European elections: Is concern about Russia boosting EU popularity?

Voters across Europe will be choosing their European MPs this weekend, and Ukrainians vote for a new president on Sunday – with Russia casting a shadow over both contests.

Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters
A portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin is displayed on a table last weekend in the hall of a regional administration building occupied by pro-Russian activists in the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk. As both Ukraine and the EU gear up for elections this weekend, Russia looms large over both.

Russia looms large over two elections this weekend: the European Union's parliamentary elections and the presidential race in Ukraine.

But although Russian President Vladimir Putin may have intended to drive wedges among Ukrainians and Europeans, instead he might have unwittingly given the European project a boost.

A new poll out by the Pew Research Center shows that EU popularity is on the rise – with 52 percent of respondents in seven countries surveyed having a favorable view of the 28-member bloc, up from 46 percent in 2013. 

Much of that has to do with the perception that the bloc's economic well-being is rebounding from the nadir of the eurocrisis. The results also may have been influenced by timing: polling took place as European parliamentary campaigns were gathering steam. It's a time when candidates attempt to remind the public of the good purpose the EU serves: i.e. it's not just a nebulous bureaucracy regulating things such as the size of window panes or produce. 

But Mr. Putin’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea, the uncertainty over Ukraine’s future, and the ensuing geopolitical battle between the West and Russia may have bolstered the notion that being part of a 28-member bloc, in the context of a potential security crisis, is not such a bad thing after all, says Ian Bond, director of foreign policy at the Center for European Reform in London.

“The very fact that Ukrainians were prepared to turn out and get killed for the chance to be part of the European process rather than a Eurasian one made some people think perhaps there is something in this European stuff,” Mr. Bond adds.

Growing affinity for Europe?

European nations today begin electing a 751-member parliament, the first European-wide election to take place since the debt crisis. The election is marred by widespread voter apathy, and the dominant storyline has been the rise of the anti-EU far-right – populists who have recently in fact become the strange bedfellows of Putin himself.

But despite the appeal of such populists, the EU has in parallel managed to gain in popularity, particularly in France, Britain, and Germany. Some of the data is hard to explain. That favorability is up 13 percent in France, for example, coincides with the rise of Marine Le Pen’s anti-EU National Front and generalized pessimism about the economy, says Bruce Stokes, the director of Global Economic Attitudes at the Pew Research Center in Washington.

The surveyors didn’t ask respondents specifically about Russia or about support for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) this year, but one thing is clear. Of all the nations surveyed, Poland, which is pushing hardest against sanctioning Russia among European nations, also shows the greatest love of Europe, with 72 percent declaring a favorable view.

“You can see from this data that [Poles] are demonstrating a very strong affinity to Europe,” says Mr. Stokes. “One can only presume that the crisis in Ukraine may have strengthened that.”

The presidential election in Ukraine Sunday is taking place precisely because of Europe, symbolized by being held on the biggest day of European elections. Pro-western Ukrainians initially took to Kiev’s streets in November after Ukraine’s then-president, under Russian influence and its desire to create a Eurasian alternative to the EU, rebuffed a trade and association agreement with EU authorities.

The conflict here has morphed into a much bigger geopolitical struggle, but here on Kiev's Independence Square, or Maidan, where it all began, Valentine Bebik says that the desire for Ukraine to be part of Europe – and one day be voting in EU elections – holds firm. He is originally from the east, where Putin enjoys wider popularity, but he views the protest movement in Kiev as a loss for Putin overall. “This is the most peaceful way I can say it,” Mr. Bebik says, “he should retire.”

Russia's gambit

Of course, Russia stands to gain this weekend, too, if these races are viewed through the lens of geopolitical struggle. Although Putin has tepidly supported Ukraine’s elections, if pro-Russian separatists are able to undermine a vote widely supported by both the EU and the US, it will be interpreted as a loss for the West.

In the EU, there already has been a qualified victory for Putin, by stirring intra-bloc squabbling over sanctions. Though Europe has cobbled together agreement on some economic punishments for Russia, Moscow has barely budged.

But Putin might be looking to Sunday’s results to see whether his influence can grow in unexpected places. In general, Putin and Europe's populist constituencies share similar conservative views on issues like gay marriage, keeping the culture wars alive and well in Europe. And, says Bond, “Putin has a narrative about European expansionism that rather appeals to [far-right] ideas that Europe is trying to take everyone over.”

Still, many suspect the far-right won’t garner enough seats to have blocking power in the parliament – and thus represent no practical loss beyond the symbolic blow to the EU or the larger West.

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