Results of the EU Parliament elections are actually encouraging
In the wake of last week’s European parliamentary elections, many observers bewailed the fact that the traditional voting blocs lost heavily and the EP emerged more fragmented than before. Fragmentation will make it harder to choose the EU’s officials and to pass crucial legislation. However, for those who believe in a liberal Europe — “liberal” in the European sense of support for democracy and the rule of law — the results are actually encouraging. Emerging tarnished but unbowed, parties that believe in a liberal Europe made gains in some surprising places, paving the way, perhaps, for the duopoly of socialists and centrists that have shared power over Europe for decades to be replaced by a more differentiated party spectrum.
Of course, the threats to Europe’s future, though exaggerated by the media, are very real: In Italy, France, Hungary, and Poland, national-populist parties triumphed at the polls, increasing the danger to European integration and to liberal values. Parties of the center-left, like the German Social Democrats, the French Socialists, and Greece’s Syriza lost heavily — the latter forced to call new elections. In Britain, the Brexit party of Nigel Farage drove the UK’s governing Conservatives into fifth place in the polls, all but assuring that party’s takeover by its “hard Brexit” faction.
In France, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (the former National Front) edged out President Macron’s coalition with a first place showing. And in Italy, the “Lega” of Matteo Salvini — a far-right figure who wants to subvert the EU — won with over 30 percent of the vote. In Europe as a whole, the two major Euro-level coalitions, the center-left Socialists and Democrats and the center-right European People’s party, ended up with just over 40 percent, losing their traditional power to determine the EU’s governing institutions.
Less noticed are three more encouraging results:
First, turnout increased almost everywhere, up from 43 percent in 2014 to 51 percent now, suggesting that the threat from the national-populist right led many Europe-oriented voters to go to the polls. Whatever the actual distribution of the vote, increased turnout was almost everywhere a sign of concern for Europe’s future among a public alarmed by the rise of the populist right.
Second, apart from the gains of the Lega, the two biggest winners in last week’s elections were the center-left Greens — who doubled their vote in Germany with a platform against climate change — and the liberal ALDE coalition of liberals and democrats, who now control 110 seats out of the 751 in the EP. The most dramatic gain for liberalism was in the UK, where the Liberal Democrats leapt ahead of both Labour and the Conservatives with 18.5 percent of the vote, an increase of 14 seats over 2014. Even in France, Le Pen’s party came in slightly below its total in 2014, and there is still a strong majority in favor of Europe.
Third, and most important, while the British headlines gave pride of place to the smashing success of Farage’s anti-EU party, the results revealed a majority for remaining in Europe. Bolstering the support of the Lib Dems for a new referendum which would be likely to reverse Brexit, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who had been negotiating with the Tories over Brexit for months, declared when the results came in that he was “listening very carefully” to Labour calls for a second referendum on leaving the EU.
As Europeans grow weary of the “blood and soil” ravings of the radical right, more changes may be on the horizon. Even Italy — where Salvini has ambitions to become the leader of a national-populist bloc in Brussels — may be shaken up by these elections. Salvini’s party governs in a shaky coalition with the equally-populist, but not right wing, Five Star Movement, which lost ground in the elections. As Salvini struts his stuff on the European stage, Five Star leader, Luigi de Maio, is under pressure to leave an alliance that has been a failure for his party. In the Five Star’s electoral losses and the stagnation in the Italian economy, a new alliance with the center-left and pro-Europe Democrats has become a real possibility.
Reinforcing the strength of liberal Europe, of course, is the widespread negative reaction among Europeans to an American president who has shown little understanding of the importance of the Atlantic alliance. As Donald Trump’s former henchman Steve Bannon works to organize a trans-Atlantic national-populist alliance, European horror of the spread of Trumpism may be contributing to a revival of liberal Europe.
Sidney Tarrow is the Maxwell Upson Emeritus Professor of Government at Cornell University. He is the co-editor (with David S. Meyer) of “The Resistance: The Dawn of the Anti-Trump Opposition Movement.”