European election may hold lessons for the US

European election may hold lessons for the US
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It was easy to plug the 2016 U.S. elections into a broader narrative about the rise of anti-establishment, nationalistic/xenophobic, and sovereignty-obsessed political parties in the industrialized democracies of the West. Did the May 23-26 European Parliament (EP) elections, in turn, offer any useful signals for the U.S. going forward?

The answer is a qualified “yes,” and the signals are in my view positive, but it’s important to proceed cautiously and avoid false analogies. The European Parliament elections are unlike anything we have in the U.S. It’s almost like using a political opinion poll as the basis for dividing up parliamentary seats. The composition of the European Parliament is a great snapshot of how popular a wide range of political viewpoints are with voters in the European Union. It’s an electoral system designed to be highly representative, but not necessarily to generate stable coalitions for making policy.

And European elections can be poor predictors of how national elections will turn out. In some countries, as in the U.S., national electoral systems really narrow the number of parties that can reasonably hope to elect legislators. In the 2014 European elections, for example, the hard-right, xenophobic Front National (since renamed Rassemblement National — RN) pulled almost 25 percent and a corresponding share of French seats in the European Parliament, but only won 8 out of 577 district seats in the 2017 national legislative elections, a result that was arguably not very representative, but good for France.


One important message from the European elections is that the political mainstream held on, especially in the more established democracies of Western Europe. Yes, all together it lost a bit of ground. Preferences within the political mainstream also shifted around a bit. To a greater extent than before, it’s a four-part rather than a predominantly two-part mainstream. (European voters, as compared to American voters, have more party options that go beyond mere protest votes.) The parties of the moderate center-right, often of Christian Democratic inspiration, grouped together EU-wide in the European Peoples Party (EPP), and the social-democratic moderate left parties, united in the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), both suffered serious losses. (Respectively they went from 28.8 percent to 23.8 percent of European Parliament seats and from 24.7 percent to 20.4 percent, as compared to 2014, similar hits in proportional terms.)

But other mainstream groups did well. The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), “liberals” in the European sense of the word, i.e. free-market conservatives focused on individual rather than collective rights, sometimes with a touch of libertarianism, went from 9.2 percent to 14 percent of European Parliament seats. They are experienced governing parties in many countries. The Greens also should be seen as generally part of the mainstream. They can be hard to place on a left-right spectrum, but favor European integration as a means for pushing strong environmental policies, and also not infrequently are government parties. (They went from 6.9 percent to 9.2 percent of European Parliament seats.)

In Europe, as in the U.S., there is a tendency to focus attention on intentionally and explicitly disruptive political forces. They are interesting and perhaps even exciting, and it’s thus easy to overestimate their longer-term impacts. The continuity, or perhaps slow process of change in the moderate, mainstream preferences of many voters is easy to overlook, but is an important and persistent stabilizing force. We may be seeing something of this in the U.S. Democratic Party’s presidential nominating process.

It is true that populist parties, some more traditionally nationalistic, others perhaps more techno-populist, hearkening to “direct democracy” rather than representative democracy, did well in the European elections. The triumph of the Brexit Party in the U.K. (almost 31 percent of the vote) certainly lifted the fortunes of the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) Group (up to 7.2 percent of EP seats as compared to 5.6 percent in 2014). And the European Nations and Freedom (ENF) Group, the most distinctly right-wing, anti-immigrant, anti-Europe nationalists, went from 4.8 percent to 7.7 percent of seats.

But even the latter’s proportionately dramatic increase requires a country-by-country look. The ENF’s member parties did not succeed everywhere, losing almost 75 percent of support in the Netherlands, 60 percent in Denmark, and 13 percent in Austria. Very significantly, the Rassemblement National of Marine Le Pen in France dropped from 24.9 percent to 23.3 percent. The really dramatic boost for this party group came from Italy, another of the largest EU countries, where the Lega, a party of Italy’s governing coalition headed by Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, dramatically outperformed, shooting from 6.2 percent to 34.3 percent of the popular vote.


But the Italian case is really an outlier. Since the end of the Cold War, Italy’s political system has suffered deeply traumatic disruption, with public administration crumbling in a good part of the country. The traditional center-right and center-left of the political mainstream have basically committed suicide. And the Lega’s techno-populist partner in the Italian government, the Five Star Movement is stunningly incompetent and collapsed in the European elections, pulling only 17.1 percent, as compared to over 32 percent in last year’s national election. There is no close parallel to this situation in the U.S. or other major Western countries.

A hopeful interpretation, at least for me, is that populism is not an unstoppable force. As we have seen in the U.S., the populist message can attract a significant core electorate, devoted to a party or a political leader, sometimes despite difficulty in scoring concrete policy successes. But there seems to be a ceiling for populism, and some baseline public desire for efficacy.

The dependence of some populists on a relatively older electorate also may entail erosion of that base over time. The political mainstream, both left and right of center, can be relatively resilient, though it needs to demonstrate reasonable openness to new ideas and new people, avoiding an air of cronyism.

Also, the mainstream will be best off when it can demonstrate effective, honest, and responsive governance. “Keep calm and carry on,” the British slogan from World War II, may be the right advice for political moderates in both Europe and the U.S.

Eric R. Terzuolo was a foreign service officer from 1982 to 2003, and since 2010 has been on contract to the Foreign Service Institute, the professional development unit of the Department of State, with responsibility for West European area studies. He is currently teaching at American University’s School of International Service. The views expressed here are entirely his own.