My first reaction on the European Parliament elections is that nationalists have firmly established themselves as a political force in almost every European country. Far from being "fringe parties," many of these parties won a plurality in their countries, defeating the so-called "mainstream" parties. In Hungary, the nationalists won a majority. As an American, I can't but feel somewhat jealous, as we desperately need a political force of this kind.
Unfortunately, tonight also witnessed the rise of the Green Party in countries around the Continent. And the nationalists did not win quite enough to form a large EU group that could challenge the dominance of the usual parties.
It's a complex situation so let's break it up.
First, the good news.
- The UK: The Brexit Party crushed the two major parties and will be the largest group in the EU Parliament from the UK. [Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party set to win most UK seats in EU vote, by Sam Meredith, CNBC, May 26, 2019] The Conservatives were utterly humiliated and it is clear the Tories may simply die as a political force if they do not deliver on Brexit. This dramatically strengthens the odds a “hard Brexit” candidate like Boris Johnson will be the leader of the Tories. Tonight also showed that the most influential British figure of the last ten years, by far, is Nigel Farage. Even milkshakes can’t stop him. The real question is whether the “Brexit Party” can be a force in a general election; my gut instinct is no if the Tories are smart enough to co-opt their main issue. Of course, the party of Theresa May could be stupid enough to screw it up.
- Hungary: The Fidesz party of Viktor Orban, the most inspiring Western politician today, won an absolute majority with 52 percent of the vote. Orban took his victory as a mandate to stop immigration “all across Europe” and “protect Christian culture in Europe”. [Hungary’s Fidesz wins 52% of vote; Orban vows to halt immigration, by Krisztina Than and Marton Dunai, Reuters, May 26, 2019]
- Poland: Though it didn’t win an absolute majority, the ruling Law and Justice Party in Poland won more than 43 percent of the vote. According to Euractiv, the Law and Justice Party had “framed the EU ballot as a battle against western liberal ideas that are threatening the staunchly Catholic country’s way of life”. [Poland’s PiS wins EU polls, braces for ‘decisive battle’ in autumn, by Alexandra Brzozowski, May 26, 2019]
- Italy: Though results are still coming in, it looks like Italy’s Lega movement is cruising to victory, with almost a third of the vote. Matteo Salvini says nothing will change in Italy’s domestic government (where he rules in partnership with the Five Star Movement) but “everything will change in Europe, starting tomorrow”. [Italy STUNNED as Salvini’s League win HUGE majority and pledge a ‘NEW Europe is born’, by Clive Hammond, Express, May 27, 2019]
- France: While hardly decisive, the National Rally of Marine Le Pen embarrassed French president and EU stalwart Emmanuel Macron by squeezing out a victory. It wouldn’t be a huge deal except that Macron put himself at the head of the campaign. It’s thus a symbolic victory for nationalists. [French nationalists expected to narrowly beat Macron’s centrist party in EU vote, by Sam Meredith and Silvia Amaro, CNBC, May 26, 2019]
- Belgium (occupied Flanders): Belgium is split between a Dutch speaking region (Flanders) and French speaking region (Wallonia). There is a “soft” nationalist party (the New Flemish Alliance, N-VA) and the more hardcore Vlaams Belang. Vlaams Belang has not been polling well in recent years, but came roaring back in these elections, surging 14 points to become the second largest party in Flanders, winning about 20 percent of the vote. [Far-right surge in triple election shocks Belgium, by Simon van Dorpe, Laurens Cerulus, and Hanne Cokelaere, Politico, May 27, 2019]
- Austria: Incredibly, the center-right People’s Party of Sebastian Kurz managed to win a clear victory despite a “Russian collusion” scandal that managed to take down his nationalist coalition partners in Heinz-Christian Strache’s Freedom Party. More importantly, the Freedom Party did not collapse. It captured 26 percent in Austria’s 2017 national election, but only 18 percent today. Nonetheless, it finished third and didn’t completely fall apart. Don’t count the Freedom Party out yet. [The Latest: Croations back conservatives and center-left, by Antonio Calanni, The Herald, May 26, 2019]
- Slovenia: A party allied with Viktor Orban, the Slovenian Democratic Party, which the media describes as “anti-immigrant,” won a plurality. [The Latest: Salvini says populists will control 150 EU seats, KSL.com, May 26, 2019]
The bad news:
The center collapsed but the Green party surged, shocking just about everyone. [‘Green wave’ in EU vote amid climate crisis, by Hui Min, AFP, May 26, 2019] Rather than a nationalist bloc becoming the kingmakers and deciding policy in the EU, it may be the Greens.
There was not a populist surge in Spain, Germany, or other countries. [Pro-EU parties hold ground across the continent, by Alex Barker, Mehreen Khan, and Jim Brunsden, Financial Times, May 26, 2019] Nationalist parties consolidated their positions; from the perspective of 2014, it looks like a huge gain. Yet they did not achieve the huge victories that some polls were predicting. Pro-EU forces have been weakened, but still will be able to push their agenda. [EU elections turnout rises as political landscape fragments, by John Henley, The Guardian, May 26, 2019]
What are the takeaways?
- National populism is established as a political force in almost every country in Europe. It’s not going away and it’s consolidating its strength. In some countries (Poland, Hungary) it underlies the governing coalition.
- Nontheless, the hope that it would sweep away the status quo in a mighty wind may be asking too much. Nationalists may be able to cause trouble, but the powers that be will continue to rule Europe, assuming they can bring the Greens into their coalition.
- The rise of the Greens shows that the New Left is defined by elite urban issues—climate change, pro-immigration policies, and cultural progressivism. The pro-worker policies of the past are dead, and ready for national populists to champion.
- Today was a victory for national populists, but not the overwhelming triumph many were hoping for. The media scare campaign in the final days worked, increasing turnout and driving voters for the Greens and pro-EU parties. But no matter how the journalists frame it, it's shocking that the UK, France, and Italy, core Western European nations, all had national populists win.
- Keep an eye on Belgium. If the NV-A and the Vlaams Belang start working together, the survival of the unnatural Belgian conglomeration falls into question. The EU may have another Catalonia situation on its hands. Vlaams Belang's comeback could prove important.