It turns out that the widespread predictions of a far-right takeover of the European Parliament were, as Mark Twain famously said about reports of his death, “greatly exaggerated”. Citizens across Europe flocked to the ballot box in numbers unseen since the 1990s. The young in particular turned out. And they did not deliver a right wing populist surge.
A political shift is undoubtedly under way and right-wing populism is still very much around. But the real story was the evidence of a new pluralism emerging in European Union (EU) politics, including a Green and liberal surge. None of this imperils the EU’s survival; quite the contrary. Nor will it lead to a paralysis of its institutions, although coalition-building will be trickier than before. Given the doomsday scenarios doing the rounds, this is good news.
When EU leaders meet on Tuesday to take stock of these results, they will reflect on how a bloc of 510 million people in the end pulled itself back from the brink. The EU as an entity has been routinely depicted as on the verge of self-destruction.
Marine Le Pen’s National Rally led the polls in France, but it should be remembered that her party also came first in the 2014 European elections: The far-right has essentially cemented its position in France, not surged to new heights. It’s also worth noting that Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance list, though it came second on 22.4 per cent, did hold its ground by coming close to Macron’s personal score in the first round of the French presidential election. Given that the past seven months in France have been dominated by the chaos of the “gilets jaunes” (yellow jackets) crisis, that amounts to reasonable damage limitation for Macron, not a wipeout.
That Matteo Salvini’s League leads in Italy is of course a source of concern — the first time the far right has come out on top in an Italian election. But that outcome was predictable. The more surprising development in Italy was the revival of the centre-left Democratic party, which easily outscored the League’s coalition partners, the Five Star Movement.
In Germany, France and elsewhere, a good night for the Greens indicated the rising priority of environmental issues for European voters. It also suggested an awareness that the EU as a bloc, not the individual nation-state, is the best level for effective action to tackle the climate crisis.
More seats in the European Parliament will be handed to far-right groups and their potential allies. But more importantly these election results have newly empowered centrist forces — the ALDE (liberal) and Green groups are now potential kingmakers in Strasbourg. Meanwhile the far left didn’t do well at all, in particular in Greece and France.
For the traditional European powerhouses (the mainstream right and the social democrats), this was a difficult night. Both suffered losses, reflecting the domestic pattern in many countries. But even here we should be careful: In Germany, the party of a chancellor who’s been in power for nearly 14 years still managed to lead the second-placed Greens by 8 per cent. Given that her handling of the refugee crisis was supposed to have so damaged German Chancellor Angela Merkel, this hardly amounted to humiliation.
Europe is a complex place, a patchwork of 28 domestic political scenes, and we must avoid the temptation to over-generalise. There can be a sigh of relief that the far-right in Germany (AfD) and in Spain (Vox) did less well than in other, recent votes in those countries. But France is much less reassuring, and Macron will continue to have a hard time delivering on his EU-wide ambitions.
The picture is entirely different in the Netherlands and Spain, where a young Socialist prime minister has found ways to raise the minimum wage and promote gender equality.
Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban — who, don’t forget, controls most of the media in his country — can yet again claim a victory, but hasty narratives about central Europe becoming a monolithic centre of right-wing populism will have been dented by these results. The pro-European opposition in Poland now believes it has a fighting chance in the general election due later this year. It is too early to say how successfully Europe’s far-right will manage to coalesce into a single bloc in the EU parliament. But there is also more for progressives to be optimistic about from these results than anyone had expected: Many citizens have mobilised against the dark forces of right-wing populism. For European citizens, some fundamental values and achievements turned out to be worth cherishing, not throwing away in a fit of anger. Perhaps there is more common sense and moderation than we feared in Europe’s political landscape. The centre is holding.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Natalie Nougayrede is a noted political columnist.