Activists in an affluent German region have been fighting misinformation propagated by national far-right groups to help voters make an informed decision in the ongoing European Union elections.
BAVARIA, Germany — A small group of activists in Germany's landlocked Bavaria state is on a desperate campaign to fight misinformation and disenchantment among ordinary Europeans so that they can make a more informed decision in the three-day European elections starting from May 23.
“We don’t want to be armchair critics, we don’t just want to criticise policies, we want true freedom, human rights, democratic values, not just in our country, but across Europe,” says Martin Becher of the Bavarian Alliance for Tolerance.
Established deep in Bavaria's forested countryside, Becher's organisation runs a variety of campaigns, which include encouraging tolerance towards refugees and discouraging right-wing extremism.
The upcoming elections for the European Parliament (EP) presented Becher with a fresh challenge as much of the European population has a fairly poor understanding of the European Union (EU) and its numerous institutions. He wants to change this by educating people about the inner workings of the political and economic bloc.
He fears that people won't vote because they don't think much of the EU, and a lack of basic knowledge and understanding of the bloc could allow far-right Eurosceptics to enter the fray.
“Just look at Brexit,” he says. “We need people to go out and vote, we need people to know their rights.”
According to widely-held opinion, the Brexit vote was, to a huge extent, a lack of understanding of the EU.
It was also seen as a malicious campaign by an anti-EU lobby, that in many instances lied and cheated to get an ill-informed public on their side.
With these fears - and a vintage double-decker Berlin city bus - Becher applied to the Bavarian government for a grant to get his bus on the road and get the message out.
Becher received the grant and soon he and his team of young volunteers found themselves working overtime on the EuropaBus project.
The idea was that the EuropaBus would carry the message of a united Europe, helping remove the fear of Brussels and encourage greater public participation in the greater European dream.
Though his message could not be political, nor could he tell people not to vote for far-right parties, or any other political party for that matter, he could help to dispel myths that the EU is a bureaucratic institution.
“What’s challenging is generating enough awareness to allow voters to make an informed decision,” says Becher.
The implication is that the current political climate across Europe could provide a breeding ground of public discontentment and risk the rise of the far-right inside the European parliament.
“This year, polls indicate another slight increase in votes [for far-right candidates], but there will continue to be a solid pro-European majority in the EP,” says Julian Rappold, a researcher at the German Association for Foreign Policy.
The EuropaBus project toured various Bavarian towns, with its volunteers talking and taking in people’s opinion.
The volunteer team that ran the project on the ground say such is the best way to garner greater engagement in European politics and that voter apathy is often caused by the complexity of bureaucratic workings and alienation from the European parliament in Brussels.
The team is fully equipped with activists, a tour manager and a social media manager who ensure future events are well-advertised on their website and social media platforms.
Where exactly does the fear lie?
“I understand that there have been major changes in the European party-political landscape over the past five years, but we should not exaggerate by calling them 'fateful elections',” Rappold says.
However, the situation remains fairly precarious in one of Germany's richest states.
Bavaria's GDP is just slightly lower than that of Turkey's, at $594 billion in 2018. But its political landscape was recently shaken when the traditional and tolerant Christian Social Union (CSU) party took a major hammering due to 2015 refugee influx.
That was the first time the far-right AfD moved from its natural home in eastern Germany to more affluent parts of the country.
In the October 2018 state elections, the AfD won 22 seats, or 11 percent of the total seats, while the longstanding CSU lost nearly 15 percent of its seats in the state parliament and the social democrats, who traditionally rank second, slipped to fifth place.
Such is the fear spreading across Europe. National fears are being imposed on a continental frame.
During the last European parliamentary elections, which were held in 2014, many of the far-right parties across Europe were still fairly young.
In 2019, however, they are well-established and most have decent ratings in their local and national parliaments and unlike mainstream political groups, these younger, far-right groups are charged up, baying for blood.
“Much of the future influence of Eurosceptic parties at disrupting policy-making on the pan-European level will depend on whether they will be able to form a coherent bloc within the EP,” says Rappold.
“In doing so, they would be eligible to attract additional financial resources, and extra speaking-time [at parliamentary sessions]. So far, far-right parties have grouped in three political groups, reflecting that they are much more heterogeneous than they are often depicted. However, the prospect of considerable influence in the EP could help bridge differences on, say, policy concerning Russia or on migration.”
Apart from Becher and his volunteers, several other activist groups have been targeting Bavaria to stop the rise of the far-right, particularly ahead of elections.
In fact, Becher's team is just a cog in a very massive wheel, working in cohesion with other organisations.
Is the European dream in danger?
Candidacy for the European Parliament is a rather complicated calculation.
Germany has 96 seats in the EP due to its population of 83 million, for which German political parties can host candidates as per their national vote bank.
That means the AfD can field candidates for the EU parliament as per the percentage of votes they obtained in the last national elections in 2018 – and so can every other political party.
In the European parliamentary elections of 2014, the AfD managed to get two MPs elected.
This time, the AfD's share of candidates will be much larger, with around 12 candidates, and that's just one European far-right party.
In the European elections of 2014, the Italian Northern League party ran on a Eurosceptic platform and won six seats in the EP, while the populist Five Star Movement already has 11 MPs in the EP.
Italy's two populist right-wing parties are now in a governing coalition.
Aside from the risk of them securing more representation in the EP, this rise in populism in Italy is already causing friction with its other European neighbours.
Meanwhile, France's problems with the ‘yellow vest’ fuel tax protests saw clear support from factions within the Italian government (Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio met with protest leaders in Paris and even posed for photographs with them).
The French government called it an interference and unacceptable provocation, following which it recalled its ambassador from Italy.
Mainstream groups within the European Parliament will likely lose seats to conservative far-right candidates, says Rappold.
“This is likely to make decision-making more complex and complicated,” he says. “A more divided and fragmented EP will be less likely to pass EU laws and ambitious reforms, particularly on controversial dossiers, or will face delays, as changing majorities have to be rearranged.”
Sadly, this is where Europe is now. And there is a valid fear, across the EU, that more anti-EU parties could raise the spectre of their country leaving the EU based on the public's lack of understanding.
One of Becher's volunteers expressed his dismay at the level of ignorance among many Europeans about the simple workings of the EU, saying: “I am surprised at how little some people know and how little some people care, but it is always nice to see that helping people understand really does affect their future and the future of their children.”
The EuropaBus team members have taken time out from their jobs to join the fight against the far-right.
Since the AfD is a registered political party, they can’t openly tell people to not vote for them, but they are working hard to ensure they don’t.