Despite all the gloomy forecasts, Europe’s nationalist and euroskeptical parties have failed to make enough headway in the European Parliament election last week to be able to disrupt the legislature’s operation. At the same time, the higher than usual turnout sends an optimistic message about the European project: Voters clearly see a purpose to it.
In that regard, the election showed that one priority for Europeans is that the EU tackle climate change: Green parties made strong gains in a number of countries, expanding the environmental movement’s representation in the EU parliament by more than a third.
Exit polls released last Sunday night show that far-right parties in Germany, Austria, Denmark and Spain did worse than in these countries’ last national elections; in Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands they failed to make any significant gains. In France, where Marine Le Pen’s ultra-nationalist party had won a clear victory in the last European election in 2014, President Emmanuel Macron’s Republic on the March appears to have lost to Le Pen’s National Rally by a hair’s breadth—but the Greens’ strong showing gave Le Pen’s attempts to claim victory a hollow ring.
According to the European Parliament’s own projection based on the exit polls and partial vote counts, euroskeptics and nationalists were on course to win 173 seats, compared with 154 in the outgoing parliament. That’s a gain, but it’s a weaker showing than in preliminary projections. Even if the disparate nationalist groups, which disagree on important issues such as Catalan independence or sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s Russia, manage to forge some kind of broad alliance, they appear to be falling short of 25 percent of the 751-seat parliament, the cutoff for any serious influence on the passage of legislation through parliamentary committees.
For all the efforts of Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini and his friend, former Donald Trump strategist Steve Bannon, to engineer a nationalist wave in Europe, the movement’s gains look significant only in Italy itself, and even there Salvini’s League party appears to have won less than 30 percent of the vote. The widespread narrative of a right-wing takeover of Europe must be put to bed now: Far-right power is only a problem in several countries, and it’s hardly unmanageable there.
In an important sideshow, Poland’s ruling nationalist party Law and Justice appears to have defeated a broad anti-authoritarian coalition. If confirmed, that puts a strain on the coalition, which hoped to ride the momentum from a victory to a strong showing in the national election in the fall. But even as things stand, Law and Justice will have difficulty gaining a majority in that poll, and even an alliance with the far-right Confederation doesn’t get it there, based on exit poll data. An anti-nationalist upset in the election, to be held by November, remains a possibility if the coalition can stick together and attract a smaller liberal party to its banners.
The bad news for Europe’s centrist establishment is that its own showing in the election doesn’t allow for easy coalition-building. The center-right European People’s Party, of which German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union is a member, is projected to be the biggest group in the incoming parliament, as it was in the outgoing one, but with 178 seats, down from 217. In Germany itself, Merkel’s party only won a lackluster plurality, falling below 30 percent support.
The second strongest parliamentary group, the center-left Socialists and Democrats, have suffered similar losses despite some positive surprises (such as the Labour Party’s plurality in the Netherlands) and a good showing in the Nordic countries. They were projected to be down to 147 seats from the current 186. This strips the EPP/S&D coalition, which dominated the outgoing parliament, of its majority. They need to build a new coalition, perhaps with the pro-business liberals, projected to win 101 seats, with the Greens, expected to win 70 seats, or with both. Neither of the two big groups—EPP or S&D—can be excluded if a majority is to emerge.
That’s a problematic setup. The smaller centrist parties won’t rubber-stamp the appointment of Manfred Weber, the EPP’s candidate, as president of the European Commission, and there will be tough negotiations with the position turning into a bargaining chip. The Greens are not an easy coalition partner for the establishment parties—newly empowered, they will push for more radical climate action than the EPP or the liberals envisage. The liberals, for their part, will be pushing hard for the EPP to expel Fidesz, the party of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a sworn enemy of liberalism. If the EPP is forced to do it, it’ll diminish its influence and strengthen the far-right camp, which Orban will be tempted to join.
Coalition-building will be a mess. But then, messy coalitions are a European trademark. In a number of key countries, the process now takes months, so why should it be any different in the European Parliament? The centrists need to get used to the new reality, in which their support is divided among a greater number of political forces with more clearly defined views than those of the traditional umbrella parties of the center-left and the center-right.
And then there is the environmental imperative. In all but three EU member states, voter turnout was higher than in the 2014 election, breaking a long decline in voter participation. And in some countries—Germany is a prime example—much of the additional vote went to the Greens. In Germany, the party won a strong plurality among people under the age of 45, and voters switched to it from all other parties. That’s clear evidence that Germans—like voters in a number of other important countries, including France—see environmental issues as an important EU purview. Even if other parties have come ahead of the Greens, it’s a message political leaders can’t ignore.
Overall, the election results show that the European project is surprisingly vital despite all the recent challenges, including Brexit. The EU is not on the run from centrifugal nationalist forces. It’s merely as messy as might be expected given the diversity of cultures and interests it encompasses. That wide spectrum may complicate decision-making and create an unending string of crises, but around half of European voters have spoken up to say it’s relevant to their lives.
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