In the European Parliament elections, held last week, parties critical of the direction of the European Union made substantial, but not decisive, gains. For the first time since 1979, when direct election of deputies by party lists was introduced, neither of the big formations will command a majority.
About a quarter of the European Parliament’s 750 seats will be occupied by deputies representing variously named Eurosceptics — “populists,” “extreme rightists,” “nationalists,” “sovereignists.”
The major formations, which band together for the purpose of forming parliamentary blocs, are the center right conservatives who sit as the PPE, European People’s Party, and the non-communist left, who sit as the Party of European Socialists or, for the latest edition, Socialists and Democrats.
However, the Eurosceptics can at best hope for the Europarliamentary equivalent of a minority government, since they will not hold anything close to a majority of the seats either.
But a “minority government” is dubious, primarily because the parliament’s role in the governance of the European Union is minor. It can exert a feeble objection to the executive’s decisions, but it cannot command it to adopt its preferred initiatives. Not only is the executive, called the Commission, in Brussels, not in Strasbourg with the parliament, it is more beholden to the national governments than to the European parliamentarians.
More realistically, the success of the Eurosceptics might be, in Wlady Pleszczynski’s apt comparison, somewhat akin to the stand of Boris Yeltsin at the Russian Duma when the neo-Bolsheviks attempted a coup against his government following the collapse of the Soviet state. Under Eurosceptic leadership, the Strasbourg Parliament may be able to restrain the administrative tyranny of the Brussels super-state, and gradually push the European Union in the direction of local power and what we might term nation-states’ rights.
It must be kept in mind that while no single party, establishment or skeptic, commands a majority in the new parliament, the establishment types are still stronger. A coalition of center-right conservatives and center-liberals, or Greens, or some other combination, can maintain the broad lines of what has been the mainstream Euro-establishment program, based on the principle of a single market.
None of the rebels, except the British ones, favor leaving the EU. They want to reform the Union from within, and they have various notions of what this entails. The establishment will be able to play on their needs and national interests — for example, in bartering transfer payments (aka European Structural Funds, in plain English welfare) for votes on environmental or even border-control issues.
In recent years, the dominant, super-statist European agenda has been criticized as favoring market capitalism at the expense of the welfare state policies that were conceived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (by conservative as well as social-democratic parties) and that were implemented in various forms after World War II.
The gains last week of the anti-Establishment parties are by no means unexpected. They have been making progress for some time in national polls, precisely because of the perceived (and often real) sense that the welfare-state is not working as promised, while wealth inequalities have been widening. France’s Rassemblement National (ex-Front National) came in second in the last presidential election, ahead of the center-left neo-Gaullists and the center-left Socialists. Italy’s Lega (ex-Lega Norte) sits in the current governing coalition as the dominant partner.
Although these parties are called “extreme right,” they are such mainly in their championing of traditional views of national sovereignty. They are not necessarily free-market liberals by any means, and in fact they are good examples of why Friedrich Hayek, a very traditional central European gentleman and political philosopher, eschewed the term conservative and referred to himself as a liberal.
The fact of the matter is that the Eurosceptics, outside Britain, are primarily interested in the national question, and that does not mean they have a common vision. The governing party in Hungary, Fidesz, which until recently sat with the PPE in the Strasbourg Parliament, made its mark by staunchly opposing the European establishment’s migration policy. It never objected to EU transfer payments.
Immigration was also the emblematic issue of the French National movement by whatever name, as well as the Italian Lega. As the Lega Nord, indeed, it was anti-Italian, or at least anti-southern Italian. It favored autonomy for Tuscany and the Piedmont and its leadership, notably the charismatic Matteo Salvini, referred to southerners as welfare bums and monkeys.
It is not at all clear how well the various new anti-establishment Eurodeputies will get along, if at all. Some, like the French National Front types, are frankly anti-American; the Hungarians, Poles, Slovenians, are far better inclined toward us, but they must be wary of their large and sometimes threatening neighbor to the east and our own historical fickleness with regard to their needs and independence.
The championing of common European values against large influxes of non-European migrants may serve as a usable slogan, but these values have not in the past prevented sovereign European states from committing mass murder against one another.
As in previous Europarliament elections, the voting carries symbolic importance for national politics. Slightly ahead (22 percent to 21 percent) of Macron, Marine Le Pen will press for heightened spending in depressed regions, as well as restrictions on immigration, and will carry these themes into the next presidential and national parliamentary electoral cycles. Matteo Salvini, will also favor policies to limit immigration, while arguing that Italy should not be under the fiscal and budgetary discipline of the EU Commission. In England, Nigel Farage may launch a bid for a third-party conquest of the next Parliament, or else will make a deal with the “hard-Brexit” Conservatives who will be taking over the leadership of their party from Theresa May in coming weeks.
A shock but not necessarily an earthquake, the elections may have a useful consequence for U.S. policy. No one has been able to answer the question posed by Henry Kissinger: “When you want Europe, whom do you ring?” Now, it may well be that for important calls, we dial whoever is in charge in the capital of the country we want to talk to. As we did in the forgotten past.