The election for the European Parliament had interesting, and in some respects unexpected, results. In what follows I will highlight some main points that are worth taking into account.
1. The turnout marked a historical shift in the voting trend: whereas from the first election in 1979 to the 2014 election the number of voters had systematically declined (passing from 61.99% to 42.61%), this time it rose by 8 percentage points (50.4%). Germany, Spain and France showed the highest increases.
2. The expected far-right and sovereignist tsunami did not occur. Far right forces performed well, especially in Hungary (Orban’s Fidesz), Poland (Kaczynski’s PiS), Italy (Salvini’s Lega), and in France (Le Pen’s Rassemblement National). In Germany the AFD obtained 11%, which marks an increase on the 2014 European election, yet a (small) setback in comparison to the 12.6% in the 2017 national election. The success of Farage (Brexit Party) in the UK has to be seen as reflecting the particular situation of that country, and therefore cannot be assimilated to the overall scenario. In the rest of Europe, sovereignists, far-right and Eurosceptic parties did not succeed in breaking through.
3. Both main political families – Christian Democrats (EPP) and Social-democrats (S&D) – suffered crushing defeats, corresponding to the loss of about one fifth of the seats they had in the previous Parliament – EPP passed from 221 seats to 179 (-19%); S&D from 191 to 153 (-19%).This downsizing has produced a very important new political situation: for the first time, the combination of the seats of these two groups does not reach an absolute majority.
4. The Liberals (ALDE) and the Greens are the winners of these elections. ALDE shot up from 67 to 105 (+56,7%) seats; the Greens rose from 50 to 69 (+38%) seats. These two groups will play a decisive role in the building of the political majority in the new Parliament.
Results of European elections are generally quite hard to interpret, because they emerge from the aggregation of local patterns reflecting different political and institutional contexts. On the other hand, though with some caution, some general observations can be made.
I believe that the key to making sense of these elections is the combination of the increased participation and the failed breakthrough of anti-systemic and Eurosceptic forces. Taken together, these elements can be viewed as the sign that citizens felt the need to get mobilized in defense of the institution of Europe. On the other hand, the significant defeat of the two main political groupings that have been at the helm of the European Union for many years is a clear signal of the deep disaffection people feel for how the European project has been implemented. People want Europe, but they want a better Europe: something more and something different from the current politics and bureaucracy of Europe.
However, it is highly significant that the discontent with the current way of governing the European institution did not lead to the endorsement of anti-system forces. This actually happened in only a few countries, and was due mainly to the specificity of the local political and institutional context. The fact that Rassemblement National happened to be the first party in France is certainly quite a dramatic signal, yet if one goes below the surface one can see that the percentages obtained by Le Pen and Macron at the 2019 European elections are not so different from those they obtained in the first round of the 2017 Presidential election. The only country where a sovereignist, far-right party had a major success was therefore Italy. Yet in this case, too, the reasons for such a success go way back and have to be sought in the Italian political context, though the European Union is not without responsibility. (However, that is another story: I will come back to it next time).
Therefore, the unexpected new thing revealed by the elections is the fact that political forces that are not against the institutional system (ALDE and the Greens) have been able to attract and provide political representation to the demand for (a better) Europe. It is to be hoped that this demand will not be betrayed. Europe needs profound innovation in a plurality of strategic fields of policy – the environment, the job market, the fight against inequalities, the economy, migration, social cohesion, trade, security and rights. It is to be hoped that the new political order emerging from the ballot box will enable the democratic forces to deal with this huge task adequately. The opportunities to learn from mistakes are infinite.