IN THE UK, elections, like the feast of the Ascension, always happen on Thursdays. In continental Europe, people usually vote on Sundays. Going to church first may lead some to wiser choices in the polling booth. For many more, however, the “hand of God” in the European Union’s most recent contest remains mysterious (News, 31 May).
“Nationalist tide rises but fails to flood”, was how Politico Europe’s Chief Correspondent, Matthew Karnitschnig, summed up the European Parliament elections results. Other media outlets — ranging from The Wall Street Journal to Al Jazeera — described the new Brussels parliament as “fragmented”. This is both a matter for concern and complex.
Parties on the Continent which are members of the Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini’s European Alliance of Peoples and Nations (EAPN) doubled their seats in the European Parliament, principally at the expense of moderate Conservative affiliates of the European People’s Party (EPP). Green and Liberal parties also made comparable strides, however, at the expense of Socialist ones.
Especially notable gains were made by the far-right AfD (Alternative for Germany) in Germany, and Mr Salvini’s formally allied Lega in Italy. AfD’s vote-share rose by 50 per cent, compared with the 2014 European elections; Lega’s seat numbers multiplied almost sixfold from five to 28.
Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party (29 seats) is now the single largest party in the European Parliament. Last Saturday, Politico reported that constructive negotiations were taking place between Mr Farage, Mr Salvini, and Marine Le Pen, of the Front National. But it also reported difficulties in the talks, owing, ironically, to Brexit uncertainty.
The long-standing duopoly on parliamentary power held by the Christian Democrats (EPP) and Social Democrats (S+D) in the Parliament is broken. For the first time in decades, these parties fall short (by 49) of the magic 376 seats needed to command a majority.
This is the poorest performance of the two groupings for three and four decades respectively. To govern, they will have to practise greater political ecumenism. Thwarting the alt-Right means drawing the legislature’s moderately strengthened Liberals (ALDE) into an inevitably more complex and, therefore, less stable coalition.
AS TRINITY Sunday approaches, the desirability of a three-fold configuration in the European Parliament will preoccupy populists and Eurosceptics in Europe.
Until now, parties with similar alt-Right outlooks on migration, EU reform, and family life have been scattered across three blocks: the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD), and EAPN.
A merger of populist parties into one parliamentary group would bring the bargaining and procedural advantages consequent on holding third place in the European Parliament. Conversely, for some, brand differentiation is an important diplomatic consideration.
Poland’s ruling Law and Justice/PiS (the largest ECR member) shares values with Lega. The ability of PiS to forestall foreign pressure regarding democratic erosion in Poland stems, in part, from plausibly claiming to hold at bay competitor, more overtly extreme, radical-right parties such as Konfederacja. Such assertions risk ringing hollow if your party’s deputies sit alongside Ms Le Pen’s Front National MEPs in Brussels.
The new shape of the Right is still unclear, but the election results brought a sort of consequential moral reckoning to the centre-Right and centre-Left alike. The losses endured by mainstream Conservative and Socialist parties are closely linked to their inadequate responses to populism: a sort of electoral punishment for political “sin”.
Several EPP member parties, including Germany’s CSU and Spain’s People’s Party, have tried to outflank insurgent populists by offering modified echoes of alt-Right xenophobia in their own rhetoric and policy. In the European elections, those parties found that this strategy brought loss not gain: unconvinced radicals preferred the original to a copy; alienated moderate conservatives stayed home in protest.
Comparably, the halving of UK Labour’s seats (from 20 to ten), in reaction to Jeremy Corbyn’s perceived indulgence of Brexit populism and left-wing anti-Semitism, contributed appreciably to reducing the number of Socialist MEPs overall.
ELECTORAL results reflect the past but shape the future. Mr Salvini may gain leverage from his European Parliament results by withdrawing Lega’s junior-partner support from Italy’s governing coalition, led by the Five Star Movement — forcing fresh elections. A more confidently nationalist Italian government, at odds with Pope Francis and disruptive within European institutions, would probably ensue.
Further, the Budapest-based think tank Political Capital warns that advances by “pro-Putin far-Right and far-Left parties will amplify the Kremlin’s voice in the EP [European Parliament]”. Parties with this alignment will “continue voting along Russian interests . . . representing the sort of anti-sanctions and anti-Ukraine politics the Kremlin likes.”
The structure of democracy in Europe has not suffered the fate of Notre-Dame — but the foundations show worrying cracks.
The Revd Alexander Faludy is a freelance journalist and academic researcher. He lives in Budapest and Cambridge.