Sunday’s results in the European Parliament elections are like a clever modernist painting, apparently formal, abstract, and meaningless, which as you move back from it, looks increasingly like a busy city street with cars, taxis, buses, and people going quite clearly in their different directions. You can even guess where some of the drivers will end up. Similarly, if you step back and glance at the election returns with, as yet, not a great deal of exit-polling data on which to base deeper judgments, you will probably reach these preliminary conclusions:
1) The mainstream parties of the center-Left and center-Right (or so-called legacy parties) continue a decline that has now been going on, at different speeds in different countries, for several decades. Italy’s Christian Democrats fell apart in the 1990s; its post-Communist socialists more recently; Berlusconi’s once-dominant Forza Italia fell into single figures this time; and the socialists are still struggling, at 22 percent. In this election, Italy’s insurgent populist partners — the League and the Five Star Movement — got 51 percent of the total vote between them, and they’re not getting a divorce. It was a less happy story in Germany where the two main parties in the “Grand Coalition” — Angela Merkel’s CDU-CSU and the Social Democrats — both lost ground compared with their performance in 2014, scoring only 45 percent jointly when they would once have been in the high seventies. France’s traditional parties of government almost disappeared from the results, all scoring in single figures. And so on. The most dramatic collapse of the centrist parties was in Britain, where the governing Tories fell to below 10 percent. But that story will get fuller treatment elsewhere.
2) Where the center retreated, however, the populist Right did not always occupy the abandoned position. National populists (which is the approved non-hostile term for describing them) advanced moderately and consolidated their previous gains substantially in the elections. Victor Orban’s Fidesz won 52 percent of the votes in Hungary. Poland’s Law and Justice party held off a multi-party attack from an organized left-wing coalition and won a majority that suggests it will win the forthcoming national elections. France’s National Rally — the latest name for the populist Right party led by Marine Le Pen — narrowly defeated the populist-centrist party of President Macron in France. (Populist-centrism may be a novel concept, and it may prove to be an unsuccessful one, but it’s the best description yet coined of Macron’s ambiguous politics.) The political success of Italy’s populism we outlined above. And in the United Kingdom, the populist Euroskeptic party, titled with stunning simplicity the Brexit party, went from its foundation five weeks ago to become the largest U.K. party in the European Parliament, with 32 percent of the national vote and 29 MEPs. But it hopes to be leaving Parliament soon.
Populism suffered no major defeats anywhere — unless you count (and you shouldn’t) Denmark, where the People’s Party share of the vote was halved because the more respectable social democrats adopted their tough migration policy. On the other hand, populism didn’t win as many votes as the populists had hoped and as the Left and the media had feared. In particular, populists fell well short of taking control of the European Parliament or, as we shall see, even weakening the control of it exercised by the reigning centrist duopoly of Christian and Social Democrats.
3) If the center retreated and the Right advanced only so far, European Liberals (the ALDE parliamentary group) and Greens occupied the vacant ground. Greens became the second party in Germany and the third party in France; Liberal Democrats became the surprise second-place winners, after Nigel Farage’s Brexit party in Britain; and both parties did well throughout the western half of Europe. Their success is not a mystery. Progressive middle-class voters wanted more idealistic commitments to policies such as combatting climate change and opening borders than the cautious center always provided. In addition, such voters were alarmed by what they saw as the national-populist threat to the European Union — a greatly exaggerated one in reality since none of the populists outside the U.K. want to leave the EU, merely to restrain it. All the same, these voters turned out to support the EU, too, which in the U.K. explains the rise of the Lib Dems as a response to the Brexit party.
Think of these different results as a series of actions and reactions: Centrist elites pursue (failed) progressive policies that the voters increasingly resent; populists organize to oppose the elites and block or even reverse the policies; the governing elites then see these as populist attacks on democracy and themselves and go into a moral panic; their supporters in the electorate are sufficiently alarmed by these warnings to transfer their votes from the center to the left populists of the Left in the smaller Green and Liberal parties.; and so ad infinitum until the next European election in 2024. Or we could see the elections as a competition between two rising insurgent political forces — each trying not to let a good crisis go to waste: the populists using the migration crisis as an organizing principle, the Greens and the Liberals doing the same with the climate crisis. Which group will win probably depends on which crisis ultimately proves to be the more genuinely frightening one to the voters — a crisis that really seems to threaten their futures and their children’s futures in the most practical everyday ways. I think I know which crisis fits that bill, but I won’t prejudice you.
4) In the meantime, the presence of more parties with a wider range of views in the European parliament should produce greater democracy and debate, but is likely instead to produce their opposites. Because the duopoly of Christian and Social Democrats that runs the European Parliament now has only 43 percent of MEPs, it is now generally expected to expand and absorb the ALDE (109 seats) and the Greens (69 seats) parliamentary groups. If it were to do so, it would then have a two-thirds majority in the parliament. As a result, the everyday practical ideology underpinning the cooperation of this Very Grand Coalition would almost certainly shift leftwards to reflect the opinions of its new members. Germans already talk of “the social democratization of Christian democracy.” That political version of gender dysphoria is now likely to be imitated at a European level.
The European Peoples’ Party — which is the CDU-CSU and its conservative partners in Brussels — is already a Euro-federalist party, committed with the Social Democrats to a centralizing federalist vision of “More Europe.” But the definition of Europe in that phrase will become increasingly a progressive one. Mainstream conservatives in the parliament will be pressed more and more to embrace such policies as treating climate change as an emergency, and liberal migration rules as an economic necessity, as part and parcel of a common European agenda (of which most voters will be entirely unaware). Both the ALDE liberals and the Greens, moreover, are more evangelical in their promotion of this left-wing European federalism even than their centrist partners, and they’re willing to impose it on recalcitrant nations and governments. When those outside the charmed circle object, either because they dislike the centralizing drive of “more Europe!” or because they dislike the content of the policies, they will be dismissed as populists, nationalists, extremists, or whatever is the politically correct meme of denunciation at the time. Pierre Manent’s observation that European politics is becoming a battle between populist demagogy and the fanaticism of the center would then be perfectly realized.
It won’t happen exactly that way, of course. Events never follow even the best-conceived histories of the future. A number of tensions and disagreements are already baked into the celebration cake. Some examples: The moderately conservative EPP will struggle to keep its preeminence within the centrist coalition because the ALDE and the Greens are ideologically closer to the socialists than to themselves; Greens within the European Parliament and Germany itself will want to use their newfound power to phase out fossil fuels, which will be resisted by coal-producing Poland and Eastern Germany; the more progressive Euro-parliamentary majority may want to press sanctions on Viktor Orban for violating “European values,” but the success of populists in half of Europe means that he now has more allies in that conflict; and, above all, President Macron has enthusiastic supporters among the ALDE liberals in the European Parliament for his ambitious integrationist projects that the Germans and other Northern European governments fear they will be asked to finance.
And these projects are indeed formidable: to centralize the power and sovereignty of 27 nation-states in European institutions without solving their existing democracy deficit; to replace their independent budgetary arrangements with a single European fiscal policy without the power of tax collection; to create a common European defense structure separate from NATO without increasing anyone’s defense expenditure; to replace fossil fuels with renewables to solve climate change without massive regulation, and a realistic plan to prevent a huge rise in energy costs for industry and consumers. This is the hubris of government, but its costs always fall on others. It is sometimes said that the error of socialists is not that they have no faith in capitalism but that they have almost boundless faith in it. They think it can bear any burden they place on it and still stagger on delivering the goods. Modern European statesmen feel the same way about their citizens. The populists remind them they’re wrong. And they haven’t gone away.
If the Brits are still nervous that Brexit, deal or no deal, would impose impermissibly heavy costs and disruption on the UK economy, they might wait and see how heavy would be the costs and how disruptive the impact of remaining within an overregulated, overtaxed, and overgoverned European Union. It will help them make up their oddly distracted minds.