The rising populist and nationalist parties fell well short of overturning the political order in Brussels even though they, along with the Green parties riding the wave of worry about climate change, made gains in the European Union parliamentary elections.
Sunday night’s exit polls in the EU’s biggest countries suggest that the largely Euroskeptic populist parties, which are bent on reversing the integration project, will be able to declare only a partial victory when the overall results are tallied. While there is little doubt those parties, some of them on the anti-migrant hard right, will have a louder voice in the more fragmented new parliament, their power will be insufficient to block EU legislation.
They helped deprive the traditional centre-right (Christian Democrat) and centre-left (socialist) groups of their combined majority for the first time in the parliament’s 40-year history. But most voters still embraced pro-EU parties, with the pro-business liberal democratic groups and the Greens making solid gains amid higher-than-usual voter turnouts.
Propelled by young voters, the Greens emerged as the second-largest party in Germany, more than doubling their tally in the 2014 EU election as they filled the vacuum left by the free fall of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the junior partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition.
Still, populist, Euroskeptic parties, inspired by disrupters such as U.S. President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, performed well in a few countries, notably Italy and France.
In Italy, which last year elected Western Europe’s first populist government, Matteo Salvini’s fiercely Euroskeptic, anti-migrant League party was on course to take at least 27 per cent of the vote, more than triple its 2014 results, putting it well ahead of its coalition partner, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement.
In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (formerly National Front), with about 23 per cent of the vote, narrowly beat President Emmanuel Macron’s pro-Europe En Marche party, which has been hobbled by the endless Gilets Jaunes anti-government protests. Ms. Le Pen, who fared poorly in the 2017 national elections, styled her campaign as a referendum on Mr. Macron’s term in office and called Sunday’s results a “victory for the people.”
The EU elections were the most tumultuous in the parliament’s 40-year history. They came after the twin shocks of Brexit and the migration crisis, both of which triggered deep soul-searching in Brussels and in the capitals of the member states. They also fuelled the rise of the Euroskeptic parties, which argued that the European project was failing its citizens. Lingering austerity measures in Greece, Italy and elsewhere helped their cause.
Mr. Macron said the elections came at “the most perilous moment for Europe since the Second World War.”
While the elections are ostensibly about setting the political themes for the next five years for the EU and its institutions – including the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm – they also reflect political sentiment in the member states. The surging popularity of Mr. Salvini, who is Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister, probably makes him Europe’s most powerful populist and virtually guarantees he will win the next Italian election. The crushing defeat on Sunday of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s radical-left Syriza party seems to confirm the widespread belief that the conservative New Democracy party will win the Greek election, which is to be held by July.
The European populists, especially those of the hard-right variety – Mr. Salvini, Ms. Le Pen, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Alexander Gauland of the Alternative for Germany, among others – billed the election as a clash of philosophies.
On one side was the ever-closer-union vision of Mr. Macron, to the point the EU would have its own army and debt financing through common bonds, creating a “United States of Europe.”
On the other was the “Europe of nations” touted by the Euroskeptic leaders, who want to see the EU hand back sovereignty to the nation states and close the borders to most migrants, especially Muslims.
The Euroskeptic parties, however, became wary of leaving the EU after seeing the shambles of Brexit. They want to reform it from within, perhaps turning it into little more than a common market.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail this year, Steve Bannon, the populist champion who was Mr. Trump’s campaign manager and chief strategist, said, “I have not met one politician in any of these sovereignist, nationalist populist parties who say they want out – no discussion of exit. They all want a massive reform of the EU – it’s Macron’s vision versus Orban’s and Salvini’s.”
There were signs ahead of the election that the populists would struggle to make the breakthrough they cherished. Many polls placed migration atop the list of voters’ concerns, but the migration crisis has largely abated since Ms. Merkel opened the borders to a million migrants from Syria and elsewhere in 2015. Mr. Salvini has stopped most charity rescue ships from docking at Italian ports, greatly reducing the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Libya. As the crossings diminished so, apparently, did the appeal of some of Europe’s far-right, anti-migrant parties.
The polls that pointed to a populist surge appeared to discount young voters’ fascination with environmental issues, especially climate change. In the weeks before the election, the teenage Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg attracted thousands of young Europeans to rallies. Carsten Schneider, the German SPD’s chief whip, said his party’s election failure to highlight climate change was a grave mistake. “I think the main issue was climate change, and we didn’t succeed in putting that front and centre alongside the big social issues,” he said.