc. The desire of these countries to join the European Union was dictated not so much by faith in the idea of European solidarity, as by a wish to escape possible guardianship by Russia, in which they seem to see an imperial successor to the Soviet Union, it is suspected in these Russian circles. The prevailing opinion is that the novice countries are all but indifferent to the united Europe game. What is more, the populations of these countries have a deeply ingrained sense of hopelessness: in a 25-member Europe the tune will be called by the same western heavyweights that ruled the roost in a 15-member Europe.
The Europarliament elections have also developed into a virtual vote of non-confidence in the national governments and a rebellion against the ruling parties. Moreover, judgements were passed mostly on their merits, which had nothing to do with European integration.
Thus, voters punished British leader Tony Blair, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and leaders of some other countries for their subservient backing of the US-led war against Iraq. On the contrary, Spain's new premier Jose Luis Zapatero multiplied the representation of his Socialist deputies to the Strasbourg Assembly thanks to the gratitude of his electors for the pull-out of Spanish troops from Iraq. On the other hand, the same voters failed to pardon the ruling parties in France, Germany and Poland the economic decline, a leap in unemployment, and social reforms burdensome for the population.
In Russia, as indeed in many European capitals, this outcome was expected. But from the viewpoint of Russian etatists, something else is more interesting: the electoral success of those parties and movements that come out against the European Union. In other words, a considerable part of the electorate appears to have rejected the very idea of European unity and, moreover, has called in question the legitimacy of European Union institutions, including the European parliament. "We were right when we did not see a niche for Russia in the EU system," Russian politicians with Slavophile sentiments now explain. "This system only multiplies its enemies within its ranks."
The situation in Britain is cited as an example. Not only Iraq contributed to the poor showing of Tony Blair's Labour Party, which gained a mere 23 per cent of the vote in the Europarliament elections - the worst Labour record since the First World War. Another contributing factor was the growing British dissatisfaction with Blair's line towards hitching up Britain to the European Union structures.
The result was a sensation: a landslide victory scored by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Little known in the past, this political association, whose only programme slogan is "Britain, get out of EU", secured 12 seats in the Europarliament, its popularity among the electorate rising to 17 per cent from 6 per cent. Jointly with like-minded fellows from other countries, making it to the Europarliament, the Independence Party can set up there a faction of politicians interested in breaking down the European institutions.
Indeed, the Eurosceptics of all lands, unite!
Curiously enough, this eruption of anti-European sentiments took place ahead of a EU summit, which is to be held next Thursday/Friday in Brussels and to be devoted mainly to the hasty updating of a draft EU constitution. Pat Cox, President of the European Parliament, had every reason to warn: the current wave of Euroscepticism is a "disquieting signal" for all states that are going to hold a referendum on an all-European constitution.
Many in Russia think that Cox is somewhat toning down the seriousness of the situation, where the EU landed. The European parliamentary elections seem to have given an alarming signal to the very idea of the continent's further integration.