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15 July 2019

Europe Pauses for Reflection – Understanding the Results of the EU Elections

"Democracy is a slow and cautious beast that sometimes acts decisively to change direction, but more often moves hesitantly to test a new course, then pauses for reflection, and finally decides whether to continue or stay put. It could hardly be otherwise since democracy is, among other things, a way of counting the opinion of millions of voters who represent the interests and beliefs of different social, economic, and religious groups which are themselves in constant flux in relation to one another and in response to events in the 'real world'."


Democracy is a slow and cautious beast that sometimes acts decisively to change direction, but more often moves hesitantly to test a new course, then pauses for reflection, and finally decides whether to continue or stay put. It could hardly be otherwise since democracy is, among other things, a way of counting the opinion of millions of voters who represent the interests and beliefs of different social, economic, and religious groups which are themselves in constant flux in relation to one another and in response to events in the “real world”. The occasions when an election marks a decisive change in national policy are rare. The UK election of 1979 when Margaret Thatcher took over from the decaying social democracy of the post-war consensus and the Hungarian election of 2010 when Viktor Orbán defeated the Left in the first of three landslide victories that gave him the power to reform the Constitution are among the few examples. Both combined two features in an unusual blend: a widespread sense among all classes that the old order had failed and events that dramatised that failure unmistakably – in Britain the 1978-79 “winter of discontent” of multiplying strikes and apparent government passivity, and in Hungary the 2006 speech by the socialist former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány in which he admitted comprehensively: “[…]. we have fucked it up. Not a little but a lot. No European country has done something as boneheaded as we have. It can be explained. We have obviously lied throughout the past one and a half–two years. It was perfectly clear that what we were saying was not true.” In both cases the electorate voted clearly to change course from a failing system to a new one that at least promised to deal seriously with the nation’s problems.

More often, however, the voters move cautiously to remedy existing abuses and still more cautiously to vote for new parties that promise bold remedies for them. Existing parties (so-called “legacy parties”) have an advantage because the voters feel that they know them well enough not to be truly frightened by the prospect of them in power. After all, it has happened before without absolute disaster (with the revealing exceptions above of 1979 and 2010). New parties have to earn their respect by serving responsibly in government or, failing that, by being available when their policies are confirmed by events – Reagan’s foreign policy, previously derided as “hawkish”, for instance, won greater voter approval when it was confirmed by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Without such confirmation, some voters may become nervous of bold new policies and others may rally to resist them in response to appeals from the legacy parties.

Did something like that happen in the recent European elections? There were great expectations on all sides that the rising new populist parties, left and right, would advance dramatically to win more seats in the European Parliament. How many more? Not enough to get majority control of the Parliament for a coalition that included populists, to be sure, but enough to weaken the control of the Grand Coalition of centre-Left and centre-Right parties that had previously dominated it. Those things actually happened, but other things happened too, with the paradoxical result that the balance of Parliament moved slightly against the populists despite their greater numbers. And the overall impression given by the election results is that Europe has paused for reflection on what to do next.

If that sounds odd, as it should, let us consider the main trends seen in the election results:

1) The mainstream parties of the centre-Left and centre-Right (or legacy parties) continue a decline that has now been going on, at different speeds in different countries, for several decades. Italy’s Christian Democrats fell apart in the 1990s; its post-Communist socialists more recently; Berlusconi’s once-dominant rightist successor to the Christian Democrats, Forza Italia fell into single figures this time; and its socialists are still struggling at a stronger 22 per cent. In this election, Italy’s insurgent populist partners – the League and the Five Star Movement – got 51 per cent of the total vote between them. And since they show no sign of getting a divorce, they will be dominant for some time yet. In Germany the two main parties in the “Grand Coalition” – Angela Merkel’s CDU–CSU and the Social Democrats – both lost ground compared with their performance in 2014. The won only 45 per cent of the electorate between them when they would once have been in the high seventies. France’s traditional parties of government almost disappeared from the results, all scoring in single figures. They were replaced by Marine Le Pen’s National Rally which narrowly defeated President Macron’s populist-centrist En Marche. And so on. Of course, the most dramatic collapse of the centrist parties was in Britain, where the governing Tories fell to below ten per cent and the Labour party came third behind both Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party and the pro-European Liberal Democrats.

2) Where the centre retreated, however, the populist Right occupied most of the abandoned positions but not all. National populists (the approved but questionable term for describing the new insurgent parties) consolidated their previous gains substantially and advanced moderately elsewhere in the elections. They suffered no major defeats anywhere unless you count Denmark, where the People’s Party share of the vote was halved because the social democrats have adopted and implemented their tough migration policy. (Lesson: in some cases new parties successfully sting and die.) Fidesz won 52 per cent of the votes in Hungary. Poland’s Law and Justice Party held off a multi-party attack from a well-organised left-wing coalition and won the kind of majority that suggests it will win the forthcoming national elections. As we saw above, France’s National Rally defeated the populist-centrist party of President Macron in France. (Populist-centrism is another novel concept, and in my opinion the best description yet coined of Macron’s ambiguous politics.) The political success of Italy’s populism, outlined above, was spectacular. And in the UK, the populist Eurosceptic party, titled with a highly effective simplicity the Brexit Party, went from its foundation five weeks before the election to become the largest UK party in the European Parliament, with 32 per cent of the national vote and 29 MEPs. The party hopes that this will be a Pyrrhic victory because its main plank of policy is to leave the EU as soon as possible. But who knows at this point?

On the other hand, populism did not win as many votes as the populists had hoped and as the Brussels establishment, the Left and the media had feared. The populist AfD in Germany entered the European Parliament for the first time but under-performed its opinion poll expectations. They came fourth with 11 per cent of the vote compared to 16 per cent for the Social Democrats and 21 per cent for the Greens. In Sweden the Swedish Democrats also trod water. Coming third with 15 per cent of the vote, they too under-performed their opinion poll results, but they also survived a strong multi-party establishment attack to make them too unrespectable to support. And in Spain the new Vox party of the populist Right won only six per cent and the centrist-populists of the Citizens party only 12 per cent. But Vox did not exist at the time of the last Euro elections.

3) If the centre retreated and the Right advanced only so far, who snapped up the remaining votes? It is complicated but in brief Europe’s pro-EU Liberals (earlier the ALDE parliamentary group and now, with the addition of Macron’s En Marche the Renew Europe group) and the Greens occupied the vacant ground. Some of these results mimicked the populist surprises of the last few years. Greens became the second party in Germany and the third party in France; Liberal Democrats became the surprise second-place winners, after Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party in Britain; and both parties did well throughout the western half of Europe. Their success is not a mystery. It is a reaction to the previous success of the populists. Progressive middle-class voters want stronger commitments to policies such as combating climate change and opening borders than the Grand Coalition always provided (at least rhetorically when talking to largely conservative voters). Some Liberal voters were alarmed in particular by what they saw as the national-populist threat to the EU – a greatly exaggerated one in reality since outside the UK none of the populists want to leave the EU, merely to regain for their national parliaments some of the powers lost to Brussels. All the same, these voters turned out to support the EU, too, which helps to explain the average rise in turnout across Europe from 43 per cent five years ago to 51 per cent today. For the first time the issue of support for the EU itself seemed to be on the ballot paper, and that aroused some usually apathetic pro-EU voters to go to the polls.

When we stand back to examine the larger messages in these results, we should acknowledge that not all of them arise from the main trends of European political opinion described above. These were 28 national elections as well as a single European one, and some of the results reflect national or even local issues. For instance, the Spanish results are explained largely because the governing socialists were very popular after ousting the decomposing centre-Right People’s Party following a scandal. Their 32 per cent was one of the best results an otherwise shrinking European centre-Left obtained and its success vacuumed votes away from populist challengers on both sides. Similarly, the revival of the centre-Right party in Greece, which won more seats than the governing Left-populist Syriza party, is explained by the fact that Syriza failed both to emancipate Greece from the EU financial straitjacket as it had promised and to deliver a better economy (or, more precisely, to prevent the Greek economy from getting worse). All parties are subject to the commonsense rule that governments lose elections when they make their voters worse-off. And to reinforce the point, New Democracy, the Greek centre-Right party, has just defeated Syriza in a general election.

That qualification aside, how do we interpret the meaning of the Euro elections and their significance for the future of European politics? Let me suggest two ways of doing so, both potentially valid.

The first approach is that we might think of these different results as a series of actions and reactions as follows: first, centrist elites pursue progressive policies (on migration, multiculturalism, the Euro, etc.) that sometimes fail and that for whatever reason the voters increasingly resent; second, political entrepreneurs, seeing a gap in the market in the form of unsatisfied popular discontents, found parties to oppose the elites and to block or even to reverse the policies; third, after losing some elections to these new challengers, the governing elites interpret their defeats as “populist” attacks on democracy itself and promptly go into a moral panic; fourth, they alarm their supporters in the electorate with warnings that the barbarians are at the gates in the hope of panicking them into voting for the familiar legacy parties of the Centre; and, finally, a large number of their supporters, having been well and truly panicked, rush to give their votes not to the anaemic Grand Coalition of the Centre but to the passionate Left-or-Centrist populists in the smaller Green and Liberal parties. That seems to describe what has been happening in the recent elections, and history being open-ended, it could presumably continue ad infinitum and certainly until the next European election in 2024.

The second interpretation is to see this election as one important moment in a vast but gradual re-alignment of political parties and their ideologies across the European political space. Consider, for instance, the similarities between the voting blocs that emerged in the first round of the last French presidential elections, the polling results in the UK since the recent Euro elections, and the current German political spectrum. In all of them the old party system of two large mainstream parties of Left and Right is being replaced by a spectrum of four approximately equal voting blocs which for clarity I will call Left-populist, Left-centrist, Right-centrist and Right-populist. These blocs are no longer based on the old capital-v-labour or state-v-market choices but instead divide on lines such as globalism v nationalism, or mass migration v border control, or multiculturalism v cultural cohesion, or carbon taxes and renewables v secure and low-cost energy. New parties reflecting these divisions are still emerging, and no single national case fits the pattern perfectly (though the French come close).

Viewed in this way, the recent elections were a competition between two rising insurgent political forces to seize control of the capital – each determined not to let a good crisis go to waste: the populists using the migration crisis as an organising principle, the Greens and the Liberals doing the same with the climate crisis. Which group will win depends on which crisis ultimately proves to be the more genuinely frightening one to the voters. For the moment, however, they have jointly created a crisis for the Brussels establishment – and it is one that the Greens and Liberals seem to be winning at the expense of the national populists.

When populists and Eurosceptic parties began their rise, the first response of the Brussels establishment was to circle the wagons to ward off hostile tribes. In the European Parliament the Christian and Social Democrats formed an effective duopoly, aka a Grand Coalition, to keep its running in safe hands. (Their example was copied in many national parliaments for the same reason.) But as a result of the elections, this duopoly now has the support of only 43 per cent of MEPs. That threatened its dominance. So the duopoly will now expand to include the Greens and the Renew Europe group (of Liberals and Macron’s En Marche MEPs). That would give the four-member expanded Grand Coalition a two-thirds majority in the parliament. In fact, the new distribution of power and seats in the Parliament – outlined very clearly by France 24’s website here: https://graphics.france24.com/results-european-elections-2019/ – came very close to giving a narrow majority to a left-only coalition of social democrats, Renew Europe liberals and Greens. It is generally accepted, however, that the European People’s Party would have to be part of any effective governing coalition that could last and maintain everyday control.

The new expanded Grand Coalition is thus likely to be composed of 182 MEPs from the EPP, 154 from the social democrats, 108 from Renew Europe, and 74 from the Greens. On its left would be 41 far-left socialist-and-Green MEPs, and on its right a substantial number of Eurosceptic, nationalist and conservative parties – 62 MEPs from the European Conservatives and Reformists group and 73 from the Identity and Democracy group. If you include the 57 non-attached MEPs in this latter group, as you probably should, that would bring the number of (broadly defined) national populist MEPs to a number not far short of 192. This spectrum of parties looks very similar to that cited above as the emerging European political structure. In this case the Grand Coalition unites the left-populists, the left-centrists, and the right-centrists against the right-populists. This is not an entirely novel outcome, but it puts the EPP essentially the CDU–CSU and its conservative partners in Brussels in an uncomfortable situation.

The EPP is a conservative Euro-federalist party, committed along with the Social Democrats to a centralising federalist vision of “More Europe!”, and until now it has represented the conservative wing of that vision. But the everyday consensus underpinning the expanded coalition will almost certainly shift leftwards to reflect the opinions and weight of its new members. Its definition of “More Europe” will become increasingly a left-progressive one. Mainstream conservatives in the Parliament will be pressed more and more to embrace such policies as treating climate change as an emergency overriding economic considerations; liberal migration rules as an economic and moral necessity for Europe; and greater fiscal and monetary integration to underpin the Euro. These will be presented as part and parcel of a European agenda common to all parties in the Grand Coalition. Both the Greens and the Renew Europe liberals, moreover, are more evangelical in their promotion of this vision than their conservative partners and more willing to impose them on recalcitrant nations and governments.

When those outside the coalition or outside the Parliament object, either because they dislike the centralising drive of “More Europe!” or because they dislike the leftist content of specific policies, they will be caricatured as populists, nationalists, extremists, or whatever is the politically correct denunciation at the time. Some in the EPP might sympathise with such critics. They might feel closer to them ideologically than to the Greens or to Macron liberals, let alone social democrats. But as members of a Grand Coalition which exists to keep “extremists” away from the levers of power, MEPs on the centre-right will find themselves effectively conscripted to serve in campaigns of centralised Euro-integration against their natural allies among nationally-minded conservatives sceptical of large bureaucratic ventures. They will be living in the world of European politics depicted by Pierre Manent as a struggle between “populist demagogy and the fanaticism of the Centre” and furthermore, from their own point of view, fighting on the wrong side. One might add that demagogy is more evenly distributed between the two sides than Manent’s brilliant summary suggests.

That last point is a kind of analytical prediction rather than a description. It will probably happen, but less neatly and comprehensively than I outline. But it is certainly in tune with the mood-music now being heard from Brussels about how, with the departure of the Eurosceptic British, European integration can now proceed more rapidly and against less obstruction. The European Commission has floated the idea that the EU should cast aside the national veto on a common tax policy. The leading Dutch parliamentary Liberal, Guy Verhofstadt, has proposed the abolition of all opt-outs and special national arrangements such as Denmark’s non-membership of the Euro. And from Paris President Macron proposes the creation of new European institutions – a European Climate Bank, a European food safety office, a European minimum wage, a European agency to control borders and asylum, etc., etc. – that would take over many of the responsibilities now handled by national governments. The mood music is “More Europe” as soon as possible and bigger and better. What we do not hear about are proposals to return powers from Brussels to national parliaments; or policies to protect national traditions, cultural cohesion and citizens’ rights; or reforms to subject European institutions to basic democratic procedures; or attempts to understand why in recent years millions of voters rebelled against the remote rule of European elites; or programmes that would strengthen their sense of national community and reduce their anger and alienation. It was as if the surge of populism across Europe, which continued in this election, had never happened or at least had been overcome and could now be safely forgotten.

If indeed Brussels thinks it can steam ahead to more Europe dismissing such questions, it will be making several large mistakes. It will be ignoring the mass of social and electoral evidence, conveniently put together by Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin in their book National Populism, that this political philosophy has deep roots, mass support and serious intellectual justification. It will run into opposition from governments and voters opposed either to the integrationist schemes or the bills for them, especially in Northern and Central Europe. They will then elect national governments on mandates to restrain Brussels. German conservatives in particular, already worried that their loss of seats is due to “the social democratisation of the Christian Democrats”, will not accept being led by another parliament dominated by rival parties into expensive adventures and then being presented with the bill. The Grand Coalition in Brussels could doom the Grand Coalition in Berlin. Above all, if the European Parliament shows a disinclination to act on the topics that fuelled the rise of populism in recent years, it will be inviting its resurgence in a less friendly frame of mind.

Europe’s voters in May voted for a pause for populists, not for a party for federalists.




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