European elections this year have set the stakes high, and the challenges formidable. By all expectations, the European Parliament will emerge more fractionalized than ever. Moreover, predictions place anti-European parties at their strongest position in history, second only to the mainstream conservative European People’s Party.
This new political landscape is important but equally important is the fact that it will have emerged out of electoral campaigns that have taken place with almost exclusively national priorities. These campaigns have left out sensitive topics such as the Transatlantic Relationship (for example between the euro and the dollar or NATO and a possible European army), the impact of digital revolutions on labor, and the tension between economic nationalism and E.U.’s supranational structure.
Dissatisfaction and generalized anxiety about the E.U. is not new and surfaced already in the 2014 European elections. In light of the eurozone crisis and Eastern enlargement, it was expected that European elections would lead to a breakthrough in European politics. However, this did not happen, and the election demonstrated that the people, or rather their newly elected representatives, believed “muddling through” and preserving the status quo was the best way forward.
Ever wondered what being an MEP entails? Here is the answer ⬇ pic.twitter.com/cuwVaqaZBL
— European Parliament (@Europarl_EN) August 2, 2018
In the five years that followed, the E.U.’s internal and external situations changed dramatically. The migration crisis, Brexit, Catalonia, and Donald J. Trump’s election are just some of the examples pressuring the European project. Yet, these sea-changes have not informed the electoral debates taking place in the context of 2019 elections and, with some exceptions, the tone of national conversations resembled that of 2014.
EU’s Fault Lines
The notable exception is that, different from 2014, the main fault lines in 2019 have emerged along the national/European frame. In short, Europe deals with a “us versus them” pan-European fault line, which is stronger than any ideological left/right divide and which also echoes both the Brexit referendum and the U.S. presidential elections.
This fault line is further compounded by a broad paradigm shift looming over the transatlantic world, which is likely to shape the coming leadership of the European Union too. This fundamental change finds its roots in the generalized doubt regarding neoliberal economic thinking, and, more generally, a widespread awareness that the order established after the Second World War – loosely labeled the “global liberal order” – is coming to an end.
The specificity of the E.U. context and the unique friction between national and supranational sovereignty leads to additional tension. While the “my country first” feeling is denied and sometimes even demonized at a national level, especially when it comes to new member states from Central and Eastern Europe, the E.U. elites have taken a strong “E.U. first” stance as a response to the above-mentioned changing reality.
This “E.U. first” trend is likely to continue with the future European decision-makers. One of the challenges that they will face is to create synergies between the legitimacy of the “my country first” feelings pervasive in virtually all member states and the demand for “E.U. first” stances in trade, security, and foreign policy affairs.
Future of European Project
Despite the fault lines, internal friction, and external pressure, the European project is likely to move forward, albeit in different shapes and at different speeds. The current challenges, such as migration, aging populations, digital revolutions, and climate change are simply too complicated to be tackled at a national level. This reality gives a stronger legitimacy and voice to pan-European, supra-national forces.
Besides, Eurosceptic parties are unlikely to work well together. What works for some does not work for others. Northern European populists would like to cut transfers to the Southern periphery while tackling migration is a thorny issue for Southern populists. The rule of law is a taboo subject in Central and Eastern Europe, while the Southern periphery struggles with budgetary deficits. Populists exploit all of these issues well at home, but they are unlikely to find common ground once established in the European Parliament.
After this week’s elections, anti-establishment, anti-European, nationalistic, and conservative forces are likely to have a stronger voice in the European Parliament. At the same time, their fragmentation and the prevalence of structural challenges objectively calling for supra-national action will mitigate their influence in favor of the pro-European, liberal voices.
In this context, the biggest mistake future E.U. leaders could make is to consider this as a “vindication of history” instead of working towards delivering a new project worthy of the citizens’ prevailing trust.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.