The European Parliament elections are the second-largest democratic exercise in the world, after India’s: 400 million voters across 28 different countries, with over 150 political parties competing for 751 total seats.
The results of these elections, then, can’t be read like a simple horse race. In some countries, such as Spain—where the European Parliament elections coincided with local ones—the vote reflected preferences over municipal questions like housing and transportation. In others, such as the United Kingdom, it was framed as a referendum on national questions like Brexit.
For this reason, European Parliament elections have long been considered “second-order”: reactive to local issues, rather than proactive for European ones. Historically low rates of voter turnout cemented this view.
But last week’s elections bucked the trend. Political parties across the spectrum campaigned on the basis of their vision for Europe—on issues like climate, migration, and Christianity—and voters turned out to ratify it. Overall, participation soared. Even in countries like the UK, many voters reported that their first priority was a party’s policy program—not its Brexit position.
Taken together, then, the results of the European Parliament elections can tell us a lot about the direction of European politics—and as the most ambitious experiment in transnational democracy, the direction of global governance, as well.
Three trends, in particular, point the way.
Most accounts of the election depict a “Green wave” crashing over Europe.
In the months leading up to the vote, Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future movement brought millions of people into the streets to demand climate action. And Europe’s Green parties, once a niche of the aging eco-friendly, have been the primary beneficiaries. “They want environment to be at the heart of our lives, at the heart of the political game,” said Yannick Jadot of the French Greens. “And that message has spread across Europe.”
The group will send 69 MEPs to Brussels this summer, an increase of 17 per cent from 2014.
Climate politics, then, are Europe’s new normal. There is no political party that can afford to ignore the climate question or to sell voters on the quality of their response. Even Marine Le Pen is pitching her far-right National Rally party as the solution to Europe’s climate crisis. “We consider environmentalism the natural child of patriotism, because it’s the natural child of rootedness,” she said at a campaign event. “Because if you’re a nomad, you’re not an environmentalist.”
But widespread recognition of the climate crisis also presents the danger of its cooptation. In the United States, we have become accustomed to a very polarized debate on climate: Democrats recognize climate change; Republicans reject it. Le Pen’s comments, instead, suggest that climate politics can be adapted to suit a wide variety of political projects—from the eco-socialist to the eco-nationalist.
In other words, there is a battle in Europe over who will claim climate as their own political province, and the Greens are winning it. They must now prove themselves as worthy representatives of the climate movement and worthy guardians of its political capital.
Bas Eickhout, the lead candidate for the European Greens, has offered support for a “green new deal” with “large investment in our green industry.” But the group is yet to put meat on the bones of this proposal—raising fears that their vision of an ecological transition will only tweak and tax, rather than transform, the European economy. “Green New Deal policies center jobs + justice in frontline, working communities as we transition our economy and infrastructure,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted on Monday. “Not all climate policies are the same.”
Just because the elections are over, then, does not mean that we can rest. The task now is to demand that the European Greens make good on their new mandate. We must be vigilant that any policy that they advocate from their position in European Parliament expands, rather than narrows, the climate coalition, bringing along workers and communities in the North as in the South, East as in the West.
The stakes are high: A failure to deliver such a transformative Green New Deal could alienate large swaths of the electorate from the broader climate movement—just as the failure to oppose austerity spelled doom for Europe’s social democrats.
Or worse: It might push them to embrace a climate politics that they feel represents them better. Le Pen’s xenophobic brand of environmentalism, then, may be the next green wave over Europe.
Throughout the course of this election year, the specter of populism haunted Europe. Profile after breathless profile opened with an image of Steve Bannon gathering the forces of the far right in a medieval Italian monastery, training a new generation of “gladiators” to crush the political establishment and capture the European Parliament.
Alas, no such coup materialized. The far-right League, led by Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, managed to capture a stunning 34.3 percent of the vote; the National Rally Party, led by Marine Le Pen, managed to capture another 23.3 per cent, edging out President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist En Marche. But in countries like Germany, the Alternative für Deutschland managed just 11: better than 2014, but worse than the national elections in 2017.
So, a populist “surge” was averted, and many commentators sneered at the coverage that predicted a “march of the populists.” The center, they concluded, was holding.
But these takes set the bar for optimism far too low. For neo-fascist parties like the AfD simply to sustain their vote share should be read as a system failure. Our ambition should not be to stave of a ‘surge’ of the far right ; it should be to ensure their purge from the political scene.
The ugly truth is that, even if the far right has lost its battle to capture the European Parliament, it has won the war to set its agenda. Political parties from the center left to the center right, taking Hillary Clinton’s infamous advice, now advocate the same anti-migrant policies as their populist challengers. “For four years we fought to get a European Border and Coast Guard. EU countries were blocking, but we managed to get it done: 10000 extra border officers,” bragged Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats. “We need to better protect our external borders to keep our internal EU borders open.”
Verhofstadt’s comments, then, raise the question: Who needs the far right when liberals will do the job for them? As Viktor Orbán recently noted, when asked about Hungary’s harsh anti-migrant policies, “The positions which were once condemned, despised, looked down upon and treated with contempt are becoming jointly held positions.”
This is the most terrifying and most underreported conclusion from the European Parliament elections: Fortress Europe got its mandate. With the EU successfully clamping down on mass migration to Europe by formally declaring the migrant crisis “over,” the refugee question has moved out of sight, out of mind: Almost no political party campaigned on the basis of a pro-migration platform. Surge aside, the far right has had its day.
So where does that leave the left? Were radical challengers able to capitalize on the decline of the centrist parties that traditionally dominated the European Parliament? Did young Europeans, in particular, gravitate toward progressive politics in the same way that young Americans have consolidated behind Bernie Sanders?
The short answer is no. All across Europe, left parties were steamrolled out of office. At the municipal level, where the election mattered most, progressive movements like Barcelona En Comú and Más Madrid were ousted from their mayoralties. At the national level, parties like Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Unbowed and Germany’s Left Party saw their vote share shrivel into the low single digits. And the pan-European efforts of European Spring—the transnational party led by the Democracy in Europe Movement, for which I serve as policy coordinator—failed to win a single seat.
One clear takeaway is not to overstate the generational tilt toward the left. In the United States, we tend to assume that young voters are attracted to outsiders because of their own sense of disenfranchisement in a post-2008 economy. But millennials, just like their parents, are liable to side with those who promise to safeguard their limited gains, rather than risk it all with a system-wide attack.
Another important takeaway is not to assume the compatibility of liberal social policy and redistributive economic policy. One of the hidden benefits of America’s two-party duopoly is that supporters of each of these policies must find a way to coexist inside the Democratic Party. Not so in Europe. The multiparty system allows young, urban, and educated voters to support a cosmopolitan politics without supporting a class-based one.
But the fault is also ours to own. Across Europe, the left remains deeply, tragically fragmented. In France, just to take one example, three different parties ran for the European Parliament on programs that were, for all electoral purposes, indistinguishable: the Socialists, the Communists, and Benoit Hamon’s Generations (which competed under the umbrella of European Spring).
There will always be a tension between unity and coherence, and rightly so. We are afraid of big tents because we know full well whom they might let inside. The European left will need to find a new balance between them: to search for creative solutions that bring together movements with enough shared values, and enough shared policies to allow it to speak with one clear loud voice.
Without it, we risk losing out on all the energy bubbling up from Europe’s activist youth—and languishing on the sidelines for a generation.