The standard story line that circulated across various media before last European Parliamentary election was that the nationalist right would surge and take over the Parliament. The surge was unlikely to happen — and did, in fact, not happen. By Sunday evening, the BBC announced that the populist advance had been “halted.” The historian Harold James, a usually prescient commentator on European politics, observed with a hint of surprise that “The more interesting outcome of the election was the relative weakness of populist right-wing and nationalist parties.” In the post-election dust up, it is worth asking what exactly did happen vis-à-vis the nationalist populist right in Europe. “Surge” and “no surge” narratives obscure the fact that the nationalist right neither under-performed nor over-performed. Instead it secured its place, if not by dint of sheer numbers, in the new European political landscape.
The last time citizens of European Union member states displayed enthusiasm for the European Parliamentary elections was in 1979 when turnout was 61.9 percent. 1979 was the year that the elections began and the year that the Union consisted of only nine members. In the five Parliamentary elections that have occurred since then, the number of member states has increased to 28 and voter participation in the election decreased with each passing year to a low of 42.6 percent in 2014. Over the years, pundits, policy makers and scholars viewed these elections as largely pro-forma — a symbolic bow to trans-European participation and democracy or a place to register a protest. The elections are often as much about national issues as European issues.
The 2019 European Parliamentary election was different. Scholars and policy-makers anticipated and feared that the trans-European nationalist right, Eurosceptic or populist parties would achieve results that would enable them to block or disrupt the Parliament’s agenda. European and American mainstream print media regularly put forth op-eds and editorials warning of the populist threat in the coming European elections. Even the usually reserved European Council of Foreign Relations put out a policy brief in January entitled, The 2019 European Parliamentary Election: How Anti-Europeans Plan to Wreck Europe and What Can Be Done to Stop It.
Anxiety about the European nationalist right began to gain in intensity in 2016 when Brexit occurred and accelerated due to a series of high profile national parliamentary elections such as Italy and Sweden in 2018, and the French Presidential election in 2017. Approaching the 2019 European elections with concern was warranted as several fault lines plagued the European project. First, as scholars such as Andreas Wimmer and others have recently argued the nation-state is a stickier attachment than some policy makers and academics would have us believe. Second, with Angela Merkel gone as the leader of her party and Emmanuel Macron distracted by the yellow vest crisis in France, there was a leadership vacuum in the months leading up to the election. Third, the center left and the right were weakening across Europe — leaving the political space void of parties that could buffer the extremes.
More troubling were developments on the nationalist right. In addition to their improving electoral fortunes, populist parties changed in salient ways between 2014, the last Parliamentary election, and 2019. They changed in response to European events such as the triple crises of 2015: Charlie Hebdo; the Greek debt crisis; and the refugee crisis. These three events had a synergistic effect on the momentum behind right wing parties. In late 2017, trans-European right wing parties started to “talk” to each other about collaborating. (And no, they did not need Steve Bannon for this.) An aggressive Lega in Italy under the leadership of Matteo Salvini rallied a parliamentary group, the Europe of Nations and Freedom, under the banner of a “Europe of Common Sense.” In contrast to 2014, populist or Eurosceptic parties learned the lesson of Brexit and they now want to “reform” Europe from within rather than withdraw from it.
The populist “surge” failed to materialize, but that does not mean that Sunday’s election lacked headlines. First, the participation rate across the 28 members was 50 percent — higher than at any point since 1999. The election mattered. National participation rates jumped in Denmark, Germany, France, Spain and Austria. All countries where national issues played out. Second, the Greens — the real unexpected result — surged in Germany and came in a surprisingthird place in France. Third, the traditional center left and right parties were wiped out in France and Italy. With some notable exceptions, for example in Denmark and Austria, these coalitions were weakened across Europe.
In many respects, Sunday’s election was a much about stability as it was about rupture. Many of the outcomes represented the culmination of long term trends. As recent polls predicted, the nationalist right came in first in Italy and France — with 34 percent and 23 percent of the vote respectively. Even though Matteo Salvini and his Lega were the more flamboyant of the two, Marine Le Pen and the French results were the more interesting. Commentators have made much of the fact that Marine Le Pen’s 23.3 percent versus Macron’s 22.4 percent was not significant because her results were lower than her 24 percent in 2014, when she also came in first. But that assessment fails to take into account the political differences in France between 2014 and 2019. In 2014, the traditional center right (UMP) and Socialist Party were still in the game and only nine parties ran with a 42 percent participation rate. In 2019, the traditional parties of the left and right had collapsed, 13 parties fielded candidates and the participation rate was 50 percent. The two parties that came in after Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, Macron’s coalition and the Greens were all new to the top slot positions. Given the changes in the voting landscape, Le Pen faced tougher competition than she had in 2014 where she arguably represented a protest rather than a nation-wide change of direction.
In Marine Le Pen’s concession speech delivered after losing the 2017 French Presidential election, she identified the conflict between “globalists and patriots” as defining the future of France and of Europe. She might have substituted the word “nationalists” for “patriots.” Le Pen points to a division between those who could take advantage of the mobility, freedoms and opportunities that the European Union afforded and those who were metaphorically and physically stuck in place. This antagonism between the local and the global, the nation and Europe was a central theme of the 2019 European Parliamentary election. See for example, French President Emmanuel Macron’s “Dear Europe” letter that he sent in March to major European newspapers in advance of the elections, in which he called for a “European renaissance” to confront encroaching nationalism. In the days after the election, Macron was already meeting with Angela Merkel with the intention of still leading this renaissance — how realistic his hope will be given his weakened position in France remains to be seen. His approval rating has hovered in the low 30s for the last year.
The antagonism between the local and the global emerged long before 2017 and 2019. The failure to resolve this tension is one of the forces driving the entrenchment of the nationalist right, which held its own in the election. On the day after the election, Marine Le Pen declared a “people’s victory.” A hashtag from her campaign, #OnArrive (we arrive) better captures the outcome in France and across Europe. There is no doubt that the right can no longer be considered a marginal part of European politics. The question is what precisely will be the meaning of this trans-European right in the European parliament. The answer is really not in yet because while they have gained seats it is not clear that they have the numbers to overturn parliamentary initiatives. So the fear that they might act in concert to subvert the European Union from within is probably exaggerated. Their biggest threat most likely remains on the national level. In analyzing the new landscape of European politics that the 2019-2024 parliament signals, as well as the nationalists’ role in it, our best guide might be that quintessential European Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who quipped long ago, “One never goes so far as when one doesn’t know where one is going.”
Mabel Berezin is a Professor of Sociology at Cornell who writes on challenges to democratic cohesion and solidarity in Europe and the United States. She is the author of Illiberal Politics in Neoliberal Times: Culture, Security, and Populism in the New Europe (Cambridge 2009) and is writing a book on the resurgence of extreme nationalism in contemporary Europe.