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A Night of Firsts: A Few Insights Into the European Elections

Picture by Sciences Po

— This post was originally written on the 27th of May, 2019 —

I spent election night at Sciences Po for a soirée électorale européenne  that lasted five hours, listening to a live analysis of the first results by researchers and students across Europe. This is the gist of what has been discussed broadly and my two cents on the matter.

First of all, this was a night of firsts.

For first time that the two main European historic parties will have less than 50% of the seats in the European Parliament. So, for the first time, we will have another majority, which is a significant change. It is also for the first time that we meet the European elections while a Member State is in the process of leaving the Union.

Since 1979, turnout has been falling steadily. For the first time since, it went back up with an increase in voter turnout in virtually every country, with a few significant exceptions like Portugal and Slovakia. This proves that people understand what’s at stake and, most importantly, it gives legitimacy to the European Parliament.

There is a possible majority between the European People’s Party (EPP), the Party of European Socialists (PES) and Liberals and Democrats (ALDE). However, it will be complicated without the European Greens, which are the real political winners of the #EUElections2019 since their significant rise, at expense of centre-left parties, was unexpected. In Germany, Die Grünen came in second after the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), pushing the Social Democrats (SPD) into third place. In France, as well, Greens managed to double their share of votes from the previous European elections in 2014. Liberals and Greens will be kingmakers in this election as leaders start horse-trading for the EU’s top jobs. While EPP is again the leading party in the European Parliament, it’s not at all sure that their Spitzenkandidat, Manfred Weber, is going to be the next Commission president.

We are in a period when socio-political and economic cleavages are mutating. In many European countries, sovereignty has become an important dividing line. The environment is another fracture line. The issue of the carbon tax, for example, was the original push for the Gilets Jaunes movement in France as it added to the already quite high fiscal pressure on the lower and middle classes. What is also quite striking is the rise of a “Europe of Causes”. Traditional parties are losing ground against parties with less structured ideologies, but which embody cultural identities like the environmentalists, the populists, the progressives, pro-European, anti-European, etc.

It is also for the first time that the European elections become a place for genuine political struggle. The Left-Right divide has been partially superseded by the Eurosceptic-Europhile cleavage. In many countries, national struggles have been transposed at the European level. This is especially true in Romania where the struggle between the opposition and the ruling Partidul Social Democrat (PSD) has led to a record turnout tonight and high hopes for political change at the national level. In Greece, as well, the defeat of Syriza in the European and local elections forced the government to call for snap elections. In the UK, the two party system is showing signs of cracking up as the Brexit Party and Lib Dems take the stage in the European elections.

Overall, eurosceptic and populist forces have been largely contained, although they have made some significant gains. This is important since it is also for the first time that Europe is so vulnerable and its foundation so shaky. Amidst the fall of the post-war world order, Europe struggles to find its place between the US, China, and Russia. Rapid technological and social change keeps it on its toes. Nonetheless, countries like France, Italy, Poland, and Belgium show us that the eurosceptic populist wave is still riding high. In France, while europhile forces have come on top, the result of the Rassemblement National over Macron’s En Marche provides for a symbolic defeat of the country’s leading europhile force by its leading eurosceptics.

The Eurozone is also in an uncertain position after reform proposals failed to materialize into an actual substantive improvement of its economic structure. Cracks are beginning to show in the European construction as countries grow wearier of each other. Countries with common interests are grouping together – like the New Hansa and the Visegrad Group – in order to tilt the balance of power in the EU as the German-French tandem is growing weaker. It’s becoming clearer that we are increasingly being left without a choice: further integration or risk falling apart. Nonetheless, Europe seems to be strongest when it is under attack and the election night showed us what happens when so much is at stake.

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