Consensus politics hit in EU elections

The loudest message from Sunday’s European election results is that opinion in the continent is polarizing. It is going too far to say that the political center ground is being hollowed out, but voters in the 28 member states have punished long dominant centrist parties by supporting anti-establishment candidates.

The 751-seat European parliament has long been dominated by three out of eight main groups. The center-right European People’s Party bloc remains the largest and has traditionally formed a grand alliance with center-left Socialist and Democrat blocs. However, all three lost MEPs and have thus forfeited their absolute majority. They will need to look for support from the Liberals and the Greens who were significant winners in this election.

The other main victors in this five-yearly election have been the nationalist parties, many of which have been shamelessly anti-immigration and, therefore by extension, embrace racist and Islamophobic agendas. But though Marine Le Pen’s far-right and euroskeptic National Rally party, (formerly the National Front) gained more votes than President Emmanuel Macron’s French Renaissance grouping headed by his En Marche party, its victory was relatively narrow. In Italy, Hungary and Austria nationalist parties showed strongly. The success of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party was the more surprising given last week’s bribery scandal which forced the resignation of its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, as Vice-Chancellor.

In Germany, the openly anti-Muslim immigration Alternative für Deutschland did not do as well as both it and many analysts had expected, raising its vote to around 10.5 percent. The greatest nationalist victory undoubtedly went to the UK’s Brexit Party which bested all other British parties by winning some 35 percent of the popular vote. Though not as anti-immigrant as its sister parties in the rest of Europe, the Brexit Party mainly campaigned against the governing Conservative party’s bungling negotiations to leave the EU and is pushing for a no-deal exit.

Analysts are still poring over all the results. These may have been elections for the European parliament, but country by country, other imperatives have undoubtedly driven voting patterns. The EU elections have often proved a way for electorates to punish their home governments.

Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that throughout the Union, there has been a shift away from the long-established consensus politics that has come to epitomize the Commission in Brussels and the European parliament. The backing for the Greens with their dominant environmentalist agenda and at the other extreme, nationalist politicians, suggests that voters want to challenge the way that Brussels does business. It may indeed represent a pushback against the Commission’s until now inexorable pursuit of ever-greater centralization.

And there is perhaps a more subtle point which those seeking a more strongly-integrated Europe might do well to consider. Do EU voters really care about a parliament which has limited legislative powers and is frequently sidelined by the functionaries at the European Commission, the choosing of whose chief is their only, highly-limited source of influence? Rather do voters suspect that the EU parliament is merely a talking shop and its members simply riding a highly-paid gravy train? Perhaps by voting for non-consensus candidates, however objectionable their views, the European electorate is hoping to put some metal in the spine of the parliament that is supposed to represent its interests.