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5 Lessons from the European Election

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If European elections used to be a sedate affair, the 2019 iteration was anything but. Besides the obvious — a growing fragmentation of European politics, a solid but not dominant position of the far right and an increasingly green left — five lessons emerge from EU’s vote

THE EU IS HERE TO STAY

Since the outbreak of the debt crisis in 2009, observers of European affairs treated every crisis that the European Union has faced as an existential one and every moment as a critical juncture. Yet, for all its dysfunction, the EU is here to stay. Overall support for the integration project is at historic highs, and the benefits of membership are obvious even to its populist critics. Perhaps because of this reality, nationalists and Euroskeptics are calling for an unspecified reform of the EU, instead of advocating for the bloc’s disintegration. The fight’s not over, of course. If the EU no longer faces the risk of collapse, it remains at risk of hollowing out and becoming ungovernable due to zero-sum nationalist politics. ALL

EUROPEAN POLITICS IS LOCAL

This may have been the most “European” of European elections to date. The ever-sharper political divide between nationalism and a pro-EU outlook is one that is shared across the Continent, as are sensitive policy challenges, like immigration. High-profile political figures — including Italy’s Matteo Salvini, France’s Marine Le Pen and Belgium’s Guy Verhofstadt — have taken part in election campaigns far outside their home countries.

Does this mean we have witnessed the birth of a truly European public square? Not quite. Not many voters watched the televised debates of the Spitzenkandidaten — or lead candidates for the European Commission — and only a very few could even name any of them. In most countries, European themes were eclipsed by domestic fights. Despite French President Emmanuel Macron’s best efforts, the campaign in France reflected the country’s domestic malaise. For understandable reasons, the debate in the United Kingdom ended up being exclusively about Brexit. And in Poland, much energy was channeled into a discussion of LGBTQI issues and of sex abuse scandals in the church. For pro-EU (and anti-EU) forces, the lesson is simple: Local context matters, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions, and there can be no substitute for taking domestic politics seriously.

A lazy view of European politics sees the “new” member states in Eastern Europe as proxies for populism, backwardness and corruption.

DON’T APPEASE THE POPULISTS

Both the collapse of Austria’s governing coalition and British Prime Minister Theresa May’s resignation demonstrate the perils of the “no enemy to the right” strategy adopted by many conservative parties. Les Républicains in France have become virtually indistinguishable from Le Pen’s far-right National Rally, but its shift toward extremism only netted it a little over eight per cent of the popular vote. The lesson for Europe’s center right is that its efforts to compromise with the far right — including the European People Party’s current ambivalence toward Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán — erode its character as an ecumenical and fundamentally moderate political force and push it into a race it can’t win.

LOOK TO THE EAST

A lazy view of European politics sees the “new” member states in Eastern Europe as proxies for populism, backwardness and corruption. In many ways that view has a basis in reality; by conventional measures, Hungary is no longer a liberal democracy but a hybrid regime resembling Turkey or Russia, and Poland’s current government has not hidden its ambition to “build a Budapest in Warsaw.”

Yet, this binary view obfuscates the fact that both old and new member states are facing the same challenges. What is more, it is increasingly the ongoing political ferment in some countries in Eastern Europe that carries in it the promise of revitalising the European project. Slovakia, for example, is leading the way, with a new moderate, pro-EU coalition of the center right and center left (Progressive Slovakia-SPOLU) that ended up winning the election by sizeable margin.

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