Forget the Brexit Party surge in the UK, the rest of Europe has delivered a far more important message
Who said Europe was boring? For once, the European Parliament elections have been as important as national elections
The European elections have been exceptional.
Electoral turnout was the highest in 20 years – 51 per cent across Europe, which is 8 per cent higher than in 2014. The victory of marginal but progressive parties such as the Greens and the Liberal Democrats shows that European citizens are eager to see Europe playing a leading role when it comes to issues that affect them: climate change, the protection of citizens’ privacy and digital rights, and their freedom of movement.
Before the results get lost in the sea of history, there are a number of lessons to draw from these elections.
First, we have seen the rise of traditionally “small” pro-European parties such as the Greens and the Lib Dems. This shows that centrism, exemplified by the coalition that the Socialist Democrats and the European People’s Party’s have formed in passing legislation in the European Parliament over the past decade, is outdated. Social and Christian Democrats’ influence is eroding, with some geographical variations, throughout Europe.
This provides more space for parties traditionally on the fringe to enter the new political landscape. Based on each national specificity the balance has either favored the liberals and greens or the populists.
Second, while the populists did well, this is not the surge announced by pollsters. The Brexit Party claimed victory in the UK, yet their MEPs will lose their jobs once the UK leaves the EU. The big gains were in France, with the National Rally racing ahead of Macron’s party, and in Italy, where the Lega Nord won more than 33 per cent of the votes, and in Hungary, where Orban won an overwhelming majority. Yet overall these parties will have difficulty forming a coherent group, especially once the UK leaves the EU.
Several allies of Matteo Salvini have been defeated in Denmark, Austria and in particular in Germany where the AfD scored very low. That means that the far right’s capacity to harm will certainly stick to the arena of anti-immigration policy initiatives.
The victory of the Greens, particularly striking in Germany where they are the main winners of the election, is the most noticeable feature. The Greens have been a strong party at European level, which has transcended national factionalism in the European Parliament for many years. But their victory goes beyond their party. Green issues have been at the top of the priorities list of most progressive parties in Europe. The “green contagion” is certainly also due to a high mobilisation of young voters in several European countries.
So, who said Europe was boring? For once, the European Parliament elections have been as important as national elections. All eyes are on what happens next.
Coalitions are going to be volatile and more difficult to form. The newly elected MEPs need to take up the challenge of showing that progressive pro-European forces can play a role in the future of Europe. We are all debating the role of and forces that shape Europe, and that is a good thing. In a rise of illiberal regimes in China, the US and Russia, Europe is able to contain populism and to promote progressive ideas.
Even in the UK, it is precisely because of mainstream parties’ lack of engagement on a pro-European stance and vision for the country that they have been severely hit. While the Tories walk the tightrope in their negotiations, a strategy led by Theresa May, Labour is paying for its foggy message about Brexit.
Europe matters to citizens and they are ready to debate it.
Let’s hope that the thrill of the elections stays on and that the European Parliament will be able to take up that challenge by legislating ambitiously with the objective to serve citizens.
Sarah Wolff is director of the Center for European Research, Queen Mary University of London