Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Europe and the Anglosphere drifting apart

The far-right gained out of the political cacophony of European elections, but any “exit” sentiment has evaporated.

The most important shift of voters occurred not on the fringe but in the broad middle (Photo: European Parliament/Flickr)
The most important shift of voters occurred not on the fringe but in the broad middle (Photo: European Parliament/Flickr)
Published 29 May 2019 

Beyond the somewhat confusing continental results of this month’s elections to the European Parliament, a longstanding trend becomes clearer. Britain is trying to go alone on its nationalist and conservative way, mirroring the US and Australia.

At least on the Monday morning after the election, the big global media, including CNN and BBC World were flustered to a point where they preferred to show Donald Trump in Japan and report on the US President’s tryst in the Sumo wrestling ring rather than making sense of what appeared to be contradictory results from the European elections – the four day exercise where 500 million Europeans in, still, 28 countries were asked to appoint their representatives to the increasingly more powerful legislative arm of the European Union.

Yes, the nationalist Eurosceptics of the far-right made gains, but only in certain countries and even there not to the extent feared.

No wonder that out of this cacophony of national votes a “leitmelodie”, or main melody, appears difficult to draw out. And yet three points can be made, for once in order of increasing importance.

Yes, the nationalist Eurosceptics of the far-right made gains, but only in certain countries and even there not to the extent feared. The sole exception is Hungary, where Viktor Orban has already succeeded to set the country on an authoritarian trail by suppressing free media and the judiciary.

Elsewhere the extreme right lost badly (Netherlands, Spain) and did less well than predicted (Italy, France, certainly Germany). France deserves a short word, too, where Marine Le Pen’s National Front party (newly rechristened National Rally) did less well than on the last European elections and the far-left nationalists of the “France Unbowed” movement fell into a single digit hole from their high level at the last French presidential election.

The summary? Xenophobic Eurosceptics of all kind will occupy around 30% percent of all seats in the European Parliament yet are badly divided by their individual nationalist preoccupations. And this in the first pan-European election since the refugee crisis, the largest population shift ever from outside the continent to Western and Northern Europe.

The “Exit” sentiment on the continent has been wiped out (Photo: European Parliament/Flickr)

The most important shift of voters occurred not on the fringe but in the broad middle. Other than the two traditional blocs – on the right side the more conservative parties such as Germany’s Christian Democratic Union and the Social-Democrats on the left ­– the European Parliament elections have seen the emergence of a third force. This has taken the form of two kinds of parties. First and foremost, the Greens: their ecological concerns were in addition added to the platforms of the aforementioned two large blocs. In addition what has been dubbed, in want of a better definition, the liberals, such as French President Emmanuel Macron’s “The Republic on the Move”.

The big question will be whether the two newly empowered groups of national parties will find enough common ground to act as a whole, and then either side with one of the traditional blocs – the betting would be the Social-Democrats – or act as a crucial swing vote for changing majorities in the European Parliament. The first indication will be the election of the new President of the European Commission.

A third and relatively little mentioned fact is the wipe-out of any (Br)Exit party and sentiment on the continent. A ranting populist with a “Frexit” program in France collected less than 2% of the national vote. Le Pen in France, Matteo Salvini in Italy, Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland and the chastened Austrian far-right are all calling for “another” EU, not its destruction nor even the abolishment of the single market and currency. They all know that their voters depend on manna from Brussels. Moreover, they all look for EU cover for their different pet peeves: the Poles hate Vladimir Putin, Salvini knows that illegal immigration can only be handled by a continent-wide approach, and so does Le Pen, who knows that her rural voters would not survive without EU agrarian subsidies.

All have thus accepted the benefits of a parallel government, regulator and global negotiator for Europe out of Brussels ­– the Commission as the Executive, the Council as the national corrective to it, and the Parliament (out of Brussels and Strasbourg) as a much maligned but nevertheless increasingly democratic watchdog.

All but one, the United Kingdom. Nigel Farage is the only European who wants to destroy the EU and he has won big. The two main parties in the UK have made so much of a hash of Brexit that a political clown will likely walk over the steps of 10 Downing St – as if we haven’t had our fill out of carnival at a piece of prestigious political real estate on the other side of the Atlantic ­– and that a hard Brexit is increasingly seen as the most likely “solution”. The economy, the financial centre London and the urgent pan-European challenges be damned. Pity Northern Ireland and the Scots who will have to either bear with the colonialist majority in England or eventually break away.

In the nearer term, Europe without Britain will lose, hopefully only temporarily, on the global front where it matters most. Strategically, this will occur in terms of military means and traditional outreach into the Anglosphere. London on its own will have no more bridge function across the North Atlantic, and even less towards Asia.

And economically, where traditional partners of Europe in Asia will have to choose between Little England and the 400 million plus market on the continent.

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When elites talk past each other, there can be no national narrative (Photo: Mark Graham via Getty)

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