Post-election: an energized Europe faces a polarized era

Post-election: an energized Europe faces a polarized era

While the European Elections did not result in the much-predicted right-wing populist surge, the continued erosion of establishment parties and the upswing in participation suggests a new political era for the bloc. The elections boosted civic participation, lending the EU some much-needed democratic legitimacy. However, a more politicized parliament exposes the bloc to the forces of political polarization between liberals and nationalists, urban and rural communities, and East and West. The EU’s era of broad centrist consensus is over as it grapples with its core question—greater or less integration?

The New European Political Landscape

Unlike in past years, the 2019 European parliamentary elections were framed as a referendum on the EU itself. As the first election since Brexit with the rise of euro-sceptic right-wing parties across the continent, the vote pitted establishment politicians against challengers seeking to take the Union in a new direction—if not dismantle it.

The results were decidedly mixed. In a blow to the establishment, the long-governing grand coalition of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the Social Democrats (S&D) lost their majority for the first time in decades, dropping from 53% to 43%. While EPP parties maintained a majority in more than half of the bloc’s countries, they suffered notable losses in Germany, where Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats dropped from 35% to 27%, as well as in France and Spain, where the establishment right continues to fracture. Meanwhile, except for Spain, Portugal and Malta, the Socialists did not win any majorities, with their base of left-of-center voters instead turning to the Greens and Liberals. The Socialists will continue forming the second largest group in parliament, but these changes mean the grand coalition between the two establishment centrist groups must now join with at least one other to approve EU legislation.

Despite significant right-wing nationalist and populist wins in France, Italy, Poland, Hungary and the U.K., the much-discussed far-right surge that could have hampered decision-making in parliament did not materialize. Overall, hard right only increased their share of seats from 21% to 23%, with the two most significant far-right Eurosceptic groups, the ENF and the EFDD, picking up 33 seats between them. Italy’s far-right Matteo Salvini had a particularly strong showing, consolidating his 2018 national victories with 34% of the Italian vote, while Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party once again came out on top in France, with 23%. Both Law and Justice in Poland and Viktor Orban’s Fidesz in Hungary dominated the polls in their respective countries, while pro-Brexit British voters, in the awkward position of casting votes in the EU election, rallied around Nigel Farage’s Brexit party.

The far-right successes were largely offset by the mobilization of the Liberals and Greens, both of whom made significant gains to form the third- and fourth-largest parliamentary groups respectively. The liberals under the ALDE banner were bolstered by Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche, along with a surge in votes for pro-remain Lib-Dems in the UK, and strong showings in Denmark, the Benelux countries and the Czech Republic. The Greens, with their focus on climate change and social justice, made particularly strong gains in Germany, finishing second, as well as in France and the UK. While the Liberals and Greens share differing philosophies and emphasize distinct issue areas, both advocate for a stronger, more integrated European Union to tackle environmental, economic and human rights issues.

From Eurocratic to Democratic — The EU Enters a Polarized Climate

The elections represent a broad victory for EU supporters over a nationalist resurgence. With higher voter participation over previous years—the first time since 1979 that turnout has increased—a more engaged electorate has given the bloc a much-needed boost in democratic legitimacy.

Greater civic engagement through new political voices will inject new energy into the project. The Greens and Liberals will exercise stronger voices in electing EU Commission leadership and approving legislation, meaning their push for bolder policies and a more integrated EU must be taken into account. Coupled with the slow erosion of establishment groups, these changes portend an EU that is more political, more fractured, and more exposed to polarization than before.

The Liberal vision of greater political integration, laid out in open letter from Macron and supported by other thought leaders, imagines a Europe with strengthened institutions and capacities. More Europe would mean more power for the bloc to address pressing economic and security concerns, including better Eurozone fiscal policy coordination and common migration policies. While supporters argue such reforms are necessary for the bloc to continue, they would likely inflame right-wing fears of a EU overreach, which could further fuel nationalism. If the EU strengthens its capacity to punish rule-breakers, Hungary and Poland would fiercely oppose these measures. Furthermore, divergent answers to migration between Eastern Europe and the rest of the bloc could open new riffs and further diminish the bloc’s unity.

If the Greens, Socialists and Liberals seek bolder legislation to cut carbon emissions, the impacts would be felt by the European industrial, agricultural and transport sectors, as well by consumers. More stringent criteria for green farming subsidies, as well as higher carbon taxes, could further exacerbate the urban-rural divide. The “yellow vest” protests, which erupted in France under similar conditions, significantly threatened Macron’s liberal government and fuelled anti-establishment sentiment. Similar dynamics could erupt at the European level. Furthermore, climate concerns are geographically uneven; according to polls from the Fall of 2018, climate change registered as one of the most important issues facing Europe only in the Benelux countries, Scandinavia, Germany and Austria—notably wealthier member states. In the Mediterranean Countries and Eastern Europe, however, polls show employment and cost of living register as greater concerns. The effects of climate action could cause greater economic strain, and further polarize the bloc.

More broadly, visions for the EU’s future are at odds: Greater or less integration? Liberal internationalism or conservative nationalism? The future course will depend on the EU’s ability to withstand the centrifugal forces of polarization already straining national politics across the Western world. Indeed, with a growing far-right voice in public discourse, the EU’s very legitimacy is now a normal part of political debate. These challenges will almost certainly compound in the face of possible future economic, political or security crises, much like those that have already battered the bloc, testing its resilience.

The End of Europe’s Halcyon Days

The elections have delivered a decisive end to unchallenged establishment rule. For much of its recent history, the grand coalition has formed the central ballast of a largely technocratic EU project—one seen more as a regulatory and administrative body functioning quietly in the background, built on the consensus that greater integration and liberalization would increase well-being across the continent. This arrangement came under increased scrutiny following a series of crises over the past decade that dragged the EU into the centre of heated national debates. With the 2008 Recession and the debt crisis, both the austerity-hit countries in Southern Europe and their northern creditors grew increasingly sceptical of the bloc’s economic competencies. The EU’s handling of the 2015 refugee crisis, ongoing migration issues, and a wave of extremist terrorist attacks have raised significant concerns about safety and provoked deeper debates over national identity, fueling a far-right surge. The tepid response to Hungary and Poland’s illiberal drifts, which cut to the heart of the project’s founding principles, raised further doubts about the EU’s collective action capabilities and the strength of its moral resolve. Brexit dealt another demoralizing blow.

On top of these issues, the EU has faced growing external challenges. The US-led liberal international order that favored its rise and lent legitimacy to its vision has come under increasing strain. Traditional alliances have weakened, with the American president openly calling Europe a “foe,” and his former campaign advisor seeking to cultivate disruptive right-wing populist movements across the continent. With a majority of EU countries also NATO members, there is fear that a growing US ambivalence toward the alliance could leave an underprepared Europe exposed to global security threats. A revanchist Russia, which raised concern in the bloc with its military intervention in neighboring Ukraine, continues to employ active meddling campaigns in the Baltics and domestic politics across the continent, raising political and security concerns. Meanwhile, China is making economic inroads in Southern and Eastern Europe as it seeks to gain greater influence on the continent.

Given its myriad challenges, it comes as little surprise that a majority of EU citizens believe the Union could collapse in the next 20 years, according to polls released several weeks before the elections.

A New EU Takes Shape and Carries On

Despite predictions of doomsayers, the EU has survived crisis after crisis. Furthermore, while the growth of far-right nationalism across the bloc remains a concerning development, the elections have shown broad support for the EU project to continue forward. Indeed, a Eurobarometer poll in Spring this year showed 68% reporting their country’s membership in the EU as a good thing—the highest since 1983. Roughly 42% of European citizens trust the EU (7% higher than the average trust in national governments) and only 20% reported a negative image of the bloc. These numbers suggest that despite louder Eurosceptic voices and challenges to the establishment, the EU maintains broad support.

With a more diverse parliament, the EU has entered a new political era. The grand coalition must now make concessions, most likely to the Liberals or Greens, to pass legislation and choose leadership. New political energy may prove valuable in addressing the bloc’s issues, including migration burden-sharing, strengthening of the Eurozone, addressing climate change and confronting EU rule-breakers. Greater integration and more ambitious legislation may result in a backlash, however, further exacerbating the EU’s core political division—more or less Europe?


Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Noah Wanebo

Noah Wanebo holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Colorado and an MA in International Relations from Leiden University. His main focus concerns political risk in the U.S., Spain and Latin America.