Far from swinging left or right, European voters are confused

Europe Letter: Facebook ad protocol may choke transnational campaigns and debate

Italy’s deputy prime minister and leader of the far-right League party, Matteo Salvini: scornful of the “buonista”. Photograph: Federico Bernini/Bloomberg

Notes from the campaign trail: with the European Parliament election campaign now well under way across the EU ahead of next month's voting, allow me a few unrelated reflections on what it all means:

A fascinating study from the European Council on Foreign Relations of the ideas dominating the election in 14 member states (Ireland not included), titled "What Europeans Really Want: Five Myths Debunked", finds an unparalleled degree of volatility rather than the dramatic shift to the populist right often spoken of.

In fact, an ECFR/YouGov poll reveals the “defining feature of the political landscape is volatility”. Voters, the study says, “have not yet made up their minds. And there are no fewer than 97 million of these confused and undecided voters . . . Between 15 and 30 per cent of all electors do not have any preference yet; and between 30 and 50 per cent of these undecideds will probably vote.”

And, although European elections are traditionally largely preoccupied with national issues, the report also says “this could be the first truly transnational European Parliament election”.


According to one of the report’s authors, Mark Leonard: “Rather than a gravitating to the extremes, the European electorate are confused . . . moving in every direction, between the right and the left, and from the populists to the mainstream.

“In this fluid environment there is a real opportunity for mainstream parties to reconnect with voters” if they can “recast themselves as bold reformers”.

Digital zeal

Eager to demonstrate that the company is willing to tackle outside interference online in the elections, Facebook, in an excess of zeal, has walked itself into trouble.

Its well-meaning new advertising rules require all advertisers to register in the country where they wish to purchase advertising, as part of an effort to limit foreign influence in the national campaigns.

But a letter of complaint from the three main EU institutions warns of “huge political and institutional consequences” of curbs to transnational campaigning.

The new rules are not suited to the European election system, the letter says, as they prevent parties and institutions from running legitimate cross-border campaigns within the EU.

It is addressed to Facebook's head of global policy, Nick Clegg, and signed by secretary-general of the European Commission Martin Selmayr and his counterparts from the European Parliament and Council of the European Union.

Representatives from European parties echo the frustration about the rules, which are being rolled out in Europe after having been used in the United States during midterm elections. "Facebook is blocking a pan-European conversation and hindering dialogue between European parties and citizens," Dara Murphy, the Fine Gael TD and European People's Party campaign director complained to Politico.

The issue highlights the challenge also faced controlling unacceptable online speech by means of voluntary codes of conduct such as those of the EU. While campaigners welcome the new engagement of the digital giants in taking down unacceptable content, some are fearful they will have a commercial interest in over-restricting content. Safer than sorry.

We need a discussion on how civic society and independent external voices can be engaged in moderating decisions by the digital giants on acceptable and unacceptable content.

Tarnishing do-gooders

And talking of excesses of zeal, I note from the New York Times that in recent years a new term has insinuated its way in Italy firmly into the lexicon of political invective: "buonista", or "do-gooder", favoured repeatedly most recently by deputy prime minister and leader of the far-right League party, Matteo Salvini.

He uses it most often against those willing to publicly back a more enlightened attitude to migrants and has even described French president Emmanuel Macron in such a vein. Disparagingly, of course.

It is a curious insult, suggesting that an excess of virtue and zeal in an opponent is to be deplored or looked down on. Or, as commentator Luca Sofri once put it, “An alibi for the bad guys to be bad: if you do good then you are a do-gooder.”

“The European dream is being buried by the bureaucrats, the do-gooders and the bankers who are governing Europe for too much time,” Salvini railed last week at a rally to introduce a new pan-European alliance of far-right and populist parties for the elections.

The term has also become popular with Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland, which has described opponents as “Gutmensch”. A jury of linguists and writers chose it as the worst word– or “unwort” – of the year in 2015. Its pejorative use for those “who oppose attacks on refugee homes”, the jury wrote, showed that “tolerance and helpfulness are generally defamed as naïve, stupid and unworldly”.

But it hasn’t hit the Irish political landscape yet.