By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
A shorter version appeared at The Jerusalem Post
With the European elections results coming in overnight there are some surprises, but many predictable outcomes. The elections have ramifications for Europe’s position in the world because the more Europe is unstable and fractured by infighting the less it will play a role in world affairs. In addition the more extreme parties in Europe will fuel the continued cycle of the instability, likely exacerbating the inability of the continent to act as a whole on policies, leaving such issues as immigration and security in the hands of states that have deepening societal divisions.
Overall Europe is neatly divided between more left leaning and right leaning parties. A look at the EU election map actually shows that, despite different headlines about the “rise” of the far-right. But inside the two major wings there are many changes, such as the rise of the Greens on the left and the rise, here and there, of populists on the right. Overall the elections are a reflection of Europe’s struggle for its identity after the Cold War. The weakening of the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats is a loss of consensus as new generations come of age. Some are searching for populism, others for far-left answers. They don’t trust the “elites” on both sides. That is why coalitions can emerge as has happened in Italy.
But overall the centrists can outplay these extremists by working together because the centrists usually have just over fifty percent of the vote. Usually the populists, nationalists and far-right may have between 10 and 30 percent, but the Greens and far left also have around 5-20 percent. The center still holds. But for how long. These older politicians like Juncker cannot lead Europe this century much more. They have no answer to immigration and other issues. The rise of Flemish nationalists and Catalan separatists may be mocked in Brussels or Geneva, but as Farage said in 2016, “look whose laughing now.” His odyssey shows how even when you “win” by passing something like Brexit through a referendum, the realities of the bureaucracy and European states and norms, make it had to achieve results. The populists like Wilders, whose party failed to win a seat, don’t really have much of a plan. They are protesters, and they may point out legitimate problems, but they don’t usually govern, and if they had a chance to govern they likely wouldn’t have answers either. The Catalan separatists, for instance, voted to leave, but then it was they who left, they didn’t want to actually fight for independence. And this is the problem. Because the protest vote is still bourgeoise in many ways. And no one really is will to discuss real changes. So the top ossifies, the Merkels and Mays and others. And Salvini in Italy may say that Europe is changing. But is it?
The problem Europe faces is that its past parties have largely failed. This happened before between 1980 and 1920 with the role of such politicians as Giovanni Giolitti in Italy or Stanley Baldwin in the UK. It took decades to erode this consensus. While the ossifying older “elite” parties are out of touch, the new parties also have not proved that they can deliver. A third wave may eventually emerge. So far the Greens or Liberals that here and there do well are still down around 10 percent or so. Because they too lack the ability to create what Orban has in Hungary, which is real dominance and consensus.
Here is a quick glance at what we know so far on Monday.
Nigel Farage and his Brexit Party remakes map of UK politics
The pro-Brexit leader Nigel Farage, who appeared to leave politics after the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016, led a new party to a surprising thirty percent of the votes in the UK European elections. These elections weren’t supposed to even happen because the UK was already supposed to have left the EU. His message was that his party wants to take responsibility for leaving the EU and that if the ruling Conservatives don’t act then they will be crushed at the next polls.
The Conservatives already were humiliated in the EU elections in the UK, receiving less than ten percent. The Liberal Democrats performed well with almost 20 percent of the vote while Labour slipped to 14 percent and the Greens grabbed 11 percent. It’s clear that a coalition of Labour, the Greens and Liberal-Democrats, with the Scottish Nationalists, likely could run the UK after the next general election. For now it is the EU that will be getting Farage back.
Germany goes Green
In Germany the centrist and historically dominant Christian Democrats and Social Democrats lost votes to the Green Party. The Greens took twenty percent of the vote while the right wing AfD took ten percent. For Germany any notion that right wing parties might do well always conjurs up comparisons to the past. But the reality is that there is no massive swing to the far-right in Germany, yet. Instead the major parties are simply being weakened. The smaller leftist Die Linke party, for instance, took five percent of the vote. Liberals took another five percent.
Le Pen wins, again, in France
Marine Le Pen’s National Rally defeated President Emmanuel Macron’s party by a whopping 23.3 percent to 22.4 percent. This is supposed to make us all gasp that Lep Pen has “won,” but she hasn’t really won anything. Macron has been beset by massive protests by the “yellow vests” and French politics is fickle. They tend to dislike their presidents. The Le Pen phenomenon has continued for twenty years in France. In 2002 Jean-Marie Le Pen received 17% in the presidential election. Marine Le Pen got 33 percent of the vote in 2017. So her 23 percent isn’t a win, it’s a loss for her party. It just looks good in comparison to Macron’s failure. The real winners, in a sense, in France were the Greens with 13 percent of the vote, an increase from last time. See a pattern here with the Greens doing better in Germany and the UK?
Italy’s one third
A third of Italians voted for the Lega, Matteo Salvini’s party that is popular in the north of the country. Another 23 percent voted for the social democrats while only sixteen percent choose the Five Star Movement, a new party that had got around a third of the vote in the 2018 elections. It appears that Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia got seven percent of the vote. One supposes that means former Italian leader Mr. Berlusconi is back in politics, something he has been trying to achieve for the last few years. The end result in Italy is that although the right wing is doing well, they are still divided and kept at a third of the votes.
Sweden’s moderate politics
Not so long ago Sweden thought that it might be swept up in populist politics with the rise of the Sweden Democrats. The wave appears to be cresting as they now have fifteen percent of the vote, a continual rise from 2018 when they had 13 percent in national elections. But the rest of Sweden’s politics is predictable. The Moderate party got 16 percent and the center-left took 23 percent. The Greens now have 11 percent.
Flemish Nationalism rises in Belgium
The new Flemish Alliance, which had 20 percent in the 2014 vote got only 13 percent in the EU elections, but its more far-right Vlaams Belang got 11 percent. On the left the socialists took ten percent, the French speaking Greens seven percent and the Flemish speaking Greens another seven percent. Flemish socialists also got six percent. All in all the politics in Belgium is so divided that it’s hard to make any real conclusions, besides the obvious fact that the Flemish right is rising. Previously the the Vlaams Belang had only around three percent of the vote. But a previous incarnation of the far-right, the Vlams Blok, once got 12 percent of the vote in 1994 and 15% in 1999. So the new far-right Flemish speakers have merely gone back to what they used to have.
Puigdemont gets a seat in Spain
The Catalan separatist Carles Puigdemont secured a seat in Spain while another group supporting local regions, Ahora Republicas, got five percent of the votes. Its leader Oriol Junqueras has been in imprisoned on charges of “rebellion.” The populist Vox party got six percent of the vote in Spain. Overall Spain’s politics are largely dominated by the normal parties with the socialists getting 32 percent and the center-right People’s Party getting 20 percent. Another center-right Citizens party got 12 percent.
Viktor Orban continued his dominance of Hungarian politics, taking more than 50 percent of the vote in the EU elections there. He has been the leader of the Fidesz party for years and a dominant figure since the late 1990s. It is the only European country where a party got over fifty percent of the vote.
Poland goes for two big parties
Poland looks the way western European countries used to look in its voting pattern for two large parties. 43% chose a right wing conservative party called Law and Justice, while 38 percent chose the European Coalition. In general Poland’s politics have not fractured like many other countries in Europe.
Austria’s Greens and Freedom Party
Austrian politics also looks relatively normal in the EU election, with the People’s Party taking 34 percent and the Social Democrats taking 23%. The Freedom Party, with is more right wing, has 17% and the Greens 14 percent. This looks like the 2017 Austrian legislative elections in which the Freedom Party got 20% and the Greens got 12%. Basically there is no news from Vienna.
Romania’s socialists lose out
In Romania the center-right National Liberal Party got 27 percent of the vote while the Social Democrats got only 24 percent. A centrist party called USR-PLUS got another 18 percent. The Social Democrats had 45 percent of the vote as recently as 2016. They now have been handed a major defeat. Romania matters to the Eu because it has 32 seats in the 751 parliament, making it one of the larger members in the 28 member block. Germany, Italy, France and the UK are the largest, followed by France and Poland.
Ireland also goes Green
Ireland largely voted for the parties one would expect, Fine Gail got 29 percent and Fianna Fail got fifteen percent. This represented a defeat for Fianna Fail while the Green Party grabbed 15 percent, much more than in the 2016 elections in Ireland. Sinn Fein got 13 percent, which is exactly what it got in 2016. No big surprises here, except for the Greens.
Netherlands says goodbye to populism
The Party for Freedom (PVV) once had sixteen percent and thirteen percent in EU elections in 2009 and 2014. But it slipped to a dismal failure in the 2019 elections, illustrating the far-right nationalism may not be on the march. It came in second with 13 percent of the vote in the 2017 general elections in Holland. But the Dutch decided on more traditional politics this election, sending Labour to the EU with 19 percent of the vote and the People’s Party with 14 percent. The Greens got ten percent of the vote. The surprising failure of the populists and nationalists in Netherlands may point to a turning point in that country and others. After almost two decades, since the days of the Pim Fortuyn List, politics in the low country seem a bit more traditional.