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Once in Europa: What do the 2019 EU election results mean?

The evening after the European Union (EU) parliamentary elections ended on Sunday, May 26, 2019 , I was watching CNN International news anchor Hala Gorani interviewing New York Times European correspondent Steven Erlanger. In addition to sorting out who was going to be who in the next 751-seat EU Parliament (based in Strasbourg, France), there was the question of what it all meant.

Fragmented Europe.

In Gorani’s somewhat brusque interviewing style, she was trying to get the amiable Erlanger to divine the “narrative” thread that might be drawn from the complicated 28-nation electoral exercise – which included a vote in that “green and [not-so-]pleasant land” known as the United Kingdom, the first member nation slated to depart the EU in its more than half-century history. Britain has yet to bumble its way out of the organisation, despite its 2016 Brexit referendum in which Brits narrowly decided by a 52-48% margin to do exactly that. Thus, it had to reluctantly participate in this year’s EU parliamentary contest, even if its elected MEPs may have to give up their seats in a few months when (and if) Britain exits the European consortium.

So, Gorani wanted to know, what’s the main “takeaway”? But before Erlanger could reply, she more or less answered for him. Isn’t it the collapse of the traditional centrist parties that have for decades provided the coalitions governing the EU Parliament? Erlanger allowed as how that was a plausible interpretation of this massive exercise of continental democracy.

Italy’s Matteo Salvini, France’s Marine LePen and other rightwing politicians.

But that wasn’t exactly what Erlanger had written in his lead news piece from Brussels for that morning’s edition of the Times. Instead, Erlanger reported that “populsts and nationalists who want to chip  away at the European Union’s powers increased their share in Europe’s Parliament after four days of continent-wide elections, but it was not the deluge that many traditionalists had feared.” In fact, Erlanger continued, “When the vote counting is done, the populists are expected to get around 25 percent of the 751 seats, up from 20 percent five years ago…” Definitely not a deluge. He also noted that the higher than usual turnout – over 50% — “suggested that pro-European voters were also more motivated than before.” For Erlanger, then, the big “takeaway” was that right-wing populists didn’t walk away with the election. (Steven Erlanger, “European Election Results Show Growing Split Over Union’s Future,” New York Times, May 26, 2019.)

Why does all this Monday morning (and beyond) quarterbacking matter? Because in a political situation where results are ambiguous and subject to much “spin,” it’s helpful for citizens to know where they stand as a result of political events in which they’ve participated. That’s why University of Georgia professor  (and co-author of A Very Short Introduction to Populism) Cas Mudde says in his own Monday morning assessment, that in multi-themed elections like those of the EU, what’s important may not be the actual results, but the “interpretation of the results.” Such elections are “about framing – 20% of the vote can be a win or a loss, depending on the previous result as well as the predictions in the last polls. The European elections are no exception and thus Monday was more important than Sunday.” (Cas Mudde, “The far right may not have cleaned up, but its influence now dominates Europe,” The Guardian, May 28, 2019.)

Given that most people following the election closely were fraught with anxiety about what had been billed as an impending right-wing tsunami-surge-wave, you’d think that would be at least one of the major “takeaways” – to use the current journalistic cliché for the notion of meaning —  on almost everybody’s mind. Or, as the headline from one Guardian newspaper Euro election story put it, “Far right ‘surge’ ends in a ripple.” Yes, right-wingers of various shades and winginess picked up seats, but not that many. Rather than the traditional party collapse Gorani was trying to urge on Erlanger as the principal narrative, Erlanger’s own (and other observers’) account of the far-right’s less-than-overwhelming performance might well be the big takeaway of the elections. Of course, something not happening is not quite as exciting a story as its counterpart, something at least seeming to happen (like the collapse of traditional parties). (Shaun Walker, “European elections: far right ‘surge’ ends in a ripple,” The Guardian, May 27, 2019.)

However, just because the right wing populists and nationalists will only constitute a quarter to a third of the next EU parliament, that doesn’t mean the EU isn’t in serious trouble from its elected “opposition.” Most of that opposition had earlier also been in favour of exiting the EU, but the Brexit fiasco has had the effect of strengthening support for the EU, even among rightwingers. Now, the idea is for the right populists to gradually take over the EU or bend it to their purposes.

More worrisome, as several pundits pointed out, is that the election confirms that the populist right is now a permanent part of the political landscape in contemporary Europe. Further, the continuing presence of that far right may have already had the effect of shifting much of the entire political spectrum – social democrats, centrists of various kinds, and the old “moderate” right-of-centre – more than one or two steps toward the rightist end of that spectrum. (For this more dour reading of the results, see Cas Mudde, op. cit., and a somewhat similar interpretation offered by Ivan Krastev, “The Far Right Is Here to Stay,” New York Times, May 28, 2019.)

The most hopeful of the post-election assessments (and the one I’d like to believe) came from Natalie Nougayrede, a columnist for the left-of-centre Guardian. The case she makes is worth examination. “It turns out that the widespread predictions of a far-right takeover of the European parliament,” said the upbeat columnist in her lead, “were, as Mark Twain famously said about reports of his death, ‘greatly exaggerated’.” Nougayrede duly noted that “citizens across Europe flocked to the ballot box in numbers unseen since the 1990s. The young in particular turned out.” And, she added, “they did not deliver a rightwing populist surge.” (Natalie Nougayrede, “The far right didn’t sweep the EU elections. Europe’s centre is holding,” The Guardian, May 27, 2019.)

Climate emergency demo.

While Nougayrede is prompt to concede that “a poltical shift is undoubtedly under way and rightwing populism is still very much around,” she also argues that “the real story was the evidence of a new pluralism emerging in EU politics, including a Green and liberal surge.” Best of all, “none of this imperils the EU’s survival; quite the contrary… Given the doomsday scenarios doing the rounds, this is good news,” and possibly even a rebuff to U.S. president Donald Trump as well as Russian president Vladimir Putin, both of whom have treated the EU as a foe in recent years.

Probably the best place to begin looking at the country-by-country outcomes is with Germany, in many ways the EU’s principal nation and perhaps the politically least volatile member of the continental cooperative.

Angela Merkel tete-a-tete with Emmanuel Macron

Germany’s long-time governing party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), under Angela Merkel’s decade-and-a-half Chancellorship, continued to lead German parties in the EU Parliament. Despite sizeable losses (the “centrist collapse”), the CDU, along with its Bavarian sister party,the Christian Social Union (CSU), received 29% of German votes, and retained 29 EU parliamentary seats (a loss of 5 seats). As Natalie Nouogayrede observes, “Given that [Merkel’s] handling [of recent political crises] was supposed to have so damaged [her], this hardly amounted to humiliation.” The notable loser in Germany, compared with its 2014 performance five years ago, was the left-of-centre Social Democrats (SPD), which fell to a record low 16% of the vote, and the substantial loss of 11 EU seats.

The growth of the German Greens.

The major winner in the German turnout (a participation rate that was over 61%, up from 48% last time around) was the Green Party, which finished  second to the CDU, scoring just over 20%, and gaining 10 parliamentary seats to give it a total of 21.  What’s more, Green parties throughout Europe tended to make gains (more about this development below). Other shifts among German parties were relatively minor – the Left (or Linke) Party lost a bit of ground, the centre-right Free Democrats (FDP) ticked up slightly.

In terms of the portended populist danger in Germany, it didn’t really happen. The country’s far-right party, the Alternative for Deutschland (AfD), came in at 11%. Technically, that was an improvement over its 2014 EU showing, but it was down from its 12.6% share of the vote in the last federal election two years ago. Its central plank, opposition to migrants and refugees, has cooled off as a burning issue, which it was in 2015, when Merkel admitted more than a million refugees and migrants. When it turned out that Germany was shouldering the Syrian War refugee problem almost alone, there was an internal backlash which redounded to the benefit of the German right.

Since then, Merkel bowed to political pressure and made a deal with Turkey to reduce the immigrant flow and thus cool off the debate, without backing off from her moral advocacy on the issue. Indeed, as columnist Nougayrede noted, “There can be a sigh of relief” that both Germany’s AfD, and Spain’s far-right Vox Party “did less well” than in other previous electoral contests. It’s too early to claim that the AfD has “peaked” or “plateau-d,” but if the far right in Germany remains at no more than 10% or so, most people will regard it as within the bounds of statistical norms (for the present period) and not a pressing danger.

Summing up, the influential German vote might be described as more of a “shift” within the old majority aggregate, moving many of them away from traditional parties to a Green party which, in reality, is not all that far from the centre-left and centre-right formations. What has  happened, and this is significant, is that recognition of what is increasingly called the “Climate Emergency” or impending “Catastrophe,” has reached a tipping point, especially among younger voters, who turned out in increased numbers for the EU elections. As for the far right, which some wits in Germany mischievously refer to not as the AfD, but as the “AfN” (Alternative for Nazis), its moment may have crested in Germany, although not in much of the rest of Europe.

Salvini, LePen.

It’s also true that in the EU countries where populism is in command or surfing a popular wave, such as Hungary, Poland, Austria, Italy and the Brexit-fuelled UK, the far right either made gains or maintained its status. That’s particularly so in Italy, where Matteo Salvini’s far right League came out on top, the first time the nationalist-populists have done so in recent years. Less noticed was a slight revival for the centre-left Democratic Party, which came in second, outperforming the governing League’s coalition partner, another populist formation. Overall, Europe may be as worried about Italy’s shaky economic situation as it is about the ambitious Salvini’s aspirations.

French President Emmanuel Macron.

In President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist (or some would say, “neoliberal”) France, the far right party of Marine LePen, the National Rally, led the EU vote with some 23% of the tally, but was only 1% ahead of Macron’s En Marche grouping. Given that Macron has endured six months of a “Yellow Vest” populist (and popular) but somewhat inchoate uprising in his country, and given that the EU election results were not all that different from the first round results of the 2017 French presidential election, and finally, given that LePen’s National Front (or National Rally as it’s currently labelled) also led French parties in the last EU elections, the results were not a total disaster for Macron. As Nougayrede puts it, “the far right has essentially cemented its position in France, not surged to new heights.” As well, the French left  (as well as its “further left”) made no gains and currently have little political impact. Elsewhere in Europe, however — in the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and other countries — there tended to be gains for Greens, as well as for Iberian socialists.

Reprising the results, Nougayrede argues that there is more “for progressives to be optimistic about from these results than anyone had expected: many citizens have mobilised against the dark forces of rightwing 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 [expected] in Europe’s political landscape. The Centre is holding.”

Well, that last remark may be going a bit far, especially if the whole of the political spectrum has shifted to the right in recent years. But Nougayrede is hardly alone in her hopeful assessment. Jon Henley, another Guardian European analyst, duly notes the widespread “reports of a Eurosceptic tidal wave sweeping the European parliament.” But even if there was a huge right populist victory, which turned out not to be the case, Henley argues that it would not be the “equivalent of Donald Trump storming the White House or Brexit blowing up British politics.” As it in fact turned out, “Pro-EU forces still hold a comfortable majority,” notwithstanding the decline of traditional centrist parties. As Henley admits, “A more complicated, ad hoc, but still fairly comfortable pro-European majority is, naturally, a somewhat less exciting narrative than a tidal wave sweeping away the foundations of the EU. But it looks like that is the outcome of these elections.” (Jon Henley, “A fractured European parliament may be just what the EU needs,” The Guardian, May 27, 2019.)

Shaun Walker, writing from Budapest — where “illiberal democracy” is in full flower under Viktor Orban’s stridently far right Fidesz government — nonetheless supports the main conclusions of his Guardian colleagues. “After months of boasts, bluster and apocalyptic rhetoric,” Walker reported, “Europe’s far right had a modest night at the polls… making striking gains in some countries but losses in others. In the end, a promised populist surge turned out to be more of a ripple.” (Shaun Walker, op. cit.)

If I had to present an order of “takeaways,” it would be:

1. While there were rightwing gains, the much-feared “surge” of the right didn’t materialize. (Insert “sigh of relief” emoji here.)

2. The most significant single success was that of European Green parties, reflecting a much more acute consciousness of the “Climate Emergency,” notably among younger Europeans. While the Green ballot box win shouldn’t be exaggerated (Green parties will hold only some 70 seats, an increase of 20 MEPs, but less than 10% of the parliament), nonetheless, they finished second in Germany (20%), as well as second in Finland (16%), a surprising third in France (13%), garnered a substantial 15% in Ireland (up from 5% in 2014), and did well in the Netherlands and elsewhere, as well as displaying (according to the polls) increasing support in national parliaments throughout Europe. As one of the European Green leaders, Ska Keller, claimed, “This is a mandate for real change: for climate protection, a social Europe, more democracy and stronger rule of law.” Above all, Keller added, the Greens “want to achieve climate action now – because if we wait any longer, it will be a disaster.” (Jon Henley, “Greens surge as parties make strongest ever showing across Europe,” The Guardian, May 27, 2019.)

3. A fragmentation (or new pluralism) among the voters for traditional parties that have made up the EU parliamentary majority in the past. This is a process that has been in progress since the beginning of the decade. Still, even with the voting shifts, pro-EU parties still command a sizeable majority in the EU parliament, since a good portion of the shift has gone to other equally pro-EU formations. Much of the explanation for the fragmentation may have to do with “neoliberalism,” a form of unregulated capitalism that has led to enormous wealth disparities and the imposition of social service-cutting “austerity” policies, especially during the previous decade’s Great Recession economic crisis. The fact that social democratic parties either tacitly or overtly supported “austerity” measures may explain much of their present collapse, as in countries such as Germany. Such policies have significantly alienated large segments of the European citizenry and made them more receptive to both reasonable alternatives and to right populist programs — the latter replete with xenophobia, racism, ethnic supremacism, a recrudescence of anti-semitism, and resistance to climate change action.

Even apart from the European election results and their meaning, this continues to feel like a particularly uncertain political and moral moment, both in Europe and the world. Maybe that’s why in the past week of electoral number crunching, I’ve found myself reading the late John Berger’s Once in Europa (1987), a book of at once realistic and magical stories about peasant life in the villages of the French Alps, where Berger lived for the last decades of his life, participating in an almost disappeared form of collective existence.

Several of the more discerning members of the media and academic commentariat have been reflecting on similar intuitions about ways of life in recent years, ever since the arrival of U.S. president Donald Trump, the British Brexit referendum and the rise of rightist populism and nationalism around the world. For a recent example, New York Times op-ed columnist Roger Cohen thoughtfully broods, “History is not an argument leading to a logical conclusion… History is flux and our natures conflicted. The spectres of nationalism and xenophobia have stirred. It’s time to recall that the quest for homogenous societies led the 20th century to its most unspeakable horrors.”

At its worst, says Cohen, “President Trump beckons us into the abyss of the hateful. The arc of his mind bends toward injustice. I wish I did not have to say this.” He adds, “Today, however, patriotism demands the defense of the Constitution, the rule of law, truth… and the planet itself against the ravages issuing from the Trump White House… Every day the distinction between truth and falsehood is undermined. I hear talk of fact-based journalism. What a ridiculous tautology!” But Cohen and some of the rest of us still discern other possibilities. While recognizing that “the rightist wave rises still,” he also notes that “2019 is also the year that the European Parliament election ceased to be a sideshow. Many Europeans, I feel, have awoken to the need to preserve the great miracle of the second half of the 20th century – that aspiration of the bloodied, that bastion of law, that European Union.” Ah, once in Europa. (Roger Cohen, “The Lessons of Paris and the Violence of Hope,” New York Times, May 31, 2019.)

 

Berlin, June 3, 2019 .

Stan Persky

Stan Persky

Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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