It is never clear how seriously one should take elections to the European Parliament. The body itself controls a budget that runs only to 1 percent of the European Union’s combined GDP (compare that to the U.S. federal budget’s 20 percent or France’s nearly 50 percent). Voters regard the European Parliament elections as rather low stakes and thus often use them to cast protest votes for minor or opposition parties. While voter turnout for last weekend’s elections was the highest in twenty-five years, it still ran 20–40 percentage points below the rate for national elections.
That said, the European Parliament does hold real if limited powers, the most significant being the ability to investigate and censure Member States of the Union for violating its fundamental values. This is precisely what the Parliament did last year against Hungary for the first time in its history. Moreover, European Parliament elections are valuable windows into the mood of the European electorates, especially when narrowly following or preceding important national elections. The Brexit fiasco in the United Kingdom, the gilets jaunes protests in France, and the new populist government in Italy are all being tested in these elections.
As in America, the mood in Europe is disgruntled and polarized. Last weekend’s elections show the political center continues to weaken. Three large centrist political groups are as old as European parliamentary politics itself: the center-right EPP group of Christian democratic parties (think Angela Merkel); the center-left S&D group of social democrats (think Jeremy Corbyn); and the liberal-centrist ALDE group (think Emmanuel Macron). Since direct elections to the European Parliament began in 1979, the EPP and the S&D have not only been the two leading political groups in Europe but together have held a clear majority of seats in the Parliament. After last weekend’s vote, the combined center-right and center-left are projected to hold just 43 percent of those seats. For now the ALDE has plugged its finger in the leaking dike of the European center. Thanks mainly to Macron’s continued destruction of the French Socialist Party and the resurgence of Britain’s hard-core Remain party, the Liberal Democrats, the ALDE group grew from 67 to a projected 109 seats. These three original stalwarts of the European project together will hold only 58 percent of the seats, when at the start of the 2009 Parliament they held a combined 72 percent.
Right-wing nationalists and populists have been the main beneficiaries of the grinding away of the European center. While “fear of a far-right takeover” was wildly overhyped, the European right did anticipate a big surge of support. It largely got it. Matteo Salvini’s Lega won 28 of Italy’s 73 seats to become the country’s largest party in the European Parliament. Marine Le Pen’s rebranded National Rally finished with 22 seats, one more than Macron’s coalition, and will be France’s largest party in Strasbourg. Nigel Farage’s brand new Brexit Party smashed into a clear first place with 29 of the U.K.’s 73 seats, tying with Germany’s Christian Democrats to be the largest single national party in the Parliament.
Salvini boasts that right-wing nationalists and populists could hold up to 150 seats when all is said and done, adding in Italy’s Five Star Movement, Germany’s Alternative for Germany, the Sweden Democrats, and Central European parties like Hungary’s Fidesz and Poland’s Law and Justice. If so, this political group would surpass Europe’s social democrats. Such a coalition is almost surely too unwieldly to actually form, however. The Salvini and Le Pen group, the EAPN, holds only 58 seats themselves, while the other populist and nationalist parties are currently scattered across several other European political groups. Despite their common euroskepticism, these parties have strong differences. The Five Star Movement is not even conservative. The Brexit Party is not especially right-wing. Poland’s Law and Justice Party strongly objects to western European populists’ ties to Vladimir Putin. Yet even if no pan-nationalist political group is formed, this election does show the building strength of right-wing populism and nationalism in Europe.
Rather unexpected was the strong showing of right-wing populism’s nemesis. The left-globalist Greens/EFA group grew from 47 seats at the start of the 2014 Parliament to a projected 69 seats in this election. This should not, however, be interpreted as a sign of revival on the left. The far left GUE-NGL group lost 13 seats, and nearly all the new net Green seats came in three countries—Germany (+8), France (+6) and the U.K. (+5)—in which the broader left is collapsing. Green growth seems to be coming at the expense of social democrats. For example, in Germany in 2014, the Greens and the SPD won a combined 38 percent of the European vote, while this year they won 36 percent. Yet the Greens surged from 11 percent to 21 percent of the vote while the SPD collapsed from 27 percent to 16 percent. A similar story can be told in France, where the Greens grew from 9 percent to 13 percent while the Socialist coalition shriveled from 14 percent to a mere 6 percent.
Young Europeans caught up in the Greta Thunberg phenomenon are strong supporters of the Greens. But so, too, is Europe’s professional class, especially in countries lacking a strong socially progressive liberal party. Pre-election polls from Austria found that the Greens had the support of 30 percent (a plurality) of voters holding a university degree, but a mere 2 percent of workers’ votes. The reverse is true as well. A stunning 50 percent of workers supported the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria despite the bribery scandal, while highly educated Austrians clocked in at just 6 percent. Across Europe, educated professionals abandoned the social democratic parties they conquered in the early years of neoliberalism and globalization, as so much of the native working class had already abandoned them. The Greens—highly urban, socially progressive, atheistic—are a more natural home for European professionals anyway.
The European Parliamentary election results promise more turmoil ahead. National elections are scheduled later this year in Denmark, Greece, Austria, and Poland. Surely the U.K. will have another general election within the year as well. Nationalists and populists will continue to cut down the center so long as the center adheres to what Bret Stephens aptly names “the ideology of them before us.”
Darel E. Paul is professor of political science at Williams College and author of From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought America to Same-Sex Marriage.