The Election Results Are In: It Is Neither the End of Europe nor Its Rebirth
The European Parliament elections represent an ink-blot test: Pro-EU loyalists will read the weekend results as vindication that the center still holds (even if hanging by a thread), and point to the “Green wave” across Europe. Those fearful of the specter of uncontrolled immigration and unchecked Brussels bureaucracy will note that nationalist and Euroskeptic parties will now control nearly one-quarter of the world’s second-largest parliament (though a tumble from the one-third that was predicted). But even in a world where symbolism is king, it would be wise to avoid reading too much into these results. Despite far-right and Euroskeptic gains, we are unlikely to see sweeping policy changes on the two key issues that have dominated these campaigns: immigration and revolutionizing the European Union from within.
The European Parliament Elections Matter—But Not in the Traditional Way
Nationalist, typically far-right, and Euroskeptic parties have devoted intense energy and attention to these elections—witness the pre-election rally in Milan organized by Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, bringing together a movement of nationalist leaders ranging from France’s Marine Le Pen and Germany’s Joerg Meuthen to Geert Wilders of the Netherlands. The public was certainly paying attention. Turnout for last week’s European Parliament election reached 51 percent (a significant jump, as the average had not cracked 45 percent in the last 15 years). But even as anti-immigration voices pledged to use their growing power to close Europe’s borders to migrants and end what Salvini called the “illegal occupation” by Brussels, the truth is they will encounter powerful constraints to making good on these promises.
The European Parliament’s technical powers are limited. It can discuss, amend, pass, and (with enough votes) block legislation proposed by the European Commission; importantly, it also plays a key role in electing the Commission President and approving the EU budget. But it is not a generator of policy or vision for the continent, particularly on the core issues driving today’s electoral campaigns—namely immigration. And it has not been an effective chastiser of bad behavior, either, as evidenced by its rather toothless sanction of Hungary’s anti-democracy creep—despite having a solid centrist majority at the time. Ultimately, the failure of the center right and center left to secure a majority in Parliament could throw a wrench in legislation that requires “co-decision” (approval from both the Council and Parliament). But with Euroskeptics falling short of expected gains, things are unlikely to grind to a halt.
The real story is not what happened on May 26, but what transpires in subsequent national elections. To gain real power on core issues, populist radical-right parties need to generate enough buzz on the EU stage to have a chance of influencing policy where it really counts—in their own governments. But recent history tells us that what happens at the EU level does not necessarily translate into greater political clout at home. Sweeping populist wins in the 2014 European Parliament elections, for example, did not buoy all the victors in subsequent national elections. The UK Independence Party, led by Nigel Farage, gained only one seat in the UK Parliament in 2014, just months after the party netted nearly 27 percent of the vote in the 2014 European elections. Spectacular European Parliament wins in 2014 by the Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) and France’s Front National (the now renamed National Rally) similarly did not propel those leaders to win the subsequent presidential elections in their countries in 2016 and 2017, respectively (despite making it to the second round in both).
However, making waves may matter more than electoral victories. We have entered the era of symbolic politics, which is more about harnessing discontent than about legislating. Farage may have fallen short in the UK Parliament, but he led his country to leave the European Union in the now infamous 2016 Brexit referendum. And despite the fact that UK exit from the European Union can be termed nothing but an utter fiasco, Farage’s newly launched Brexit Party sailed to victory last week with 32 percent of the vote. Tapping the British sense of fairness, Farage has reminded voters of yet another promise that has gone unfulfilled with Westminster’s shambles of a withdrawal process, giving them another grievance to rally around—while adroitly bypassing discussions of Brexit’s merits.
Making waves has another upshot: each new victory like Le Pen’s in France further sensitizes publics to once-fringe radical and far-right parties entering office. The European Parliament may not be a conduit to direct policy influence, but it can be a vector for greater legitimacy.
Three Paradoxes at the Heart of the European Elections
The narrative of a populist or far-right surge is too tidy for the messy complexity of current European politics. Places where the radical right suffered significant losses over the weekend (including Denmark and the Netherlands) have seen mainstream parties pick up some of the slack by co-opting some of the harshest anti-immigration rhetoric of nativist politicians. Meanwhile, some of the biggest winners (such as Le Pen) have actually fallen slightly short of their 2014 performance. Whether these are wins or losses can be debated; what is clear is that a linear narrative does not exist.
- Europeans crave stability but at the same time want to upend the status quo. Voters simultaneously want both stability and change—on one hand demanding stronger institutions that can better predict and prevent the next crisis, but on the other hand deeply unhappy with the status quo. The question is whether pro-European voices (including the new Green wave) can deliver a convincing alternative—for instance mirroring the success of the right to harness public anxiety, this time not of foreigners, but of EU disintegration itself. Eurobarometer results show that positive opinions of the European Union have reached their highest level since 2009—with favorable views outnumbering neutral and negative ones even in Hungary.
- Euroskepticism—already a thin glue to bridge national differences—will be further weakened once campaigns give way to governing. Anti-EU sentiment is no longer a winning card, having become deeply unpopular in many quarters in the wake of the United Kingdom’s bumpy planned exit from the European Union. And Euroskepticism is a platform that quickly becomes inconvenient once it succeeds. Politicians who have built a brand around casting off the yoke of EU imperialism have now won leadership positions within the institution they once demonized. And if we are to take lessons from national politics, these “outsiders” may not be ready to be “insiders” (and perform the drudgery of actual governance). The ties that bound anti-establishment parties, already tenuous, will be further tested when their leaders are called upon to actually articulate solutions—rather than just saying what they are against.
- Controlling immigration is used as a key unifier for nationalist parties—but it is a shaky foundation for cooperation. Voters are ambivalent: they want more control over immigration but many also hold positive views of asylum seekers and refugees. And while dozens of nationalist parties across Europe share a topline concern about immigration, each has radically different ideas of what the solutions should be. And these may prove to be directly in conflict, as countries such as Italy and Greece demand that other EU Member States accept fair shares of asylum seekers, while countries such as Hungary and Poland vehemently refuse to accept the “overflow.”
A decade ago, the most important check on the influence of populist radical-right parties was the fact that they rarely entered office. This month’s elections may be another crack in that armor.
While a formidable nationalist alliance did not materialize, the symbolic victories may cause waves in national elections for years to come. Regardless of the actual legislative (or disruptive) power they will possess in the European Parliament, radical-right parties have shrewdly used last week’s elections as a vehicle to continue to reposition themselves away from the fringes and into the mainstream.