The European Parliament election was a long and complex story with a surprising and, for many, unsatisfactory outcome. Yet notwithstanding the muddled conclusion, a new European political order seems to be emerging – one that is likely to leave traditional parties of both the left and the right behind.
The European Parliament elections that concluded on May 26 turned out to be a Game of Thrones replay – a long and complex story with a surprising and, for many, unsatisfactory outcome. As with Game of Thrones, some fans are calling for a different ending. They would like to sack the authors and rewrite the script.
The anti-Europeans, who looked for a moment as if they might be shepherded by the populist triumvirate of Italy’s Matteo Salvini, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and America’s Steve Bannon to a triumphant conquest of Brussels, were beaten back. Pro-Europeans supporting the European Union’s establishment parties also lost out. And the politicians who invented the Spitzenkandidaten process in an attempt to influence the choice of the next head of the European Commission looked ridiculous, as bits of the old EU parties were hacked away. In short, conventional expectations were disappointed all round.
One obvious outcome of the election was clear long before the results were announced: Europe’s long-standing duopoly of center-left and center-right forces is definitely over. This duopoly had been most apparent at the national level, where a slightly conservative party and a slightly socialist party typically fought over the level of pensions, wage policy, the extent of social transfers, and similar matters. Each party then needed to moderate its position in order to attract the median voter. The systems they produced in national politics were quite stable, and some hoped that the same mechanism might translate to the European level.
That left-right dichotomy broke down in Italy as long ago as the early 1990s. It ended in France more recently, with the 2017 presidential election, in which neither old-left nor old- right candidates reached the second-round run-off. The German Social Democratic Party (SPD) has systematically weakened itself through its (politically responsible) participation in the grand coalition government with the Christian Democratic Union. And in the United Kingdom, Brexit has destroyed the Conservative Party and perhaps the Labour Party as well.
In Greece, the ruling Syriza party fared poorly, evidently reflecting many voters’ view that it has gradually become just a traditional center-left party. With a few notable exceptions – Spain and Austria, for example – old-style social democrats performed badly. France and Germany, the two countries traditionally at the core of the European process, are the two most glaring examples. The French Socialists’ 6% of the vote has consigned them to irrelevance, and the SPD does not look much more convincing at the moment.
The losses suffered by traditional center-left parties reflect the reality of today’s open world. As Europe becomes more important globally, it will have to do more than just redistribute wealth: simply reproducing old welfare systems on a European scale is a recipe for endless conflicts between different parts of the Union.
The more interesting outcome of the election was the relative weakness of populist right-wing and nationalist parties. They, too, generally included a large measure of social protection in their platforms. For example, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (her new façade for the old National Front), was further to the left on social issues than French President Emmanuel Macron’s “Renaissance” list, which it narrowly defeated.
Supporters of populist parties correctly sensed that old-fashioned welfarism only works in a strictly national setting. But there were not generally enough of them to make the case for a return to a Europe of nation states. In fact, initial results indicated that while Le Pen beat Macron, her party received a smaller share of the vote than in the last European Parliament election in 2014.
One reason for the relatively weak performance of nationalist parties was the ease with which discussions of sleaze, corruption, and opacity spread across national borders. The ongoing cash-for-contracts scandal involving Austria’s nationalists (the curiously named Freedom Party) most likely caused its share of the popular vote to fall, relative to 2014, and its counterparts elsewhere – in Germany and Denmark, for example – also fared more poorly than expected.
This was in fact the first European Parliament election with genuinely European themes. The pro-European Green parties – with their commitment to public goods (most obviously, climate safety) that simply cannot be generated on a national basis – did very well everywhere. At the same time, the Greens have shaken off much of the ideology that still encumbers the old political parties of the conventional left and right. Their biggest victory was in Germany, where they finished second, easily beating the SPD; but they also performed strongly in the UK.
The other big winners were the liberal parties in the alliance headed by the charismatic Guy Verhofstadt, who is committed to working with Macron. Along with the Greens, the liberals are almost certain to be the most powerful parliamentary voice shaping the leadership and agenda of the new Commission.
Despite the fragmented nature of the new European Parliament, it should be easy to find a majority for an agenda that reflects what most EU citizens have voted for. One of the striking features of the post-2016 political upheavals in both the UK and the United States is how national legislatures have asserted themselves when facing a dysfunctional and erratic executive. European parliamentarians should follow the same path.
For starters, they should draw the right lessons from populist scandals in Austria and elsewhere, and make curbing corruption a top priority at the national and EU levels. In addition, the new parliament should help to develop a coordinated EU approach to global energy and security challenges, in the face of pressure from the US and Russia to set the political agenda. These discussions will also be tied to the debate about corruption and opaque influence.
Game of Thrones may be over, but fresh power struggles in the EU are just beginning. The European Parliament election has changed the continent’s political landscape in important ways, with traditional parties forced to regroup or be replaced. What happens next is likely to make for compelling viewing.
Harold James is Professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University and a senior fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation. A specialist on German economic history and on globalization, he is a co-author of the new book The Euro and The Battle of Ideas, and the author of The Creation and Destruction of Value: The Globalization Cycle, Krupp: A History of the Legendary German Firm, and Making the European Monetary Union.
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