I arrived in Europe just as it was wrapping up the count on the latest round of elections for the European Parliament, which finished Sunday. The results were — well, they complicated just about every narrative that was being told in the run-up to the balloting.
Here in France, the big story is that the upstart center-left En Marche party of President Emmanuel Macron came in second to the far-right National Rally (formerly the National Front), led by his 2017 presidential rival, Marine Le Pen. With this electoral rebuke, and the grass-roots Gilets Jaunes street protests that have roiled France for months, Macron’s government probably ought to worry about its future.
Though it might not need to worry too much. The vote share for Le Pen’s party (23.3 percent) was lower than in the 2017 general election (33.9 percent) — not as dramatic a drop as the Macron party’s dive from 66 percent in 2017 to 22.4 percent, to be sure, but not exactly a sign of towering strength. And in any case, French voters in E.U. parliamentary elections — like U.S. voters in midterm elections — tend to punish incumbents. Le Pen’s National Front also won the E.U. vote in 2014, with nearly 25 percent of the vote. If the 2017 presidential runoff election were happening again today, there’s little question that Macron would again handsomely trounce Le Pen.
Outside of France, the E.U. election results look even more chaotic. Though populists also did well in Italy, Poland and Hungary, they hardly received a clear mandate from a Europe-wide electorate. In Britain, the Brexit Party may have come in first with its hard-leave platform, but collectively, hard-remain parties got a larger vote share than the leavers. In Germany, the right-wing Alternative for Germany actually saw its vote share fall compared with its showing in the 2017 general election, while the Greens surged. And in Spain, the boring social democrats actually gained.
With voters running in every direction, there’s just enough evidence for any theory you’d care to name. If you want proof that right-wing populism is the future . . . well, in 10 years, it has gone from the political fringe to a substantial force in Europe, and, so far, there’s no sign that it’s going away. But if you want to see a resurgent left preparing to overtake the insurgent right, look no further than the Greens, who increased their representation in the European Parliament by about a third, albeit from a low starting point.
One way to regard the E.U. election results: They don’t really matter. No one much cares about the elections because the European Parliament is weak, making it a ripe target for symbolic votes that don’t reflect what you’ll do when your nation’s general elections roll around.
Another way to look at the results: The elections’ very aimlessness is itself a major problem, a symbol of the E.U.’s democratic accountability gap — and of the way that the gap exacerbates tensions within the European Union between sovereignty and multilateralism.
In March, when I visited Britain, a pro-Brexit protester told me, “We wanted a common market. We got a common government.” One can argue, persuasively, that a common market as broad and deep as the E.U.’s requires some sort of a common government. Someone has to set everything from financial regulations to labor standards. Submitting to such a government inherently means some loss of democratic power; your vote, and those of your neighbors, simply carry more weight if you are one of 4.8 million Irish citizens than if you are one of the E.U.’s 512 million.
But the democratic deficit has been deepened into a chasm by the European Union’s byzantine governance structure, most of which operates at several levels of remove from democratic control. That’s bound to feel like a step backward if you have a proper democracy closer to home. And the more important decisions the E.U. takes onto itself, the more the citizenry will chafe at its power.
Just as Sunday’s election results likely don’t signal much about what voters intend to do in national elections, it isn’t even clear how much influence the results will ultimately have over E.U. policy. But the results do tell us, with crystal clarity, that voters are still fed up with the status quo. They may want to return to a rosy-hued past of national strength and unity, or press forward toward an environmentalist paradise, but they all agree that they hate the incumbents, the policies they’ve supported and, increasingly, the institutions that put those policies into practice. And even if the E.U. elections don’t matter much, that anger will.