By Michael Cottakis, 89 Initiative Director
These elections were the most ‘European’ yet
Something new is happening on the European electoral scene. In both substance, and style, these EP elections have been different to their predecessors. Political parties have approached the 2019 contest in more transnational terms, seeking to build coalitions on EU policy issues and to advance common messages to their electorates. Emmanuel Macron’s European Renaissance sought to present a set of common principles and reach out to citizens across Europe, though its scope was ultimately less ambitious. Even on the Eurosceptic side, there is evidence that leaders saw these elections in European terms. Yes, nationalism and populism were core ingredients of their campaigns. However, attempts were made among the far-right to assert common European ‘values’, which are advocated in opposition to the technocratic, centralising principles of the EU. The European Spring alliance between Matteo Salvini, of the League party, and Jaroslaw Kaczynski discussed the preservation of Christian Europe, the need to restrict immigration, particularly of Muslims, to the UK. These are not the European values that self-proclaimed pro-Europeans would assert, but there clearly a shift. Rather than discuss Italian, or Polish, values, it is Europeans one that are evoked. While the substance may be worrying for the EU, there is a sense that electoral coalition building is increasingly occurring around issues that have resonance to national electorates, but sustains narratives that are transnational, and European, in particular.
Nonetheless, the increase in the vote share of far-right parties has been weaker than first expected. Moreover, its distribution has been uneven. In certain cases – Italy, Poland, and Belgium – Eurosceptic populists did experience gains. However, this is not reflected across the continent. In the Netherlands and Denmark, where radical right parties performed well in 2014, the reverse trend is true. In the UK, the Brexit party did see a strong showing, perhaps to be expected in a country deeply divided across Leave-Remain lines. Far-right populists will assert victory for their cause. However, the bigger picture presents more modest conclusions. The UK result included, in no single member state did an overtly Eurosceptic majority prevail. This is reflected in the composition of the European Parliament, in which over two thirds remain in broad support for new areas of integration – although there is division on which.
Is the UK still for Brexit?
It is hard to tell. Clearly the Brexit debate is more polarised than ever between advocates of a hard (no deal) Brexit and believers in a second referendum (ostensibly to overturn the 2016 Brexit vote). On the face of it, last night heralded a big victory for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which won 32% of the popular vote. As the party of ‘no deal’, this might lead some analysts to conclude that the UK public is set on Brexit – and a potentially reckless one at that. Yet the other big story of the night was the performance of the Remain parties – Liberal Democrats, Greens, Change UK, and Scottish National Party – that clocked up a combined 41% of the vote share. Were one to add to this the votes of the overwhelmingly Remain-backing Labour party, the share of the Remain vote would be at roughly 54%, consistent with most polls on the likely outcome of a second referendum. Nonetheless, the UK is clearly polarised. With the parliamentary arithmetic unlikely to produce a majority for any version of Brexit, or for a second referendum, a likely outcome is a general election before the end of the year.
A Europe united around climate?
The surge of Green parties across the EU should arm the EU with a new sense of collective mission. The climate change debate arouses a passion and purpose, which as the Green popularity demonstrates, has the capacity to unite. However, Green gains are geographically concentrated in parts of northwestern Europe – and Scandinavia – in which environmentalism has more established roots. Central and eastern Europe have yet to witness the emergence of overtly ‘green’ movements. Southern Europe, for its part, sees green and ecological collectives form part of left-wing, or anti-establishment parties, often removed from the mainstream. Thus, the Green surge cannot be described as a pan-European phenomenon, at least not yet.