Europe muddles through

The European Union, which often appears to outsiders to be a large, unaccountable and opaque institution that is wracked by internal dissension and populist politics, demonstrated this week that this view was not entirely true. After an election to the European Parliament, which saw a turnout of over 50 per cent — not small by any means by the standards of the West — the centre of gravity of the European Parliament has not shifted as much as expected.

It is true that, in some countries, there was a resounding populist and anti-European vote. The United Kingdom — which, because of the Conservative government’s inability to deliver Brexit on time, had to vote in these elections — saw the inexorable rise of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which easily won a plurality of the vote and may be the largest party in the European Parliament, alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. Other countries that saw populist and xenophobic anti-Europeans win a plurality include France, where Marine le Pen’s repurposed and renamed National Front — now the National Rally — won over 23 per cent of the vote. But President Emmanuel Macron’s coalition was not far behind, with less than a percentage point of the vote separating the two — and Ms le Pen’s vote share fell significantly from the National Front’s last outing in European elections. In Italy, the right-wing Northern League of Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini also won an easy plurality, with a third of the vote, reversing the equations of power with his populist partner, the Five Star Movement, which emerges from southern Italy. Other places where the news was good for right-wing populists included the Flemish-speaking half of Belgium; Hungary, where the illiberal Viktor Orban’s Fidesz continued its monopoly on power; and Poland, where the ruling Law and Justice party retained a lead over a combined pro-European opposition coalition.

But, while these are likely to be the stories that dominate front pages, the overall composition of the European Parliament and the vote in the Union when seen as a whole are less disquieting than the noise would suggest. Overall, the far-right surge in Europe seems to have been exaggerated. While both the Centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats grouping and the Centre-right European People’s Party lost seats, the centre ground in fact expanded, with historic gains made by the Greens and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). The latter may have as many seats in Parliament now as the two big eurosceptic and far-right groups put together. The ALDE was boosted not just by Mr Macron’s vote but also by a surge for the Liberal Democrats in the United Kingdom, which emerged as the second-largest party from that country. The extreme left was reduced to just 38 seats. The right-wing populists may now control 25 per cent of the seats in the European Parliament, and have a larger voice than earlier — but it is clear that they remain a minority in Europe. The Union will find it harder to operate on the basis of a consensus, with a notable and vocal minority that will seek to be obstructionist. But the conversation on the future of Europe will continue to be dominated by pro-European forces.

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