It’s hard to reduce the results of the European Parliament elections that took place Thursday through Sunday across the 28 European Union member states to a simple takeaway. Of course, that hasn’t stopped pundits from warning that the populists are winning or claiming that the results were a clear victory for European liberal values.
But while the election did not produce any real consensus, its outcome is important. The vote starkly demonstrates the limits of traditional European parties and their policies — and the splintering and polarization of the electoral base across Europe. However, it also indicates a new, if disruptive, re-engagement by citizens in politics. The European Union is becoming politicized in ways that will help realign party politics and strengthen E.U.-level democracy — albeit only after a long and fraught process.
There is no European consensus
The various election results point to a big change for European national electoral politics: the lack of majority for any one party, left, right or center, in most E.U. countries. Although some claim that Marine Le Pen’s right-wing National Rally party (formerly the National Front) won a victory in France, it only had 23 percent of the French vote, just a little more than French President Emmanuel Macron’s liberal Renaissance party list.
The “winner” narrative about Le Pen also does not do justice to the surprisingly successful showing of the Green Party in France. The Greens also surged ahead in Germany, where they were second overall, displacing the long-standing but now failing Social Democrats, adding to strong showings across northern Europe.
On the other side of the ideological spectrum, Matteo Salvini’s League party got more votes than anyone else with 34 percent, but this was still not a majority. Granted, Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party won a 52-percent majority, but it was the exception rather than the rule.
In the United Kingdom, the specter of Brexit continues to haunt politics, and the European elections failed to clarify a way forward. U.K. voters continued to flee the Conservative and Labour parties, while the new Brexit Party and its counterweight, a revived anti-Brexit Liberal Democratic Party, had the best showings in the European Parliament results.
These national elections, taken together, suggest that the European Parliament will be balanced across a dramatically different swath of ideologies and interests. The center-right and center-left parties that once dominated the European Parliament have shrunk as both Euroskeptic parties on the right, and liberal and green parties on the left, fill the seats that were occupied by the politicians of the past. The center is weaker — but neither the right nor the left has won.
Political parties are changing
While traditional parties may be in trouble, this is not the end of party democracy. Peter Mair, in his eerily prescient book “Ruling the Void,” warned that voter disaffection and disconnected parties were sapping Western democracies, and that national parties were ducking hard political decisions by delegating them to Brussels. However, it appears that citizens are reengaging with electoral politics — but not coming back to the traditional parties, which they see as divorced from the concerns and lives of everyday voters. While the European Union itself was built on the notion of depoliticization, the 2019 European Parliament elections are notable for the sharp uptick in voter turnout across the European Union.
This may not be the decline of party politics, but rather a political realignment so that old divisions between, for example, left and right, may be changing into something else. For example, Germany’s Social Democratic Party, which was formed in the late 19th century in response to social disruptions around the rise of modern capitalism, once had a strong connection with the working class. Now it has a much weaker connection to voters and has shrunk to a fraction of its former self. Perhaps the new postindustrial economy, embedded in a truly transnational and networked world, means that traditional identities and affiliations make little sense.
Party politics change as society changes. Some parties are reinvented, while others wither away — such as the American Whig party or the British Liberal Party of the 19th century. Grappling with the new world of globalization, automation, and multiculturalism will require a shift in party politics. As Liesbet Hooghe and Gary Marks argue, we should look to how the modern party systems were created originally to understand the episodic break that appears to be occurring today.
The European Union is getting politicized
One reason that the European Parliament has shallow political roots is that parliament elections do not usually involve genuine political contestation about specific European policies. The 2019 election did not have truly collective, Pan-European debate since most of the fights were national. It did, however, see a level of interest and engagement that far surpassed any previous European Parliament elections, that is closer to the open political competition and contestation over Europe that some have advocated.
The long history of national political development suggests that the European Union will only become a full democracy if its politics are rebuilt to focus on better representing and serving E.U. citizens. The politicization of the European Union may be one stage on a journey toward that democratic end point, although the immediate politics are likely to remain divisive and uncertain in comparison with the stability of the postwar order, for a long time to come.
Kathleen R. McNamara is professor of government and foreign affairs at Georgetown University and the author of “The Politics of Everyday Europe: Constructing Authority in the European Union.” —