Last weekend Europe experienced its Tea Party moment. The elections for European Parliament resulted in a cataclysmic shake-up of the status quo with upstart populist parties on the Right and on the Left the big winners, taking up to one third of the seats in the 751-member Parliament. It is clear that voters are angry, that elites are frustrated, and that mistrust in the European project is growing. So, the result was a political earthquake—albeit one that was widely expected.
According to opinion polls, since the financial crisis of 2008 the majority of Europeans tend to believe their children will have it worse than they did, and many are convinced that their vote does not make a difference in how the EU is governed. Thus the hopes of the pro-Europeans, that the elections would signal the birth of a common European politics, have been dashed. The turnout was similar to previous elections: Neither the economic crisis, nor the populist challenge, nor the promise that the leading candidate of the biggest party will be the President of the European Commission, motivated people to vote.
The hope that Europe will be structured around the usual left-right axis has not materialized. The mainstream parties are in disarray, and while there was no clear swing to the left or to the right, there is a clear swing away from the center, with most of the leftist parties in Europe moving further left and the center-right parties moving further right. It is safe to predict that in the next year, EU policies will be tougher on immigrants and will evince little enthusiasm for further enlargement.
The rise of populist and euro-skeptic parties was expected. Discontent is high. Support for the anti-European parties is not confined to a particular social and educational group; large groups in society share a disappointment with the EU. But what was not expected was the absence of resistance. It is not the votes gained by the anti-European parties but rather the weak response of the mainstream parties that is the real threat to the European project. It is not troubling that some groups in our societies support a resurgent populism, but rather that the majority of Europeans are not worried enough about it to vote against it.
And paradoxically, it may be the very existence of the EU that makes many people underestimate the danger of the populists. In the same way that the collapse of the Habsburg Empire looked unthinkable in the beginning of the last century, many Europeans today tend to view the EU as problematic yet without alternative. As a result nobody really runs to defend it, even as potentially darker forces rise up to challenge it.
The outcome of the elections increased the likelihood that the UK will end up out of the Union, that France will end up out of the business of co-leading Europe, and that Germany will remain lonely and confused in the driver’s seat. The 2014 European elections did not signal the end of the EU, but they signal the end of elites’ monopoly over the future of the Union. It is probably the first major European crisis that will result not in more Europe but in less Europe and more Europes (plural).
A week after the elections, the crisis of the Union looks serious but not desperate in Berlin, and desperate but not serious in most other parts of the Union. Germany is, of course, an exception, with its stable political system and a growing economy. The outcome of the elections strengthened Germany’s hand considerably. A Brussels rule states that a country’s influence in the EU Parliament is proportional to how many MEPs it has in the two major political families: the socialists and the conservatives. German MEPs will constitute almost one fourth of the members of the two major political groupings. And the fact that Germany is governed by a grand coalition at the moment makes it easier for German socialists and conservatives to cooperate in Europe.
Marine Le Pen’s victory in Paris did to France what the economic crisis did to Italy and Spain: deprived it at least temporarily of its influence and respectability. It will be very difficult for the French mainstream parties to be taken seriously in Brussels after this showing. It is now the National Front that dominates French debate on Europe.
The election results also strengthened the perception that the UK is on a course away from the EU. It wasn’t so much the resounding victory of the openly anti-European UKIP that signaled this, but rather the humiliating defeat of the vocally pro-European Liberal Democrats, who ended up in sixth place with only one seat in Parliament, even fewer than the UK’s Green Party. The UK now seems poised to succeed either in reversing the further integration of the Union or even in leaving the Union altogether.
So is there a chance for Europe? Yes, there is. Although anti-EU parties staged their strongest showing ever, they still control only a third of the seats in Parliament and are not likely to form a cohesive block among themselves. Furthermore, the decline of support for Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Beppe Grillo in Italy demonstrates that when populist parties hit center stage, they tend to lose support. Finally and most importantly, populists have as of yet failed to come up with an alternative to the EU. Voters appear to value them as messengers of protest but they doubt them as a bearers of a vision for the future. The protest vote at the moment acts as an agent of disruption rather than as an agent of change. There is an anti-EU moment in Europe but there is no organized anti-EU movement.
In reflecting on the latest crisis in the EU’s self-perception provoked by the election results, it is fascinating to observe how our perception of the events is influenced by the historical anniversaries we are celebrating at this particular moment. It is almost impossible to understand the atmosphere and energy of the 1989 revolutions if we forget that the fall of the Berlin Wall happened at the same moment we celebrated the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. It is also impossible to understand Europe’s anxieties provoked by the Ukrainian crisis and the results of the European elections if we forget that politicians are currently reading about how Europe committed a collective suicide a century ago.
So, yes, the European elections sent an alarming message. But I believe we can expect that European leaders will manage to at least successfully fight back the panic—even if they are not yet able to fix the Union’s underlying problems.