The accepted protocol for big companies is to step well back from the political process. Apart from the usual lobbying of MPs over corporate vested interests, bosses don't normally tell staff to remember the company as they put their 'X' on the ballot paper. But that is exactly what Thomas Enders, the chief executive of Airbus SAS, has done. In a letter to the aircraft manufacturer's 130,000 employees, Mr. Enders urges them to cast their vote in this week's elections to the European Parliament in favour of a strong and democratic Europe.
The Airbus chief didn't go so far as directing his staff to vote in favour of a particular candidate, but the tenor of his message, circulated in French, German, English and Spanish, is clearly pro–European Union. The letter also makes it plain that support for Euroskeptic or anti-EU candidates would be bad for the company. Mr. Enders asks his staff whether they believe Airbus could have become a leader in aerospace "without European integration and the active political support of our governments." It's a fair comment about Airbus which, without the clout of the EU and government financing, could not have stood a chance against Boeing and its bottomless well of Pentagon cash.
It is highly unusual for the CEO of a sophisticated company in the developed world to appeal to his staff in the manner of a parish priest in a forgotten era. You would have thought that Airbus' staff hardly needed the political lesson, but if Mr. Enders is prodding them to vote, it is because he worries that many won't bother. In his letter, Mr. Enders notes that recent opinion polls suggest that participation will be as low as 45 per cent, a level he describes as "depressing."
Participation in the U.K., where the sense of alienation from the European project is widespread, is likely to be even lower. This is a boon for far right parties such as the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in the U.K. which is currently leading the polls, and the Front National in France, which knows that rejectionist and anti-Brussels sentiment is a bigger vote driver than indifference, or even acquiescence. On the basis of recent polling, right-of-centre political groupings are likely to hold the biggest proportion of seats. Still, that is almost irrelevant compared to the huge expected surge in currently non-aligned groups such as France's Front National. These radical, anti-immigrant parties are vigorously opposed to the EU project and will hold the balance of power. For the foreseeable future, the prospect of further legislative measures promoting EU integration must be regarded as nil.
Small wonder that Mr. Enders is worrying: he is leading one of the EU's greatest enterprises into a future dominated by political sclerosis in Brussels and economic sclerosis across the euro zone. The French economy is stuck in the doldrums while Italy and the Netherlands are shrinking once again. Only Germany is expanding, but at a slower rate and there is still no consensus over a proper policy response. With the public mood across the EU dangerously introverted and angry, and with France pursuing a bizarre, anti-business agenda, it is unlikely that European governments will find common cause to battle the deflationary monster that lurks just over the horizon.
In the circumstances, the Airbus chief might be excused for behaving like a 19th-century landowner speaking to the peasants, but that may not be enough to stop the revolt.