European Parliament Elections Left Brussels Divided Between Hope and Fear

Mainstream EEP and S&D no longer enjoy supreme dominance ■ New parliament will be more concerned with internal issues ■ Immigrants still lack representation in politics, but not demonization

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A woman holds an EU flag during a festival outside the European Parliament in Brussels, Sunday, May 26, 2019. From Germany and France to Cyprus and Estonia, voters from 21 nations went to the polls Sunday in the final day of a crucial European Parliament election that could see major gains by the far-right, nationalist and populist movements that are on the rise across much of the continent. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
A woman holds an EU flag during a festival outside the European Parliament in Brussels, Sunday, May 26, 2019. Credit: Francisco Seco,AP

BRUSSELS – As votes for the European parliamentary elections were counted Monday night in Brussels, tension and drama mounted behind the institutions' gray, dull facades. Unlike the restrained exterior, the faces inside reflected relief at the results, or in some pessimistic cases - fear.

Optimists point out that the participation rate was the highest in 20 years, and despite grim forecasts, the hard-right, populists and euro-skeptics failed to gain much ground. The greens and liberals can balance them out, and the centrist parties remained generally dominant.

The pessimists, however, claim that even though the radical right didn’t grow stronger as a group, it also didn't falter. In some central states it has even become more powerful, if one considers the number of votes rather than percent of the population. Marine Le Pen, for example, won a higher number of votes compared with 2014, although proportionally in percentages, the vote for her National Rally party slightly decreased. 

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The pessimists also note heavy support for the Brexit party in Britain as proof that the UK will definitely leave the EU, and also that the character of parliament is ultimately determined by coalitions, not votes (as Israelis know from their own elections, although there is no deadline for forming a coalition in this case). In this aspect, the extreme right is split between those who want to unify its ranks and those who would prefer to join the traditional center-right European People's Party (EEP).

In any case, it’s a new era: The veteran mainstream parties, EPP in the center-right and social-democratic S&D in the center-left, have lost their automatic and absolute control over the character of the parliament that represents no less than half a billion Europeans.

New alliances and a parliament more riven than ever before will influence the future of Europe’s legislation, policies and international agreements, including with Israel and the Palestinians. They will especially influence the identity of the next European Commission president and of the next foreign minister, post-Mogherini.

The key issues are also going to change. Broad support for greens through the continent will indubitably spur a closer focus on environmental issues at the expense of others, EU bureaucrats told Haaretz. Generally speaking, the EU seems more likely to be focused on itself in the years to come.

The internal problems leading the agenda today are, naturally, immigration and defense. Many of the radical right parties which won broad support ran decidedly Islamophobic campaigns. In one of the tents set up in the European Parliament plaza in Brussels, young European Muslims were discussing the implications of these campaigns on their lives.

Hande Taner, a Dutch Muslim citizen, is worried that as racist voices rise, there isn’t enough representation of minorities in European institutions. More representation is necessary, she says: Everybody talks about minorities but they themselves aren’t part of the debate. Interest in young ethnic minorities in Europe has to persist beyond election season, she says, and the EU’s lack of diversity and exclusion of whole communities bolsters demonization and frustration. Why is there no action plan to combat Islamophobia, she asks.

The EU’s campaigns to encourage voting in recent months show that Taner isn’t wrong. The ads almost all show white, straight Europeans, with little diversity of the kind that is de regeur in the politically-correct United States. Perhaps the Europeans are trying to avoid spurring the racist voices even more, but the result is exclusion. The halls of Brussels and Strasburg also seem to have little social diversity.

The tent where Taner and her friends were talking was supposed to be part of a bouncy “democracy festival” marking election eve. Not many showed up. Organizers blamed the chilly weather, but the people who did show up said it just goes to show how hard it is for the EU to arouse interest and relevance in its political activity among residents themselves, even in Brussels.

On the other hand, more people did vote in this round of elections. It indicates that there could be some home for the future of the joint European project, even if this union will look different in its character.