European elections: populists win in the UK, France, Italy, Hungary and Flanders
“You came, you saw, you voted,” quips the European Parliament, adapting the line from that one Roman dictator that essentially ended Roman Republicanism. “All across the EU,” the clip continues “people came out in force to choose their future.” Not just their Member of Euro Parliament for the next four years, mind you. Their future! Will there not be elections in 2024?
That’s the downside to using hyped-up language. It is so easy to take a look at reality and ask ‘awkward’ questions. If people chose their future, did 49.06% of Europeans choose to have none?
Lets talk about the good news first: voter turnout was the highest it has been this century (we can do hyperbole too). Because the EP is a representative body (don’t snicker!) the more people it actually represents, the better.
Of course, the EU wouldn’t be the EU if it didn’t hype its success to the absurd. Despite the break with ever declining numbers of voters, the number of people voting is still barely over half. Yes, a 19.5% growth when compared to 2014 (from 42.61% to 50.94%) is good, but it doesn’t really support the claim that “European democracy is alive and well.“
The European elections were the tangible proof that European democracy is alive and well.— European Commission 🇪🇺 (@EU_Commission) May 27, 2019
The highest turnout in 20 years is testament to the active involvement of Europeans who are engaging, participating and shaping the future of our Union.#EP2019 pic.twitter.com/ziIklSpszP
The rest of the hype is worse. Putting the bar at 50% is not setting it high to start with, but is a bit absurd to claim that
“the highest turnout in 20 years is testament to the active involvement of Europeans who are engaging, participating and shaping with their vote the future of our Union. Here in the Juncker-commission we have good reason to belive that these [sic] also reflect our hard work and record of achievements over the last five years. There is a pro-EU majority in the House, meaning that we can count on a constructive and engaged parliament for the next institutional cycle.”
Parliaments should be judged by how well they do in representing the interests of their constituents, based broadly on their promises before elections, and in how well they perform their duties. Not by how ‘constructive’ and ‘engaged’ they are with the (unelected) administration they are supposed to keep in check. But then, it has been clear for years that the Commission has an interesting take on democracy anyway.
Back to the elections. Those of you who are used to a kind of Westminster-system might want to know who won. Most in Europe might ask: who is the largest? The question we ask is: the f*ck we gonna explain thís mess?
To put it more diplomatically: the results are difficult to interpret without political bias seeping in. In those few countries with high turnout, the outcome could be regarded as at least representative. But politically, the EU is a mosaic, best represented by a colourful Guardian graph.
Of course, the map uses colours to represent parties (of a sort) in their alignment to groups in EP. It is important to remember that nobody voted for those factions. Much information is lost in translation: Polish conservatives aren’t exactly like their UK counterparts. Nor are Belgian social-democrats – themselves divided across linguistic lines – a carbon copy of the Danish Social Democrat Party.
The fact that some pundits claim that ‘Remain parties’ won the UK elections should tell you what you need to know. EP-elections are messy and wide open to interpretation. We will try to give you some facts and insights none the less. Such as that in the UK, even íf you combine 5 parties to get to 40.4%, the fact remains that of about 37% of voters who bothered showing up, 31% voted for a 6-week-old Brexit Party. For some perspective, the 28 or so Brexit Party seats are more than all seats the Netherlands has in the EP. Also, it doesn’t negate that pesky referendum.
Meanwhile, in Austria (18 seats), the elections can be seen as a warning for Chancellor Kurz that the country’s recent political turmoil will not go his way. Whereas Politico sees the elections as proof of Kurz’ ÖVP remaining the largest “by a wide margin“, the differences in seats (ÖVP 7, SPÖ 5, FPÖ 3) aren’t huge. More importantly, while the FPÖ might have lost a seat, it wasn’t decimated. Come the national elections in September, if the FPÖ can hold on to its seats, and their voters do not flock en masse to the ÖVP as Kurz seems to have gambled on, he might be in hot water politically when forming a new coalition.
The same might be said of Macron in France. Marine le Pen’s Rassemblement National won 22 of 74 French seats, beating a four party coalition that includes Macron’s La Republique en marche! by 1 seat. With a voter turnout of 50.12%, the French showed considerably more enthusiasm than in 2014 (up from 43%). In Germany both the Christian Democrats (CDU-CSU minus 5) as well as the social-democrat SPD (minus 11) lost, to the Greens (plus 8) and AfD (plus 10). This means that the Spanish socialist PSOE/PSC, who were the largest in the Spanish elections, now have more seats (20) in the EP than their German sisterparty (16), even though Germany almost has double thee number of seats (96 to 54). What this means for their faction, group S&D, remains to be seen.
The Italian contingent in the S&D didn’t do well either, having 18 after losing 13 compared to the last elections. As in Germany, the Christian Democrats lost, with the EPP-group down 9 seats. But where those lost seats served to push the German Greens past the Social-Democrats, in Italy everybody lost. Except for the FDI (plus 5, part of the ECR faction) and the Lega Nord (plus 23), which, although not as large as the social-democratic PD (S&D faction) was after the 2014 election (31 for 28), its ten seat lead is almost as large as the PD had in 2014.
What is the overall picture in the EP? The Christian Democrats of the EPP faction lose 41 seats, but remain the largest with 180 seats. The social-democratic S&D lose even more seats, down to 146 from 191. The ALDE faction gains a letter and 42 seats (ALDE&R 109), while the Greens/EFA gain 19 seats and are fourth largest (69). ECR loses 11 seats (59), GUE/NGL loses 12 (39) and EFDD gains 6 for 14. There were 52 “non-attached Members“, there are now 8; 29 newly elected Members have not (yet) allied themselves with “any of the political groups set up in the outgoing Parliament.”
At the end of the day, what does all of this mean? Don’t believe the hupe. The 2019 EP-elections do not prove Brexit is dead, the Social-Democrats are alive again, or Europeans want the EU with a passion. Europe-wide, barely more than halve voted. Votes were national, not European. The Spitzenkandidat-system was mostly farcical and ‘populist’ (whatever that means) parties aren’t dead either. Despite the UK-spin, or claims that Dutch Euro-sceptics ‘lost’ because they aren’t the largest party, ‘populist’ parties made serious gains, even came out on top. In a political constellation which sees unelected officials welcome a ‘constructive’ parliament, a bit of counterweight will make the EP that much more interesting the next 4 years.