Elections for the European parliament, regardless of the results, are always a celebration of the EU project. Blue flags with the 12 golden stars are omnipresent when a “European electorate” casts its vote in what is considered the largest election in the world outside India. But the most recent elections are important for a different reason: They are part of a longer trend that is pushing Europe toward global irrelevance.
Two election results in particular are striking, not because of their novelty but because they demonstrate the resilience of certain political forces that are leading to Europe’s withdrawal from the global chessboard.
First, the rise of the “greens” in Europe. While not a new political force, the “green” movement is no longer an afterthought. In Germany it is now the second-largest party, replacing the Social Democrats. These results reflect a continent-wide drift toward environmental concerns instead of “social justice.” Essentially, they show the greening of the Left; the social justice warriors are now climate change worriers.
It is possible that this is just a momentary uptick in the political importance of the greens, driven by fashionable protests to save the planet. Over the past few months, for instance, teenagers across Europe happily joined a movement that invited them to skip school on Fridays to advocate for drastic policies to change the climate and save the planet. Of course, it remains to be seen whether truancy or the planet was the real motivation for these actions. But, in the end, the electoral gains of the “greens” mean that European states will come under pressure to impose even higher costs on the economies by phasing out coal and reducing emissions.
Beyond the added burden this will place on already weak economies, the increased heft of the “green” political bloc will also increase Europe’s (and especially some states’) dependency on Russian gas. Various environmental think tanks, for example, have called for the elimination of coal in ten years in order to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement. Germany plans to dramatically decrease its reliance on coal in the coming years, and the decline of the Social Democrats (SPD) at the hands of the Greens will reinvigorate the pursuit of this goal. The outcome is that Germany, having already abandoned nuclear energy, will increase its dependence on Russian gas, pushing it toward a posture that is even more pro-Moscow. The rise of the “greens” in Europe, and in Germany in particular, is a huge victory for Russia.
Other countries in Europe, notably Poland, will likely resist abandoning coal for domestic reasons but also because of security concerns. Such a policy will pit Poland as well as other Central European states from Slovenia to Bulgaria against EU authorities, creating another line of fracture in Europe. The choice is to be coal-free but Russia-dependent, or to be anti-“green” but strategically independent.
A “greener” EU will weaken Europe. As Europe cuts its emissions, hostile powers are making it more dependent. Moreover, while European societies are enthralled by the environmentally friendly truancy of their teenagers, Russia is arming, Iran is belligerent, and China is buying its way into the Continent. The“greens” claim they are concerned with global challenges, but in effect they are turning Europe into the weakest link in a rapidly accelerating great power competition.
If the European Union continues on this path, it will slide into geopolitical irrelevance while being at the forefront of a nonexistent global fight to solve global challenges.
The second result of the EU elections is also not new, but striking all the same: Although these elections are ostensibly “European,” they are really national contests about national concerns. They are exercises in national introspection, particular to each state. In the past, elections for the European parliament were an easy, cost-free way for voters to express their distaste for particular national parties. To the extent that they paid any attention to them at all, voters thought of these elections as low-impact opportunities to vent. Thus the fact that there was surprisingly high participation this year (more than 50 percent) does not imply the rise of a European demos. The project to build such a demos by creating a common market and a common currency, and by criticizing those who express deep attachment to their own country (as the outgoing President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, did in a moment of great sincerity), is not succeeding. On the contrary, it has generated an increasingly assertive opposition. Brexit is the clearest and most powerful expression of this reaction against the attempt to impose uniformity on the Continent. But there are other signs, from Italy to France, indicating that there are sizable portions of national electorates that are critical of what the European Union has become.
About two decades ago it was possible to win elections by simply advocating for “Europe.” The European project was the great aspiration, and most political parties espoused greater European integration (and accompanying centralization of power). The European Union’s navel-gazing was grounded in a revisionist history that presented this political project-in-progress as the solution to wars and as the victor of Europe’s 20th-century conflicts. To confirm these views, the 2012 Nobel Prize was awarded to the European Union as the player that transformed Europe “from a continent of war to a continent of peace.” So much for the boys of Pointe du Hoc.
These days saying that “Europe is the answer” to every possible problem—from war to poverty—is no longer an automatic ticket to victory. The electorates are seeking answers to problems that are particular to their nations, whether migration or economic woes or environmental concerns. And more often than not, the answer is not “Europe,” which has demonstrated that it cannot stabilize North Africa and the Middle East, cannot address youth unemployment in southern Europe, and cannot secure its eastern frontier. Those domestic problems cannot be outsourced to the European Union and thus are forcing national politicians to turn their gaze inward. There are benefits to such a dynamic, of course, insofar as electorates are holding their own politicians accountable. But it also suggests that European nations are shrinking their horizons and curtailing their ambitions. The world, with all its revisionist powers and other bad actors, will have to wait.
The EU elections, then, did little to arrest Europe’s long slide toward geopolitical impotence. Each European nation will have to make its own calculation as to how to adapt to this reality: by ignoring it, accepting it, or by seeking its own strategic independence through a different configuration of alliances.