The Slovenia Times

The Far-Right Strikes Back in Europe


Volatile Electorates, Contrasting Results

Surprise was not the predominant feeling on the evening of May 26. Nuanced realities of 28 member states prevented any "black and white" EU assessments.

France and Italy lived up to the expectations with openly Eurosceptic far-right parties gaining ground. In France, Marine Le Pen's National Front rebranded as the Ressemblement National, or the National Assembly, narrowly defeated President Emmanuel Macron's La République en Marche and reached the symbolic victory they longed for.

In Italy, Matteo Salvini's Liga confirmed its standing as the country's new political behemoth, reaching 34 percent of votes in a land which was long considered cast-iron Europhile. The far-right is on the rise in Belgium and Austria, where the FPÖ did not collapse despite a corruption scandal tarnishing vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache.

In Germany, which was unexpectedly quiet during the campaign, the governing centre-right CDU-CSU and centre-left Social-democrats (SPD) both lost seats as the Grünen rose to fame. Social democrats scored poorly with three notable exceptions: Spain and Portugal, where Prime Ministers Petro Sánchez and António Costa defeated a moribund right; and the Netherlands, where Labour recovered after a crushing defeat in last year's elections.

In Central and South Eastern Europe, the conservative right is winning outright in Austria, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán's Fidesz triumphed with a stunning 52 percent, the biggest score made by a single party after Malta's Labour. Poland's governing Law and Justice (PiS) has a single seat more than the second and third parties. In Greece, Prime Minister Aleksis Tsipras suffered a severe loss to New Democracy's conservatives. In Scandinavia and the Baltic states, the far-right did not make as many gains as expected, with social democrats trying to reverse a long trend of decline in their historical strongholds.

New Battlegrounds Emerge

In 2014, the previous European elections bore the aftermath of the financial and budget crises that have weakened the EU's economy for years. Today's Europe seems to have forgotten about post-crisis economic policies. Across the continent, most anti-austerity forces lost seats.

Among them, the radical left lost 14 seats and became the smallest fringe group in Parliament. The Italian protest "Five Star" Movement is on the decline. The time of economic radicality seems to be fading, giving birth to three new victors.

Nationalist and anti-migration forces have increased their influence with the promise of a return to a better world, as Italy's Matteo Salvini deemed his allies' results as "the sign of a changing Europe".

Overall, the far-right tripled its score from 37 to 112 seats, while the moderately Eurosceptic right lost half of its seats, going from 116 down to 64. In several countries, migration has shaped the debate, like in Hungary, but also in Denmark, where the Social Democrats' tougher stance on immigration pushed voters to the left.

Liberals and centrists (ALDE) also had promising results, gathering the voices of moderates disappointed with traditional parties: Emmanuel Macron partially succeeded in his endeavour to create a domestic battlefield between European-friendly and Eurosceptic forces, though he stopped short of a pan-European alliance. Riding on a wave of discontent with careful environmental policies across Europe and especially in France and Germany, the Greens are one of the only genuine surprises this year. Ecology mattered particularly for younger generations, as environment-related issues have been slowly coming to the forefront of political debates, from school strikes to alarming UN-sponsored reports.

Zero-sum Game and Looming Showdowns

Only one question remains: who can achieve 376 members and secure a majority? No right-wing (355 seats) or left-wing (265 seats) coalition could muster a majority, nor can the Eurosceptic and radical forces (176 and 150 seats respectively). Of the two parties that have been governing the EU for decades, the European Popular Party (EPP) is prone to internal strife and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) suffered locally heavy losses. The liberals and the greens, on the other hand, have boosted their gains in France, Germany and the UK.

"In 2019, the kingmakers belong to the centre"

With 87 seats short of an absolute majority, the fate of a spectrum-wide coalition seems sealed. In 2019, the kingmakers belong to the centre. As any majority will include either the Green or the liberals, if not both, all the non-EPP Euro-friendly parties are currently attempting to break the biggest party's monopoly over European politics. In the meantime, the far-right, which has more MEPs than the liberals and democrats, is having a tough time agreeing on a common platform.

The future leaders of the EU will emerge as the result of painful negotiations between heads of state, in which the Parliament may well be a passive spectator. Stakes are high, considering the influence resting in the hands of the Presidents of the European Commission, European Council, European Parliament, and European Central Bank, let alone the 27 remaining Commissioners.

Several heads of state are publicly repudiating the so-called Spitzenkandidaten or "lead candidate" process, designed to give more democratic legitimacy to the newly head of the European Commission. Larger countries will try to trade lesser positions, such as the influential High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, in exchange for support for their own candidates.

Europe is "Saved." What about the Europeans?

In the run-up to the elections, the European Parliament launched an unprecedented effort aiming to bring youth to the poll with the campaign #thistimeimvoting. The project involved around 300, 000 volunteers in a continental network, supported by a new communication strategy, with millions viewing videos subtitled in 33 languages. Companies, heads of state, social network influencers, and intellectuals alike warned that these elections would be the single most important electoral meeting for decades.

While this endeavour did not entirely fail, the results are disappointing. Although the symbolic threshold of 50% participation rate was overcome (50.9 percent against 42 percent in 1979), the turnout remains low, especially in central Europe, starting with Slovakia (22 percent) and Slovenia (28 percent) at the bottom of the list. Abstention increased in Portugal, Ireland, Italy and even Belgium, where voting is compulsory.

"The EU is a strong, pan-European democracy, which citizens care about," EU Council president Donald Tusk declared two days after the results. Many still feel that the EU has little to do with everyday lives. The European institutions often showcase the successes of Erasmus, roaming fees reforms and passport-free travel policies, which do not appeal to people living in remote regions with little chance to travel at all. This underlines the need for Brussels not to rest on the laurels of an increased turnout, to reinvent the European project, and to focus on issues at hand: climate change, border management, the values gap, inequalities between regions, and the enlargement process.

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom...

Across the Channel, lines are being redrawn based on the 2016 referendum results: the two main forces of Leave and Remain, Nigel Farage's Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats, were rewarded for their unequivocal stance. In the meantime, the two pillars of British politics, the Tory and Labour parties, walked another step toward the fringes of political relevance due to their internal divisions over Brexit. However, both the Liberal Democrats and Brexit Party may struggle to convince the electorate that their vision and political programme stretch beyond their stance on Brexit.

The UK is back to square one after Prime Minister Theresa May's deal seems now only to be a bad memory for citizens of the UK. With Boris Johnson claiming that the UK would not pay its "divorce bill" to the EU under his leadership, long protracted debates are to be expected, both in Westminster and Brussels. Brexit will probably long remain a parasite for the European debate, at a time when policy issues are piling up on the table, and deeper integration is no longer the only envisaged direction.

The European political landscape is undoubtedly more fragmented than several years ago. Is it necessarily a liability for the European Union? The challenging situation may well incentivise European leaders to become more self-demanding and urgently tackle the many challenges waiting for them with more vision, ambition, empathy, and self-awareness.


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