Europe long played host to strange, exuberant celebrations, from Roman Saturnalia to medieval Feasts of Fools to the bean-feasts of old Twelfth Night, when hierarchy was upended and decorum trashed. Master played slave, slave played master, and cook pretended to be king. But when the festivities ended, all was as before. Master and slave, cook and king returned to their stations. Order was restored, strengthened, and tacitly affirmed by a brief period of license that began with its end already agreed.
And that brings me to the elections to the EU parliament. These have always been a pastiche of democracy, rendered absurd by the absence of a European demos. Europe’s voters have always understood that their role in these elections was to perform as extras in a carefully choreographed drama, pay for the whole thing, pretend it was real, and then go away. A good number decided that they would rather not show up at all. There is no European nation, so why vote as if there was?
Back in 1979, the turnout for the first direct elections to the parliament was 61.99 percent. It then fell for each of the next six, reaching 43 percent in 2009. At the time of writing, the turnout for 2014 is calculated at 43.1 percent, an improvement desperately described as “historic” by one of the parliament’s spokesmen. If it was, it was only historic in the depth of the indifference that 43.1 percent represented. The EU parliament is far more powerful than it was in the past, and the catastrophe wrought by the euro has brought the EU to the center of European political debate as never before. That ought to have been worth more than an extra tenth of a percentage point. That it wasn’t says everything.
From the perspective of Brussels, this year’s show must appear to have gotten a little out of hand. An alarming number of the extras ignored their lines and noisily rewrote the script. They did so in ways too varied to list them all. Nevertheless, there were some standouts.
Over in the Sceptic Isle, Nigel Farage’s UKIP swept to the top of the poll with 27.5 percent, the first time for more than a century that a party that was neither Labour nor Conservative had prevailed in a nationwide contest. This was despite an unprecedented battering by the media and the other political parties and, it has to be said, a few own goals.
Across the English Channel, France’s Front National, a pariah for generations, won with 25 percent. In Denmark, the (somewhat) UKIP-like Danish People’s party took the top prize with 26.7 percent, and in Hungary, the conservative-nationalist Fidesz, the ruling party that Brussels most likes to hate, romped home with over half the vote, while the sinister Jobbik clung to 14.3 percent of the poll. That was a higher score than that achieved by the neo-Nazis of Greece’s Golden Dawn, who had to make do with 9.4 percent, not a bad haul nonetheless, considering that its leader and a number of its MPs are in jail. The gold medal in Greece meanwhile was grabbed by the far-left Syriza, with 26.6 percent, a result that could point to a Syriza victory at the next general election and ought to alarm Greece’s creditors. A win by Syriza in the EU elections would, its leader explained shortly before the vote, be a message to Greece’s current government “to take the memorandums [setting out the terms under which Greece received its bailouts], take the troika [the EU Commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF, which supervise the austerity program], and go.”
And Syriza’s language found an echo in crisis-struck Spain. Establishment parties of center-left and center-right saw sharp declines in their support. Podemos, a brand-new party of the far left, and an offshoot of sorts of the anti-austerity Indignados protests, came from nowhere to take 8 percent of the vote. We will work, said its leader, “together with other partners from southern Europe to say that we don’t want to be a colony of Germany and the troika,” words that should make German taxpayers shudder.
Still, that vulnerable constituency finally has proper representation in the European parliament in the form of a young, pro-EU but anti-euro party, the center-right Alternative für Deutschland, which took 7 percent of the vote. It remains to be seen whether AfD’s success will be enough of a warning shot to stop Chancellor Merkel from selling her country down the river in the event of a revolt against austerity in the periphery and now, quite possibly, France. Probably not, if I had to guess.
Not everything went badly for those in charge in Brussels. In two “creditor” nations, Finland and the Netherlands, prominent Euroskeptic parties did far less well than expected, while in Italy comedian Beppe Grillo’s populist, and not always coherent, Five Star Movement was eclipsed by the center-left PD, now led by the charismatic Matteo Renzi, its supposedly Blair-like (be warned, Italy) new prime minister. That said, the Grillini still managed to account for 21.15 percent of the votes cast. It may be too soon to say that they have peaked.
But Brussels does not have to look as far as Rome for comfort. To start with, the low turnout almost certainly exaggerated the Euroskeptic portion of the vote when compared with the likely outcome in national elections. To be sure, a reluctance to turn up at the polling station may not show much engagement with the European project and that will distress more idealistic Eurocrats. But their more cynical counterparts know very well that apathy is not only better than outright opposition, but is, for the most part, also an ally. Large elements of the superstate-in-waiting have been able to be put in place only thanks to the unwillingness or inability of the electorate to understand where the often complex, often deliberately obscure process of European construction will lead. That still seems unlikely to change.
More than that, the European Parliament will continue to be a Euro-federalist redoubt. As José Manuel Barroso, the former Maoist who is now the EU’s top bureaucrat, announced on Sunday night, “The political forces represented in the European Commission have overall won once again. . . . They share a fundamental consensus for Europe that should now be reinforced.”
The Open Europe think tank has calculated that anti-EU and anti-establishment parties are “on course to win 229 out of 751 seats in the new European Parliament (30.5%), up from 164 out of 766 seats in the current parliament (21.4%).” That’s impressive, but in itself it is not enough to change anything. The parliament will be likely run by some sort of coalition of the center-left and -right, perhaps with an added Green tinge to make it all the more sickening. That won’t be much of a change. In an earlier piece of research, Open Europe noted that “the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and center-left Socialist and Democrat (S&D) party families voted the same way 74% of the time in the 2009-14 parliament.” A de facto coalition will become de jure, that’s all. And its preferred approach will continue to be “more Europe” buttressed even more than before by the paranoid argument, and often paranoid belief, that Euroskepticism is some sort of fascism. After all, look at that Marine Le Pen.
The outsider parties not only lack the numbers to challenge this consensus, they lack the cohesion to do so. That reflects the fact that they spring from far more authentic — and thus more diverse — national political traditions than the unaccountable nothingness of the acronyms now in charge. The differences between the Euroskeptic parties and the nations they spring from mean that even a marriage of convenience between them (the parliament’s rules favor groupings of a certain breadth and size) can be fraught with danger. A mooted association with Le Pen’s Front National proved very damaging for Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and would be poison for Nigel Farage. The best hope is that the Euroskeptics can at least cast enough light on the workings of the parliament and the rest of the Brussels machine to stir up yet more discontent, but that will take time, perseverance, and a media that is willing to pay attention. Don’t hold your breath.
That’s not to deny that there will be talk of reform, and maybe even talk of the transfer of some power away from Brussels. There will be talk, plenty of it, but its main function will be to mask the whirring of the engine of ever-closer union, an engine that continues to drive integration along whatever the voters may say. To change that will take a revolt of the centrist parties in their domestic legislatures, provoked, perhaps, by the reality of the economic grind that continues to lie ahead and by fear of the political parties that may someday be strong enough to take advantage of it.
Until then, well, clear up the empty bottles; take down the balloons and bunting. È finita la commedia: Those in charge are back in charge, as, indeed, they always were.
— Andrew Stuttaford is a contributing editor of National Review Online.