European Elections: Rejoice or Despair?

European Elections: Rejoice or Despair?

European Elections: Rejoice or Despair?

Victories on the far right and the green left mean we need a radical new vision for the future.


Watching the EU parliamentary elections from across the Atlantic, it was difficult for me to know whether to rejoice or despair. On one hand, the elections saw the highest voter turnout in decades, with the firmest support for environmentalists. At the same time, while far-right parties and demagogues are no longer ascendant, the results shown just how much they have cemented themselves into the political landscape.

The Greens won double-digit scores across Europe’s biggest countries, including 20 percent in Germany, 15 percent in Ireland, and 13.4 percent in France, with a unexpected successes in Denmark and Austria. Key European politicians are interpreting the results as a vote for EU’s long-term climate strategy: a “Clean Planet for All.” Secretary General Martin Selmayr stated that he expects the Green wave to have a strong impact on the program of the next Commission president.

All this occurred against a backdrop of growing environmental agendas across the Union, and 77 percent of potential voters across 11 European countries (Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, and Spain) identifying global warming as an important criterion when deciding who to vote for in the May European elections.

What’s even more significant is that exit polls suggest that the environmental agenda was carried by the youth vote. In France, 40 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 35 cast their votes: markedly more than the 26 percent who did so in 2014 for the same elections. Among them, 28 percent voted for the environmental party. Similar results were observed in Germany, with 34 percent of voters 18–24 and 27 percent of those 25–34 voted for the German environmental party “Die Grüne.”

It’s wholly unsurprising that those invested in the possibility of any future are those who are most likely to actually experience it. Whatever the shape of things to come, it it will likely be molded by engaged citizens who understand that societies cannot exist if the economy does not transition rapidly to a low-carbon, fossil-fuel free system.

That said, the Green wave did not exactly engulf Europe. Far-right parties scored high in Italy, the UK, and Hungary, as well as in France where the rebranded National Front (now named “National Rally”) continued its march towards mainstream acceptability with close to a quarter of the vote. Most notably, Italy bucked a number of European trends, with no green or liberal surges. Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini’s Party “Lega”—a Eurosceptic, right-wing, anti-immigrant and climate -skeptic party—gained 34 percent of the vote, and will likely ally with the French National Rally in the Parliament.

This rise is overall considered to have been contained: that is, not to be as bad we feared and expected. The presence of these parties won’t be much stronger than in the previous Parliament, and pro-European parties have maintained their majority, albeit a declining one. But that doesn’t mean the far right has disappeared, and it is likely to continue undermining progress for years to come. Given the dichotomy between these two outcomes, it’s impossible not to wonder: If these two facts are responses to the same reality, how come they appear to be so contradictory? As a trained philosopher with an unrelenting faith that there is more that unites than divides us, the contradictory results of the election have made me consider a dialectic resolution.

The Green parties in Europe all have different histories and local contexts, but operate thanks to increasing pressure from citizens—from school strikers who cannot yet vote to grassroots activists such as Extinction Rebellion. Their joint Green program for Europe focuses on key pillars of the energy transition: financing the transition, energy policy, reforming agriculture, transforming mobility, biodiversity. It’s not perfect, and since their inception, national parties have ranked differently in how progressive and effective their policy proposals would be if implemented.

What is new—and possibly the cause of their success on May 26—is that they also offer strong positions on migration, equality, health, and jobs. The vision that emerges from these parties is of a genuinely transformed future, where because energy is renewable, geopolitics no longer hangs on the trade of fossil fuels; where the air is clean and hundreds of thousands of deaths are avoided as a result; where water is safe and accessible; where transportation and hence freedom of movement does not come at the cost of public health; and where investments are made in training and education so that each citizen has a chance of thriving in the new economy. It’s also one where the people are heard and democratic power protected.

I can’t claim to know what might motivate a voter to support racism, xenophobia, protectionism, inequality, the exploitation of natural resources to the point of threatening public health and of increasing the rate of extreme weather events, and the denial of science. But I can surmise, from reading years of analysis and commentary, that feelings of disenfranchisement, of an economy that doesn’t work for citizens, of the rapid integration of new peoples and cultures—in short, of powerlessness in the face of a radically transforming world—just might have something to do with it. The far right knows this: in a speech after the results came in, Marine Le Pen said she saw a “victory of the people…who took back power.”

What kind of power does the far right promise? Since it has been in the EU Parliament, the right has achieved nothing of note, and when it has, achieved anything, it has been by rejecting measures designed to protect citizens or to advance the prosperity of the Union. It has rejected free trade with Canada,; it has rejected investigating human rights violations in Hungary; it has rejected restrictions on pesticides in agriculture; it has rejected anti-terrorism measures such as stronger border security; and it has rejected solutions to favor better integration for refugees. It has abstained on measures to provide better protection for victims of sexual harassment and discrimination. In some cases, such as electric fishing or copyright law, it has gone with the EU majority.

It is unclear from this picture what kind of future their voters were expecting. Or perhaps a far-right future is one full of contradictions and without history, where a son of immigrants can win on an anti-immigration ticket. But it is clear that nothing short of a radical transformation will do; this is how I reconcile the success of two very different parties in the latest EU elections.

But if the problem is that people’s voices aren’t being heard, and that everyone’s welfare isn’t being protected, there’s only one good solution, and it’s not coming from the far right. Climate action is an environmental issue, but not exclusively so: It also offers a political vision of the future that responds to the circumstances unfolding around us.

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