Mainstream center-left and center-right parties — especially in Britain, France and Germany — performed poorly in European parliamentary elections held between May 23-26. The traditional centrist duopoly lost its majority in the next European Parliament, which opens on July 2 and will sit for five years, until 2024.
Most of the political vacuum left by the so-called legacy parties was filled by Greens and pro-European Union liberals. Pro-EU parties will control around 75% of the seats in the 751-seat European Parliament.
Anti-EU nationalist parties made important gains — especially in Belgium, Britain, France, Hungary, Italy and Poland — but fell short of expectations. Euroskeptic parties will hold around 25% of the seats in the next European Parliament.
The election results reflect a generational shift and suggest that European politics increasingly will be dominated by ideological clashes over two competing mega-issues: the fight against climate change championed by the pro-EU globalists; and the opposition to mass migration and multiculturalism led by the anti-EU national populists.
What follows is a selection of commentary by Europeans on the future of European politics:
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whose anti-immigration Fidesz party won 52% of votes in the European election, said that Hungarian voters want to see change in Brussels:
"The Hungarian people have stated that they do not want to see European leaders who seek to organize immigration, but those who seek to stop it; they want to see people leading European institutions who respect European nations and want to protect Christian culture; and the Hungarian people want leaders for whom the interests of the European people always come first. The Hungarian people have entrusted us with the task of representing change in Brussels."
Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, whose ruling League party won 34% percent of votes, making it the largest party in Italy, said that the election results heralded a new beginning for Europe:
"It is an incredible success, not only for the League in Italy, but also for Marine Le Pen in France and Nigel Farage in England. It is the sign of a changing Europe. A new Europe has been born, a new European renaissance founded on employment, liberty and security. We have the historic mission of bringing the right to work, health, life and family back to the center of the European debate."
Writing for the New York Times, Bulgarian analyst Ivan Krastev noted that euroskeptic populist parties are now a permanent feature of Europe's political landscape:
"The far right may not be dominant, but it should now be clear to everyone that this movement is not going away any time soon. Of the five individual political parties with the biggest representation in the new European Parliament, four are anti-European Union.
"Not long ago, many mainstream politicians and pundits viewed the far right as little more than a protest movement: People voted against the establishment in European elections to send a message, but no one really wanted these politicians to try their hand at governing. These parties were not seen as serious about policy; they were just playing politics. Now, there is no choice but to admit that the populist far right is becoming a permanent feature of European politics....
"The euroskeptic nationalists are not the only new force to be reckoned with in the European Parliament. Liberal and Green parties were the surprise winners of this election. Together they gained about 60 additional seats, giving them a total of 176; with this will come much political influence. Perhaps the Greens will use their success to demand that climate change become a priority for the continent....
"So these are the victors: Ecological liberals who want to preserve life on Earth and national populists who want to preserve their way of life. But what they have in common is the sense that the current trajectory of politics and society is not sustainable. They both offered change and change was in demand."
Writing for National Review, the veteran observer of European affairs, John O'Sullivan, observed:
"Think of these different results as a series of actions and reactions: Centrist elites pursue (failed) progressive policies that the voters increasingly resent; populists organize to oppose the elites and block or even reverse the policies; the governing elites then see these as populist attacks on democracy and themselves and go into a moral panic; their supporters in the electorate are sufficiently alarmed by these warnings to transfer their votes from the center to the populists of the Left in the smaller Green and Liberal parties; and so ad infinitum until the next European election in 2024.
"Or we could see the elections as a competition between two rising insurgent political forces — each trying not to let a good crisis go to waste: the populists using the migration crisis as an organizing principle, the Greens and the Liberals doing the same with the climate crisis. Which group will win probably depends on which crisis ultimately proves to be the more genuinely frightening one to the voters — a crisis that really seems to threaten their futures and their children's futures in the most practical everyday ways."
Ralph Sina, Brussels correspondent and bureau chief for Germany's public broadcaster WDR/NDR, observed:
"This European election was decided by two questions: the refugee issue and the climate issue. The electoral victories of Marine Le Pen, Victor Orbán, Matteo Salvini and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) send a clear message: The refugee crisis is by no means history. The EU external border remains insufficiently monitored and the 10,000 additional Frontex officials promised by the European Commission are nowhere in sight. That is why the right will increasingly question the Schengen principle of open borders within the EU.
"At the same time, the future topic of climate protection is coming to the fore. Whoever does not clearly position himself loses. This applies to Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. This EU election was not a collection of national memos. It was about the future of Europe and this planet. Young Europeans, in particular, see the EU as the last chance to limit climate change to a degree that is perhaps still acceptable to people and the environment.
"The new EU Parliament must now agree on a successor to Jean-Claude Junker, one who takes both European core challenges seriously: the migration issue and climate change. And who at the same time enjoys authority among the heads of state and government. The citizens have voted in large numbers. The ball is now in the court of the next European Parliament."
Ines Pohl, editor-in-chief of Deutsche Welle, Germany's public international broadcaster, wrote that the defeat of Germany's Social Democrats was so devastating that it puts Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling coalition in danger:
"The polarization between nationalists and pro-Europeans obviously motivated people to go out and vote, with many countries reporting a higher than usual turnout. Also, significantly more people under 30 voted this year than in the previous elections — further evidence that people are interested in the subject of Europe and in the question of how we want to live together. In this age bracket, the clear winners are the Greens, who were able to unequivocally claim the key issue of the future — climate protection — for themselves.
"For Germany's Social Democrats, however, this Sunday has been an absolute disaster. The oldest German democratic party fell to under 16% at European level. And that's not all: Local elections were also held on Sunday in Bremen, a federal state that the Social Democrats have governed for 73 years. No longer, though — the election was won by a CDU candidate for the very first time.
"This double setback will not be without its consequences. It's evidence that the party is on its last legs, and that total reorientation is the only way it stands any chance of having a future.
"There will be arguments in Brussels over the coming days about which party gets to fill which of the leading posts. In Germany, the discussions will be more fundamental. The main question is likely to be: How much longer does this governing coalition intend to go on tormenting both itself and the country as a whole?
"Following this weekend, it's entirely possible that, after 14 years, the Merkel era will actually be brought to an end by her SPD coalition partner — and that there will be an early election later this year. It would be an election with many, many open questions, and only one certainty: Angela Merkel is not going to stand again."
Writing for the Financial Times, chief foreign affairs commentator Gideon Rachman warned that a fragmented Europe risks paralysis on a range of issues:
"Those who argue that 'this [election] changes nothing' have some powerful points. Collectively, pro-EU parties will continue to dominate the European Parliament. Anti-EU parties now account for about a quarter of the seats in the parliament, up from about 20%.
"However, those who think that "this changes everything" also have evidence to point to. Eurosceptic (or Eurohostile) parties emerged as the largest in four of the six most populous EU countries: France, Italy, Britain and Poland.
"One reason for this clash of interpretations is an over-focus on just one question: what does this mean for the battle between the pro-EU forces and anti-EU insurgents? But if you ask a different question — what is happening to the parties that have dominated European politics? — then a clearer trend emerges. The traditional center-left and center-right are in decline. They are losing ground not just to populist nationalists, but also to parties that appeal to an urbanized middle-class, such as the greens and liberals....
"It seems that political parties built around the class and economic structures of the 19th and 20th centuries are losing their relevance. European voters are increasingly motivated by new issues — such as climate change, identity and migration.
"The consequence is likely to be a period of political uncertainty and flux that will make it harder for the EU to act. The fact that the center-right, socialists, liberals and greens are all broadly pro-EU cannot disguise their very different views on key areas such as climate change and eurozone reform.
"One big issue to look out for is the political future of Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. Another dismal result for the SPD may persuade them to pull out of the governing coalition, so collapsing the government. Ms. Merkel will also be under pressure from within her own CDU. The party's weak electoral performance may empower Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the chancellor's heir apparent, to push for Ms. Merkel to go sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, some in the CDU will argue for a move sharply to the right on issues such as the euro and energy policy.
"If Ms. Merkel is forced out early, the EU will have lost its dominant political figure. But even if she stays in office for another two years, the fragmentation of European politics, reflected in the European Council and the parliament, may hinder the EU reaching decisions on crucial matters, including the euro, migration, Brexit and policy on China.
"The big question underlying all this is whether the EU is gradually disintegrating, or gradually progressing towards a closer union that can defend Europe's interests."
In an essay — "Deceptive Euphoria Before the Next Crisis" — published by the influential blog Tichys Einblick, German historian Ronald G. Asch wrote that a highly fragmented European Parliament will lead to more conflict between EU member states. He also predicted that German voters would come to regret voting for the Greens if radical climate policies lead to the collapse of the German industrial sectors that underpin German prosperity:
"The — supposed — disaster has failed. The evil 'populists' failed to achieve a resounding success in the EU elections.... By contrast, voter turnout increased, especially in Germany, to oppose these 'populists'.... The pro-EU parties, however, were content to simply call for the fight against evil par excellence rather than to solve the EU's real problems, which include a fundamental legitimacy deficit....
"Conflicts of interest between different EU countries will shape the work in parliament more than in the past. A potential left-to-right conflict will make it difficult to neutralize national conflicts of interest, because there are few party groups that can claim to speak for a political camp that represents all the major EU countries. Particularly paradoxical is the fact that the Green Group in the EU Parliament is the most German of all factions. The Green Group almost appears in Brussels as an EU branch of the German Greens, who actually reject all things national and would rather abolish the nation state today than tomorrow. And yet they still expect the rest of Europe's nation states to support German plans to save the world.
"Just as the euro has not created coherence within the eurozone, but rather accentuated and reinforced the differences in the competitiveness of individual European economies, the political conflicts and crises of recent years have also led to the divergence of political cultures in individual European countries, and in a very noticeable way. In Germany, as the election has shown, open criticism of the EU-European project is still an outsider position. Anyone who opposes this project is quickly regarded as a right-wing extremist.
"Most Germans believe the official legitimation narratives that the EU has suddenly ended a millennial epoch of ceaseless wars in Europe and that Germans owe their prosperity above all to European unification and the euro. In particular, younger voters categorically refuse to think about economic contexts, for example, between the rapidly rising real estate prices and the European Central Bank's low interest rate policy. But in other European countries things are different....
"Despite all the problems, during the next five years the EU is likely to embark on a more federalist course — under the motto of 'More Europe Now' — and try to shift even more powers to Brussels.... Resistance is most likely to be found in countries such as Italy, Poland and Hungary, where nationalist parties are in the government....
"By contrast, the majority of German voters doubt their own state's right to exist and will therefore support or accept further centralization in the name of peace and the fight against the climate catastrophe — as long as he or she does not feel the negative consequences too personally. The question remains: how will the same voters react if the collapse of the German auto industry results in massive job cuts, a collapse of tax revenues and a cut in social benefits? We will have to wait and see whether the current wave of excitement on which the Greens now ride will then continue, and whether voters will still respond so uncritically to everything that comes from Brussels."
Writing for The European, German historian and sociologist Rainer Zitelmann warned that the rise of the Greens should be viewed as a wake-up call:
"After the elections, we will see that Germany's legacy parties — the SPD and CDU/CSU — will tell us that they need to do more to protect the climate, that this is the lesson of the outcome of the European elections. This is, of course, absurd: someone who is going in the wrong direction thinks he has to go faster now to reach the finish line.
"The CDU/CSU and the SPD have been implementing the green program for many years: switching off nuclear power plants, cutting coal, transforming the energy industry into a planned economy, etc. Recently, they have begun to reorganize the automotive industry in a planned way: so-called 'fleet targets' are imposed throughout the EU to determine which cars may and may not be produced. The strategy of adapting to the Greens and taking over their issues, however, has not led in the long term to weakening, but to strengthening the Greens: people prefer to choose the original instead of the copy.
"However, the logic of the Greens is: 'It's never enough.' If you switch off the nuclear power plants, the coal-fired power plants become the topic. Like a doomsday sect, the imminent end of the world is being propagated. And if it is always said, 'Fear is not a good guide in politics' (a standard mantra in the immigration debate), then 'panic' before the end of the world is now the dominant emotion. It's just like the 'social justice' that the Greens are now leveraging as an issue: no matter what's done, it's never enough, and still more must be done, ever more radical.
"The social institutions have long been dominated by sympathizers of the Greens — especially the media and education, but also the churches. That 37% of first-time voters now vote for the Greens is also a consequence of the fact that in schools green creeds are propagated as certainties of modern education....
"The development of the left always begins in the spiritual realm, and if you want to reverse it — which will take a long time — then that is only possible if the green ideology is opposed by something. The awareness of what market economy/capitalism is and should be has almost completely disappeared in Germany.
"The Greens are ultimately only one specific form in which anti-capitalism articulates itself. The apocalypse of the world is a pretext for reorganizing the market economy into a centrally planned economy. This will, of course, lead to severe economic upheavals — mass unemployment and economic decline. And when these consequences occur, the anti-capitalists will tell us all this is a consequence of 'unbridled markets' and now it is time to finally overcome capitalism in order to avert 'social injustice' and 'climate catastrophe' at the same time. I hope I am wrong with these grim prophecies and that reasonable entrepreneurs understand the electoral success of the Greens as a wakeup call."