With final votes being counted, and results all but clear, the European elections are now behind us. Here’s five key things we learned:
1. More people are voting.
Prior to tonight, participation in E.U elections had been falling steadily since the first European vote in 1979. Not this time. Turnout in 2019 jumped above 50.5% — the highest figure since 1989 — as voters across Europe ran to the polls to voice their frustrations and hopes in large numbers. In some places, like Poland, turnout almost doubled (45%) in comparison to 2014 (24%). It is tempting to view higher participation as a positive thing. And it largely is. But does that mean more voters care about ‘Europe’? Not necessarily, as most campaigns focused heavily on strictly national issues: In Austria, the campaign centered around a corruption scandal involving the far-right. In France, Marine Le Pen warned voters that a Macron victory would result in ‘revenge’ against the Yellow vests. In Poland, the vote essentially became a final rehearsal before hugely significant parliamentary elections in the fall.
2. Mainstream parties are losing, but not everywhere.
In place likes Germany, France and Britain, electoral preferences are shifting away from the center — which by definition favors the extremes, new parties and single-issue movements. Germany’s two governing parties — Merkel’s CDU and the Social Democrats — recorded their worst nationwide results since World War II. In France, the decline of the center-right Les Republicains and the center-left Parti Socialiste continued, with dismal showings of 8.5% and 6.2% respectively.
But mainstream parties didn’t perform poorly everywhere. The center-left won in The Netherlands, Sweden and Spain while right-wing mainstream parties won in Poland and Hungary for instance. Whether Law and Justice and Fidesz would be considered mainstream in Western Europe is of course another story, but they certainly are established electoral forces in their respective countries, highlighting another key divide in European politics: East vs. West.
The grand, decades-old majority coalition in the European Parliament between the mainstream European People’s Party (EPP) and Socialists and Democrats (S&D) appears to be dead. The maths no longer adds up to a parliamentary majority. And although these two groups will remain the largest parties in the EU parliament, at least one will have to reach out to newly successful pro-EU and reformist movements — namely The Liberal Democrats (ALDE) supported by Macron’s En Marche, and The Greens — to form a governing coalition. These parties will also likely have a say in picking the next EU commission president. This could be good news for the European idealists hoping for a new, reformed and more integrated Europe.
3. Populist, anti-EU parties gain, but fall short of expectations.
Shortly after the election results reached Rome, Matteo Salvini — leader of the nationalist and Eurosceptic party Lega — proclaimed that “Europe is changing”. His party won the national vote with 34.3%, comfortably ahead of the centre-left Democrats (22.7%). The AfD in Germany improved on its 2014 result by nearly 4 percentage points. Electoral wins. But despite these triumphs Eurosceptic anti-immigrant parties will have reason to be slightly disappointed. Though she beat Macron’s En Marche by a slight margin, Le Pen’s party actually failed to improve the 2014 result while the far-right performed poorly in The Netherlands, Denmark and Spain.
Meanwhile, Salvini’s dream of his transnational Eurosceptic alliance becoming the largest bloc in the European parliament has fallen well short. His coalition with the Austrian, German and French far-right is currently projected to only take 71/751 seats in the chamber. It remains unclear whether Orban will join them, but either way the numbers don’t look promising in terms of real legislative influence.
But caution. A relatively disappointing result for the eurosceptic far-right doesn’t mean they haven’t already profoundly shaped European politics. On the contrary, they have successfully shifted the political debate — and in some cases policy — to the right, propelling the issue of immigration into the mainstream. Denmark’s center left party has for instance adopted one of the strictest immigration policies in Europe. Not to mention the strong anti-EU and anti-immigrant tone arriving from Warsaw and Budapest and reverberating around Europe.
4. The Greens’ success— A win for the environment.
Some are calling it the “green wave”. Propelled by young and urban voters, Green parties recorded strong showings in Germany, France, Sweden, Austria, Denmark and The Netherlands. They are on course to become the fifth largest group in the European parliament with 67 seats, a net gain of 15. Most Green gains, however, derived from Germany where they came second with 20.5% — an almost 10% improvement relative to European elections 5 years ago.
This year’s large-scale student protests inspired by youth activism against climate changer coupled with The Greens’ strong results in this election suggests that more people, and more voters, are concerned with environmental issues. This has to be a good thing. It also means that the traditional left-right divide is eroding as voters are becoming more complex, often changing preferences and voting for single-issues like the environment and immigration rather than traditional parties.
With the European mainstream in parliament in need of allies, the Greens could play a key role in coalition building and will most certainly demand legislative influence in return. Green members of the EU parliament have already announced their plans to scrutinize the 200 billion euro agricultural budget, claiming it favors large-scale agriculture over eco-friendly farming. Their presence also serves as a counterweight to far-right and liberal (ALDE). gains. The overall effect may be a more competitive and pluralistic European parliament, but certainly a more environmentally-friendly one.
5. Britain still divided over Brexit.
We all know Theresa May failed to deliver Brexit. We all know she announced her resignation over the weekend, effective June the 7th. But amidst this huge mess, no one knows what sort of Brexit the new Conservative leadership will push for. No one knows what Labour’s true position is, and consequently no one knows where Brexit is really headed. Yes, the results do appear to show a preference for ‘hard-brexit’ or ‘no-deal’, with Nigel Farage’s party winning comfortably with 31.7% and the mainstream Labour and Conservative parties polling disastrously at 14.7% and 8.1% respectively. But that doesn’t mean ‘remain’ voters have vanished. It simply means that a large chunk of ‘remain’ voters abandoned the mainstream and flocked to the Lib Dems and The Greens, as a result of the Conservatives’ failures and Labour’s unwillingness to endorse a clear alternative like a second referendum. The chaos of Brexit also seems to have shifted the tone of eurosceptic parties across Europe who no longer argue to leave, but to reform. Nevertheless, with the Brexit deadline postponed till October 31st, expect passionate Farage rants for at least a few more months.