From other editors: Europe is more polarized than ever

The good news is that European Parliament election results show that Europeans still care about Europe

Last week’s (May 23-26) elections to the European Parliament, like many other elections these days, were more of an ideological battleground than a process of choosing representatives to a legislature. The populist nationalists on the rise across much of the world had been expected to score big, and to the degree that they fell short there was relief. But there was little else to pop Champagne corks about.

The European Parliament itself is not an institution many Europeans feel strongly about, and past elections have reflected that disinterest. But the rise of populism and a broad dissatisfaction with traditional parties turned this year’s elections into something of a referendum on populist nationalism, on the European Union itself and on the mainstream parties.

The results delivered the heartening news that Europeans still care about Europe. Europe’s populist parties had wanted to make the elections a dagger in the heart of the bloc. That danger galvanized supporters of the 28-member union, resulting in a turnout of more than 50 percent, the highest since 1994. The populists did increase their share of seats, from 20 percent to a robust 25 percent, but fell short of the landslide many had feared. Pro-European forces in Parliament remained dominant.

Yet the results also showed Europe more polarized than ever. Those who wanted to support the European Union usually voted for smaller parties, like the Greens or Liberals, and voters on the right often went further right, all but abandoning the mainstream center-left and center-right parties that have controlled the European Parliament for years.

Bitter divisions also shaped some voting patterns. Where populists were already in control, as in Poland, Hungary and Italy, they did well. In Italy, Matteo Salvini’s far-right League Party garnered 34 percent of the vote, giving him a claim to pre-eminence among the populists of Europe. But in France, Marine Le Pen was not far behind in right-wing glory, as her National Rally vacuumed up disaffected voters, including many of the forever-protesting Yellow Vests, to take 23 percent of the vote, a smidgen more than President Emmanuel Macron’s La Republique en Marche party, which had trounced her only two years earlier.

Britain was a case unto itself, since it was supposed to be out of the European Union by now. But the failure to achieve Brexit compelled the Britons to participate, and the vote confirmed a yawning gap. A pro-Brexit party formed only a few weeks ago by Nigel Farage took 31 percent of the votes. Yet parties opposed to leaving the union jointly won far more votes, 47 percent. The two establishment parties, the Conservatives and Labour, scored low — 9.1 and 14.1 percent, respectively — suggesting that any possibility of a political compromise deal is more remote than ever.

So Europe lives for now. But the main story remains the smoldering dissatisfaction with the status quo and the nationalism this has fostered. That’s not only a European story; it’s what’s happening in America as the battle lines form for the 2020 presidential race, and it’s the prism through which elections around the world are now viewed.

In the world’s biggest democracy, India, the decisive re-election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist, echoed the rise of populists around the world. By contrast, in the third-largest democracy, Indonesia (the United States is second), the re-election of President Joko Widodo, a soft-spoken politician who is more concerned with building roads than firing up nationalist passions, was perceived as a strong riposte to the rise of populist strongmen.

There’s plenty of grist in this scene for both pessimists and optimists. The former will focus on the fragmentation of traditional politics and the opportunities this holds for populist parties and authoritarian leaders. The optimists will rejoice that resistance to nationalism and far-right ideologues brought out so many voters, many of them young.

It is no time to pop Champagne. A fateful debate is underway over the future of Europe, and the future of democracy, and traditional parties have been sent a strong warning that they need to get with it. But if what used to be boring elections to a distant European legislature can draw so many voters and stir such passionate debate, there is also no cause for despair. This is real politics, in real time.

-The New York Times

May 28


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