The European dream, rising from the ashes of World War II, was intended to develop a liberal welfare state, where citizens would enjoy human rights and fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the all powerful European Court of Justice. This in turn would keep under check those dark forces which had led to a continent perpetually at war, ‘Hundred Years’ of war in medieval times, the Grand Alliances leading to World War I and the rise of fascism and ultra nationalism preceding World War II.
It was envisaged that the European dream, as symbolised by the EU, was to be led by France and Germany. It was not by error that French President Emmanuel Macron after his amazing victory in France in May 2017 addressed his supporters with the anthem of the EU at the back. It was Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” rather than the Marseillaise which depicted Macron’s victory as one for European unity.
Brexit changed everything including the public mood. The complex and overstretched negotiations over Brexit resulted in the UK becoming an unwilling participant in the elections to the European Parliament in May 2019. This was never envisaged by EU leaders who were fully aware that the toxic polarity of a pre-Brexit Britain led by the leader of the Brexit Party Nigel Farage, would transform and empoison the agenda on which the elections were being contested. Populism and populist parties would now dominate the debate, rather than the centrist alternative symbolised by Merkel and Macron. The Franco-German leadership which had led the EU through the intricacies of the Cold War was under strain as never before.
Brexit, in the ultimate analysis, represents the rejection of globalisation and the natural opposition of the English to a bigger outside power, in this instance, the European Union and the Commission. The delayed departure of Britain from the EU strengthened arguments of European populist parties who rejected controls from an over centralised Brussels bureaucracy.
The results of the European Parliament election has been aptly summarised by visionary educationist Terry E. Givens: “The vote starkly demonstrates… the splintering and polarization of the electoral base across Europe… It also indicates a new, if disruptive, re-engagement by citizens in politics.”
High turnout in any democratic election usually conveys a strong message to the ‘status-quo’ politicians in power that it cannot be business as usual. This was certainly the case in this election. For the UK, apart from the expected success of the new Brexit party which won the most seats with about 30% of the votes, Liberal Democrats were able to win 20%. Labour at 14% was barely ahead of the Green Party at 12%. Of greater concern for Teresa May and her successor was the drubbing of the Tories who were able to attract only 9% of the vote.
Across Europe, apart from the relatively good performance of the radical Right parties, of particular interest was the outstanding performance of the Greens, symbolising Europe’s increasing preoccupation with climate change issues. There is, however, some hope for Euro-centric parties. The Euro sceptics did not do as well as expected, despite the barrage of anti-EU rhetoric by the Brexiteers. In France, Macron’s Renaissance Group at 22% of the vote narrowly lost to Marine Le Pen’s National Rally which won 23% of the vote. In Germany, the extreme Right party the AFD (Alternative for Germany) won 11% of the vote, even though AFD had obtained nearly 13% of the vote in the 2017 Bundestag election. In Austria, the Freedom Party was only able to win 17% of the vote after a major scandal leading to the resignation of the Chancellor and the collapse of the coalition government. Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said he would call a snap election after the poor performance of his party.
Orban, Hungary’s far-right nationalist Prime Minister scored a huge win after his Fidesz party received 52.33% of the country’s votes. In Italy, the right-wing Lega Party, led by Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, took 34.33% of the vote. Salvini, a proclaimed Eurosceptic, has threatened that he will try to form an anti-EU bloc with Marine Le Pen and Hungary’s Viktor Orban. This seems highly unlikely.
These results impact the future of the EU, given the key role of the European Parliament. The traditional centrist parties which had dominated European politics since the creation of the EU are steadily losing ground. This does not bode well for the liberal democratic values at the centre of the European dream. Fortunately, the liberal-centrist grouping of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE&R), which includes Macron’s party picked up 32 seats. This alliance will now play an important role in nominating officials for key EU positions and ensuring that these high officials are not populists. The key figure would be the President of the European Parliament. Another new player expected to be a moderate influence is the Green Party alliance. Its excellent performance in Northern Europe should serve as a counter to populist propaganda by parties in Eastern Europe.
There are many who argue that European Parliament elections are merely a test run for national elections scheduled for later in 2019. There is relief that explicitly anti-EU forces across Europe did not win, as was feared, one-third of the seats which would have enabled them to elect populists as leaders in the new Parliament.
Those who predict that Europe is in decline ignore the checks and balances built into the Lisbon Treaty, which ensures that despite every challenge, including from populists, European values remain intact. There is also an intellectual and political synergy between Europe’s Eastern and Western flanks which manifests itself in political churning. There exists a fundamental conflict between the EU’s western flank which remains overwhelmingly liberal and progressive versus Eastern Europe which is rejecting modernity, liberal values and challenging the principles enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty. It is a conflict between two versions of European vision for the future. The debate in the Western EU is about the sovereignty of the individual. In Eastern Europe, it is about the sovereignty of the nation. Given the growing gap between Eastern and Western Europe, both ideologically and economically, the debate is becoming increasingly toxic.
The greatest critics of the EU are based in the U.S. Many are unable to comprehend the principle of shared sovereignty or ceded competencies, fundamental to the working of the Union. One cannot agree with those who have outlined apocalyptic visions for its future. Niall Ferguson (2015), a prominent history professor at Harvard University, has compared the EU’s current position to the decline of the Roman Empire, arguing that ‘it has let its defences crumble’. Brendan Simms and Timothy Less (2015) have drawn parallels with the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the former USSR, noting that these were unsuccessful attempts to create super national entities.
Many within the EU argue that the need of the hour is a decentralized alternative. Some like Jochen Bittner (political editor for prominent German newspaper Die Zeit) have argued that the European Parliament should be replaced by a European Senate, composed of members sent by their national parties, chosen during national election campaigns. This would enable a more people centric Parliament which would also keep populism in check.
There is no doubt that in the short run, populist ideology and populist leaders will try to move into the political space being vacated by centrist national parties. As a result, conservative parties would need to work more closely with liberal and social democratic parties. The Green parties would need to shift to left of centre to balance the extreme right. Much depends on the final outcome of the Brexit conundrum. Truly, to a bemused European public and to the world, Brexit has become a crucial factor for the future continuation of the European Union and the values that it represents to the world.
(The author was the longest serving director general in the MEA handling Europe, ambassador to The Netherlands and permanent representative to the OPCW. Views are personal)