The European elections are over, the votes counted (for the most part at least). Having taken place from March 23 to 26, the elections were hailed over months, perhaps even years, as the decisive vote on the future of the European Union. The media overdramatically called it the “battle for Europe,” between those in favor of a federal and united Europe, i.e. a much stronger and centralized EU, and those skeptical of such integration attempts.
What happened in the end? Let’s take a look at five aspects that can already be said days after the elections:
1. The Battle Without a Loser
As it turns out, the “battle for Europe” for the moment ended in a tie. Both federalists as well as Euroskeptics were able to make major gains compared to the loss of classic establishment parties. The ALDE group, usually the most ardent defenders of the “ever closer European Union,” have increased their seats from 67 to 111. In part this is due to Emmanuel Macron, who may lost against his nemesis Marine Le Pen by one percent, but will still send over 20 members to the Parliament.
Similarly, the Euroskeptics, if we define them as a single group (which we maybe should refrain from), did well, too. We heard of Le Pen, whose National Rally is in first place in France. Also first are Matteo Salvini’s Lega in Italy, Law and Justice in Poland, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz in Hungary, and Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party in the UK. Politico projects there to be close to 235 members (about a third of the total 751) in the new Parliament that are Euroskeptic in some form.
2. Climate Change Is Here to Stay
Another clear winner of the elections were the Greens. Climate change has been high on the agenda everywhere in the Western world thanks to the likes of Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future protests as well as Green New Deals.
The European elections show that this topic may stick around for longer. In Germany, the Green Party scored over 20 percent and in several other northwestern European countries, they did better than expected as well. At the same time young Europeans say that climate change is the most important topic for them.
Surely, climate change has had its moments every now and then over the last few decades, only to slow down again as a concern for people after a while. Yet, judging from the severity of the current mood among the youth, it might, indeed, stay a relevant topic for much longer. And so far, crucially, it’s only Green Parties that truly take it seriously.
3. People Are Fed Up by the Same Old, Same Old …
While Euroskeptics, federalists and Greens all profited from the elections, the clear losers were the establishment forces, namely the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the center-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D). Those two groups were dominating the Brussels scene for decades, always easily staying in power together.
Not so anymore. Both stumbled hard on Sunday, as they lost enough seats to lose their combined majority. What this clearly shows is that Europeans are fed up with what the Brussels elite has been doing – for various reasons, of course: some think they haven’t been defending the EU and pushing more integration enough, others think they have been doing way too much already anyway. This has resulted in the EPP and S&D losing votes to both sides of the EU divide.
4. … But the Alternatives Aren’t Much Better
With this being said, it is not clear whether the alternatives are really better. The federalists around ALDE may call themselves “liberal,” but on the EU level they are anything but. More centralization in Brussels would hardly be very liberating for Europeans.
The Greens, meanwhile, may think that climate change can justify any actions by the government as long as it saves the planet – including mass unemployment and economic decline. And yet, does more government actually lead to more environmental awareness? Powerful states of the last century show the opposite. That entrepreneurs could solve the crisis much better is not considered at all.
Finally, the Euroskeptics, despite being different from each other, still have a tendency to be in favor of more power to the few as well – the few being themselves, of course. Cases like Hungary, Poland, and Italy – i.e. countries in which those movements are in power – have shown a sometimes-shocking disregard for liberal institutions and principles like the rule of law, the independent judiciary, press freedom, and basic economic rights for everyone, not just friends of the government. In the case of Italy, for instance, local Euroskeptics have also shown reform proposals that are anything but fiscally responsible.
5. This Battle Was the First of the War
So where do we stand? In the end, this is only the first battle of the larger war, which is going to play itself out over the next months and years. At first, it will be about who will fill the most important posts in the EU, from Commission President to Parliament President, President of the Council as well as the European Central Bank. It will concern changes in Parliament groups and, thus, potential changes in the balance of power. Beyond that, this was the first part in how the coming challenges – from the EU finances, tax policy, migration, defense, to Brexit, yes, climate change, and, who knows, potential new economic troubles – over the next years will be tackled.
That the results of the elections were inconclusive is perhaps saying more about this than we might think at first. The inconclusiveness, the fragmentation, where the status quo loses out and other forces with completely opposite ideas all win simultaneously, shows that Europe is a continent of polarization today. To find a way out of this and bring together people with diametrically opposing views in a highly politicized society might be the greatest challenge of all.