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Ukrainians are more European than the French

by Leonid Bershidsky

Bloomberg

Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assertions that “neo-Nazis” and “anti-Semites” rule the roost in Ukraine, the extreme right did badly in Sunday’s Ukrainian election. It was in the European Parliament election, which ended on the same day, that they triumphed.

So if the European ideal is to create a citadel of tolerance and universal human values, who are the true Europeans?

Probably not those 25 percent of French voters who carried the National Front to victory on Sunday, or the 27 percent of British voters who ensured first place to the anti-immigrant the UK Independence Party. Could it rather be the Ukrainians who, according to preliminary results, gave their pro-European presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko a bigger share of the vote than his 20 rivals combined?

Sure, this is not quite a fair comparison. Those same French and U.K. voters would not have handed real power in their countries to the people they sent to the European Parliament. They voted the way they did to send a message to their own leaders and the EU’s bureaucracy. Average turnout was 43 percent, compared to 60 percent in Ukraine (even many in the east could not vote due to instability and interference by pro-Russian separatists).

Most Ukrainians believed they were genuinely choosing their homeland’s future. The ideas they support don’t bear much relation to the anti-fascist propaganda from Moscow, which has been embraced by many in the EU.

According to exit polls, Dmitry Yarosh, the presidential candidate of the supposedly rampant neo-fascist Pravy Sektor won 1 percent of the vote. Oleh Tyahnybok of Svoboda, a party that might sit alongside Marine Le Pen’s National Front on the scale of extremism, won all of 1.3 percent.

Neither managed to do as well as Vadim Rabinovich, a businessman and the chairman of the European Jewish Parliament, who scored 2 percent.

The purity of Ukrainians’ pro-European sentiment contrasts sharply with Europeans’ grumbling: Even Yarosh and Tyahnybok called for a speedy EU accession. The anti-EU vote was limited to about 10 percent, distributed among candidates who used to be close to deposed President Viktor Yanukovych and the communist contender. That is only a slightly higher percentage than Germans gave to the Euroskeptic Alternative fuer Deutschland party.

If anything explains the paradox of the two votes it is immigration: Ukrainians want to be part of Europe and to be able to travel and work there, while many protest voters in the EU voted for the right precisely because they want to keep people like Ukrainians out.

Take Andreas Molzer, a prominent candidate for the Austrian Freedom Party. He had to abandon his European Parliament bid after decrying Europe’s future as a “conglomerate of negroes,” but the party won 20 percent of the vote, compared to 7.3 percent four years ago. Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi party that is at least as extreme as Pravy Sektor, won 9 percent in Greece. The list of xenophobic victories in the EU election, one of the largest expressions of democratic process in the world, is distressing.

The EU is a remarkable bloc in which many of those who are in want out, but equal numbers of outsiders want in. The reasons for that are largely economic: People want better jobs and better lives, and they tend blame outsiders when they don’t get them.

To become that citadel of tolerance and universal values, Europe has to concentrate on what’s important. Instead of trying to regulate hairdressers footwear (no high heels, they are bad for your health if you have to stand when you work) or high-speed trading (what is there about it that separate countries cannot figure out?), the EU needs to show that a united labor market evens out imbalances rather than adding to local unemployment. It needs to refocus on creating jobs and integrating immigrants. And it needs to remember its original vocation of uniting Europe, keeping the doors open to those that aren’t yet in. Even Ukraine.

Based in Moscow, Bloomberg View contributor Leonid Bershidsky has written three novels and two nonfiction books.