By Heather A. Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia and the Arctic at CSIS
Over the weeks leading up to the European Parliament elections that started Thursday and continue through Sunday, there has been a great deal of media focus on the rise of the European far-right. However, we should avoid the temptation of overinterpreting the election returns once they come in. Yes, far-right parties will make some gains in some countries, but the results will likely show more continuity in European political trends than deep change.
Far-right parties will likely do very well in Hungary, Italy and possibly in France. But there could also be a “Brexit effect” —a realization among voters jolted by the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union that European unity cannot be taken for granted, prompting them to turn out in support of pro-E.U. parties.
Yes, far-right parties will make some gains in some countries, but the results will likely show more continuity in European political trends than deep change.
In reality, these are 28 separate elections held among 350 million eligible citizens across the entire continent. They determine who will represent these countries in the 751-member European Parliament, which regulates much of the E.U.’s economic life, as well as funds European defense, infrastructure projects and development assistance. But they are heavily influenced by domestic politics and issues, charismatic political figures and broader European issues, such as migration, the appropriate amount of E.U. bureaucracy and the pace of European integration.
Altogether, the election results will likely be more of the same in European political dynamic. Those dynamics are important; the weakening of the traditional center-left and center-right parties, the rise of Euroskeptic and far-right parties, and the fragmentation of the broader political spectrum erodes the European project, as well as the stability and prosperity it provides the West. But though these elections could negatively shape the E.U.’s future in lasting ways, it will not end the E.U. as we know it.
There’s a chance far-right parties will do well enough to band together to challenge the three leading groups in the center (the center-right Christian democrats, center-left social democrats and centrist liberals), and a strong showing by these parties would give an unwelcome boost of confidence to the forces of illiberal democracy and neo-authoritarianism. But fears of their growing power added to the Brexit backlash raise the prospect that pro-E.U. parties can to some degree counterbalance the surging far right.
Already defying the dire warnings of some pundits and pollsters who predicted Netherland’s new far-right party, Forum for Democracy, would get the most votes in the parliamentary contest, the center-left Labour Party may have gained the most seats, according to exit polls.
In fact, it is likely that these elections will produce a range of outcomes in which every political grouping can claim its side won. So the more immediate and interesting post-election drama — and the potentially more significant implications for Europe and the United States — will occur within a select group of E.U. countries. In these cases, the European Parliament elections serve as “mini-referendums” on the popularity and effectiveness of current governments and their leaders, portending the results of upcoming national elections. Negative tallies can exert domestic political pressures that force some governments to adjust their policies or the composition of ministers.
In Italy, Matteo Salvini, deputy prime minister and leader of the far-right League (Lega) party, could well be empowered to attempt to take full control of the country. Salvini stands to gain the most from the European Parliament vote. As the putative head of the pan-European far-right and beneficiary of former White House adviser Steve Bannon’s encouragement, he is trying to unify far-right parties in the European Parliament to challenge the power of the center bloc (though he almost certainly won’t have the numbers to fully usurp them).
Should a strong showing this weekend cement Salvini’s current lead in national polls, he might decide it is time to withdraw from the coalition government and trigger new elections to get greater control of the Italian parliament. He has repeatedly stated that he will keep the coalition together, but the election results may prove too tempting. Either way, Salvini will challenge the E.U.’s austerity policies, straining Italian finances and E.U. institutions with global economic ramifications. (Still, the White House would likely welcome Salvini due to his strong anti-immigrant stance and emphasis on the importance of sovereignty.)
France might also face a governmental shake-up after this weekend’s vote. Although French President Emmanuel Macron has so far survived his “winter of public discontent” — months of protests and plummeting public support following his imposition of a fuel tax while lowering taxes on the wealthy — the European Parliament elections appear to be a grudge match repeating the French presidential elections in 2017. Macron’s party is running slightly behind his far-right rival, Marine Le Pen, in French national polls. Should Le Pen’s party beat Macron’s (Le Pen came in first in the 2014 French European Parliament elections) this weekend, doubts will grow about Macron’s leadership. As in Italy, the White House might not mind having some of the political wind taken out of Macron’s sails given that he views himself as a “populist dragon slayer.” But Macron may not be able to improve the French economy as he would like should demonstrations continue and his opinion poll numbers decline, and a weak France doesn’t make for a strong America.
The European Parliament elections themselves will likely produce a messy and confused outcome; essentially, more muddle.
In Germany, meanwhile, political aftershocks may spur Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party, to quit the government. The Green Party is poised to become the second-most popular party in Germany once the European Parliament votes are tallied, and the far-right Alternative for Germany party could potentially surpass the SDP as well. Should the SDP leave, Merkel could end up heading a minority government or trying to woo other coalition partners. While President Donald Trump loves to assail German policies, the E.U. cannot progress without clear policy direction from Berlin, and a stalled Europe means significant decisions can’t be taken in support of U.S. interests, either.
In other words, the European Parliament elections themselves will likely produce a messy and confused outcome; essentially, more muddle. Pro-European forces will outnumber anti- or Euroskeptic voices in parliament, but a rise in the latter will make accomplishing anything more difficult — and it’s not easy now.