Last week, at a closed financial forum in Frankfurt, George Osborne — once chancellor of the Exchequer and the second-most powerful man in Britain, until the results of the 2016 Brexit referendum changed everyone’s plans — asked those present if they could name three members of the European Parliament.
No one put their hand up. Osborne said this was because the European elections are just a protest vote, in which the citizens of the 28 EU member states can express frustration with their national politicians without having to worry about the consequence of their vote.
It remains to be seen whether the members of the new European Parliament elected this weekend will be more memorable to their voters, but they’ll almost certainly have a consequence. For a start, many voters thought this time was important. Turnout jumped to 50.5 percent of eligible Europeans — up 8 percent from 2014. The much larger numbers also delivered significantly different results.
The two main groups representing the Continent’s mainstream “establishment” parties — the European People’s Party, led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU, and the Alliance of Socialists and Democrats — both lost nearly 20 percent of their seats. They remain the biggest groups, but they now have to contend with much larger groups representing liberals, Greens and nationalists.
On a national level, some of the largest parties in the new parliament are those challenging the European consensus.
Britain’s Brexit Party, demanding an immediate withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU without an agreed-upon deal, will be as large as CDU. The third-largest party will be Matteo Salvini’s Italian-nationalist League. Next come Poland’s ultra-conservative Law and Justice Party and France’s neo-fascist National Rally, led by Marine Le Pen.
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This isn’t Merkel’s Europe anymore, but neither is it anyone else’s. The gains by populist, far-right parties are misleading. Few of them actually made any headway beyond 2014 and some of them, like the scandal-tainted Austrian Freedom Party, have lost seats. They still hold less than a quarter of parliamentary seats.
What’s changed is that the more pro-European parties have scattered between more groupings and the more established parties were weakened.
The center still holds power in Europe, but it will need to make compromises with the liberals and Greens to get work done, especially in order to elect a new candidate for the powerful position of European Commission president.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The EU’s consensus needs shaking up, so that the populists and nationalists don’t make more gains next time around. The EU has been given another chance to reorder its priorities: A less comfortable consensus dictated by Germany and France; more attention to individual nations’ concerns; less grandiose plans for superfluous joint foreign and defense policies; more work on climate change and immigration. And, above all, focus on what the EU used to do so well and was once its core mission: To improve the prosperity of all its citizens, to ensure the Continent isn’t once again drawn to extreme ideologies of fascism and communism.
One reason the far right has been less successful than many feared is that they failed to join forces across the Continent. Salvini tried to create a nationalist front, but Hungary’s Viktor Orbán won’t cooperate with Le Pen’s National Rally. He sees her as beyond the pale and wants to be accepted by the mainstream. Meanwhile, as Polish nationalists, the Law and Justice Party are anti-Russian and won’t join the rest of the European far right, which is very cozy with Vladimir Putin. The moderate forces in Europe now have an opportunity to do what the populists failed to do, and work together.
Meanwhile in Brexitland, the results have nothing to do with what is happening in the rest of Europe, though they present a visage of what could happen on the Continent if it doesn’t get its act together.
Only 37 percent of British voters took part in the European election; the Conservatives and Labour — the two largest parties that in the general election two years ago received 82 percent of the vote together — crashed down to only 24 percent between them. In this case, Osborne may have been right. It was a protest vote over Brexit. Britons angry that the United Kingdom still hasn’t left Europe three years after the referendum voted for the Brexit Party.
Meanwhile, those anxious to remain in the EU are furious with the Conservatives for inventing Brexit to begin with and Labour for doing nothing to stop it. They voted for the Liberal Democrats and other small parties that are calling for a second Brexit referendum. The protest will have wide-reaching implications for British politics.
This means that both main parties have only one plausible strategy if they wish to survive for long. The Conservatives’ only option is to become firmly the Brexit party at any cost, even if it means dropping out of the EU with no deal. Tory “Remainers” have no business there any longer. To judge from the statements of those vying to replace Theresa May as party leader, they have fully embraced a total Brexit. Whether or not they can deliver it with a majority of Parliament that is against a no-deal departure is another matter.
Labour’s path should be clear as well. It has no viable option but to support a second referendum and campaign to remain in the EU. Nearly all the party’s main politicians now openly acknowledge that. But party leader Jeremy Corbyn is not psychologically ready to change course. Just as he is incapable of hiding his disdain of British Jews and Western liberal democracy, Corbyn cannot show any enthusiasm for the European Union capitalist club that he has opposed his whole political life — even if that means destroying his party from within and forcing most of its remaining moderates to leave.
Whether or not Britain leaves the EU soon, this will increasingly be an argument it has with itself, and it will tear the United Kingdom apart. The rest of Europe has an opportunity to watch, horrified from the sidelines, and learn.