Between a drumroll and “business as usual”: the EU has voted

12 juni 2024 | David Engels

This article originally appeared in German in Tichys Einblick.

In France, the EU election has triggered an earthquake, in Italy it has cemented the right-wing government, in Austria the FPÖ has won. In Eastern Europe, on the other hand, centrist parties are increasingly asserting themselves against conservative forces. Is the professionalisation and de-demonization of right-wing parties bearing fruit?

So the time has come - the citizens of the European Union have voted, and the only body within the EU which is even halfway democratically legitimate is now experiencing a new political composition. What has changed? Not much in the day-to-day life of the EU Parliament.  The cordon sanitaire against the right will probably remain in place for a few more years and the current course will be continued. But the real bombshell comes from France and Hungary: Macron has announced new elections due to the historically poor election results. Will he also step down as president? Or is the whole thing just a poisoned chalice? In Hungary, on the other hand, Viktor Orban is losing a lot of ground. A shot across the bow, or the beginning of the end?

But first things first. What are the results? First of all, the not unexpected basic finding: the alleged ‘shift to the right’ that has been conjured up in all European media for months has, on the whole, failed to materialise - once again. It is true that the ‘Identity and Democracy’ groups, with 62 seats instead of 49, and the ‘European Conservatives and Reformers’, with 78 instead of 69, have made certain gains, which we will discuss later.

However, the ‘European People's Party’ has also made strong gains, from 176 to 191; and even though media will undoubtedly describe this development as a ‘shift to the right’ in the coming days, it should rather be seen as a strengthening of the centre-left in view of the actual political position of the EPP since the Merkel years. While the Socialists and the Left are more or less holding their own, rising from 139 to 137 and from 37 to 39 respectively, the real losers are the Greens, who are down from 71 to 52, and the Liberals, who will only have 85 instead of 102 seats in the new parliament. But even these losses are actually minor, rather than a political disaster, as the number of non-attached MEPs will rise to a total of 76. This will do little to change the general majority situation, especially as many decisions are still made according to national and not party criteria.

So what does all this mean? Not much, really, when it comes to the fundamental future of our continent, but quite a lot when it comes to the individual countries, as we shall see.

The immediate question after the elections is just as much up in the air as before: where will Ursula von der Leyen get her majority to be re-elected Commission President? Her own party is not sufficient for this and, understandably, no binding declaration has yet been heard from her left-wing and liberal partners. And since the various groups in the EU Parliament did not vote in a bloc last time either, but instead came up with very different voting results depending on national sensitivities, von der Leyen will probably have to spend some time negotiating behind closed doors with the evil right-wing populists, above all the ECR, in order to be hoisted back into her chair. Will she remember to express her gratitude to Giorgia Meloni and Jarosław Kaczyński after her election? Unlikely.

But as far as the big issues of our time are concerned, the ‘new’ parliament will probably continue the policies of the old one in the spirit of ‘carry on as before’. On with the ‘Green Deal’, on with the censorship laws, on with the development of obscure surveillance instruments such as the ‘Green Passport’, on with the dressing up of its own foreign policy powerlessness behind slogans which are as pithy as they are moralistic, on with the controlled discrediting of any conservatism as right-wing extremism, and so on. It would actually be enough to make you weep if you weren't already largely numb and now view politics from an anthropological rather than a historical perspective. But these EU elections are certainly showing interesting symptoms of change, which will probably only have an impact on the EU through the filter of the nation states and not directly through parliament - most clearly in France, but also in Hungary.

German readers and listeners are primarily interested in the results in their own home country, even if de facto very little has changed here. There are no major surprises compared to the polls of the last few days. The CDU/CSU won 30.3% of the vote, the AfD was the second strongest party, albeit a distant second, with 15.6%, the SPD won 14.1%, the Greens 12%, the FDP only managed 5.3% and the Sarah Wagenknecht Alliance made a rather impressive entrance into the European Parliament with 5.7% of the vote, while the Left Party only managed 2.6%.

This is almost identical to last Sunday’s opinion polls for the Bundestag elections, so that at least this year there is no fundamental divergence between the national and European level, but compared to the 2019 EU elections, it is a small revolution: while the CDU only gained a few additional votes and the SPD, FDP and even the Left Party only suffered relatively slight losses, the Greens, who were at 20.5 % at the time, suffered a considerable slump: climate stickers, combustion engine bans, wind turbine deserts and gender mania are only of limited appeal in times of economic crisis, although it should not be forgotten that the relevant content has now been firmly implemented in most mainstream parties, not to mention the media, and will therefore have its dangerous consequences even without the Greens.

And what about the other European countries? Things seem to be much more dynamic here, viewed from the right. Let's take a look at France, the Netherlands, Italy, Austria, Poland and Hungary.

The most impressive situation is in France, where Le Pen's Rassemblement National has risen from 23% to 31.5% and massively widened the gap to Macron's ‘Renaissance’, which has fallen from 22% to 14.5%: A complete success for de-demonisation, professionalisation and the move away from Frexit. If you include the smaller right-wing parties, above all Eric Zemmour's ‘Reconquête’, which is on 5.3%, and the Gaullist ‘Les Républicains’, this time on 7.2%, the French right-wing conservatives even have an absolute majority within their grasp for the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, especially as their main opponents on the left - the Socialists with 14%, La France Insoumise with 10.1% and the Greens with just over 5.5% - look quite weak. Hence yesterday's bombshell: Emmanuel Macron announced that he would dissolve the National Assembly and organise new elections in June, although the next presidential and parliamentary elections were not actually due to take place until 2027. Will there possibly be a right-wing government led by the ‘Rassemblement National’ this year? Or does Macron want to use the shock effect to orchestrate a broad mobilisation ‘against the right’? How credible is his own presidency? Or - even more sinister - is Macron hoping for a ‘cohabitation’ with Le Pen in order to dismantle her from within if possible, let the country slide into chaos and ultimately present himself as a triumphant saviour?

In any case, one key could lie in the results of the Netherlands: Geert Wilders was able to rise from 3.5% to 17.7% compared to 2019 and thus record an exponential increase in his popularity, while the Liberals around Rutte continued their downward trend, falling from 14.6% to 11.6%. Thierry Baudet, once the trail blazer of the Dutch right, has shrunk to 2.5%. However, the ‘Green-Left’ party has surprisingly become the strongest force with 21.6% compared to the previous 10.9%, after only achieving 15.7% in the parliamentary elections - clearly a major mobilisation success against the so-called ‘shift to the right’ that is emerging under the new government, and a tactical hope that perhaps also inspired Macron in his decision yesterday. So don't sell the fur of the green-left bear just yet.

We should now also turn our attention to Italy. Almost all parties are losing ground, most notably Salvini, who stood at an impressive 34% in 2019 and will now probably only achieve 9%. The clear winner: Giorgia Meloni, who won 27% and thus a gain of 20% compared to 2019; a result that, like that of the Lega, roughly corresponds to that of the Italian parliamentary elections in 2022 and proves something that many right-wing circles in Europe, who have degraded the name ‘Meloni’ to a dirty word, are very reluctant to hear: The Italian population is obviously so satisfied with the policies of its current majority government that it is able to maintain its approval ratings perfectly - a development that is anything but self-evident in the country's recent history.

A brief word on Austria: here, the Freedom Party is the clear winner with 25.7%; an increase of almost 10% compared to the EU and National Council elections in 2019, while the Austrian People’s Party plummeted from 37.4% and 34.6% respectively to just 24.7% and drew level with the Social Democrats. It is clear that the Ibiza affair, which was largely exposed as a media intrigue, has been patched up and trust has been regained thanks to the policy of professionalisation under Herbert Kickl, while the People’s Party has not really recovered from the problems surrounding the dismissal of the second Kurz government and the unpopular alliance with the Greens.

So while the right is enjoying a certain upswing in Western Europe, there seems to be a counter-trend in the East; let's take a look at Poland and Hungary.

As far as Poland is concerned, the PiS is stabilising its downward trend, but is unable to get back on track: Once at a proud 45%, it now stands at just 35.7%. This largely corresponds to the results of the last parliamentary election, but falls far short of expectations of positioning itself as a credible opposition force in the face of Tusk's authoritarian policies. He, on the other hand, now benefits fully from the largely complete control over the country's private and state media, the unrestricted support of the EU institutions and the disbursement of the long withheld Covid funds: While he was only able to muster 38% against the PiS in an opposition quasi-all-party coalition in 2019, he now stands alone with his Liberals at 37.4% - also a considerable increase compared to last year's Polish parliamentary elections, where Tusk only managed to garner 30%. Another loser of the elections is the ‘Third Way’, the centrist party whose alliance with Tusk made his government possible in the first place and which plummeted from 14% in the last parliamentary elections to 7.3% in the EU elections - the dream of inheriting the ‘PiS’ is over. The far-right party Konfederacja, on the other hand, which won 7 % in the last parliamentary elections and only 5 % in the last EU elections, is now at a whopping 11.8 %.

Finally, a last word on Hungary: dark rumours, which were repeatedly brushed aside by the ruling party, already spoke of a nasty surprise for Viktor Orbán. His power is clearly crumbling: for the first time in 20 years, Fidesz has won less than an absolute majority of votes in a European election: It only received 44.3% (2019: 51.5%), while 30% voted for the party of absolute newcomer Peter Magyar, who scored points with a right-wing but supposedly ‘clean’ programme. This may be a shot across the bow - but it could possibly also be the beginning of the end of the Orbán system and herald a similar trend reversal as in Poland.

Overall, then, the results are confusing but not uninteresting, showing a clear tendency to the right, at least in important western nation states, and suggesting that a policy of de-demonisation, professionalisation, cooperation and turning away from primitive Euroscepticism is obviously bearing long-term fruit. The east of the Union, on the other hand, now seems to be entering a phase in which a certain reversal of the previous conservatism, still anchored in immediate post-communist categories, can be observed. At European level, however, this will change very little for the time being; a French change of government provoked by the EU elections, side by side with a stabilised Meloni government and a Dutch government dominated by Wilders, could however be a real game changer on important issues such as migration, identity and subsidiarity.  But it would also represent the entry into a very chaotic and volatile phase that would have repercussions for all other countries.


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