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24 July, 2019  ▪  Philippe de Lara

Political games

After European elections: a new start?

The output of elections at European Parliament (EP) was unexpected: electoral surge of Green parties, containment of anti-European populists — except in Italy —, sharp decline of former dominant parties, both conservative and social-democrats. So unexpected that it gives way to rather contradictory interpretations. Indeed, nobody can deny that an important shift happened, except stubborn Eurosceptics, but in which direction, it remains unclear. EU is not a State, let alone a parliamentary one and a lot depends of member States, from the choice of the president of European commission to the ability to efficient governance… not to mention UK’s decision to leave or not. To put it short, the reshaping of European political landscape creates new opportunities, but the domestic and global weaknesses and bottlenecks of EU remain and so a high level of uncertainty.

Let’s take France. President Macron’s election in 2017 and his “historical” speeches in Athens and at the Sorbonne raised great expectations for a refoundation of EU, but these expectations, perhaps too ambitious, drowned soon in the growing divisions among European countries, the incapacity of Macron to reboot cooperation with Germany on strategic issues, and the Yellow Vests crisis, which pushed the Wunderkind of European politics on the brink. Not to mention the indefinite negotiations on Brexit. EU seemed weaker than ever, to the satisfaction of Putin and Trump.

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Now the first surprise of these elections and perhaps the most important one is the turnout. For the first time since 1994, turnout is above 50% on average. Citizens were supposed to be hostile or at least disappointed by EU; turnout revealed the opposite: Europeans take EU seriously; they still believe that EU is worth participating and even defending. In France, polls predicted a 42,4% turnout, below the 43,9% of 2014. Actually, it jumped to 51,3%. On election day in France, when the turnout’s trend was released, many pro Europeans, including myself, became very anxious. The two leading lists were Renaissance (Macron’s party and its allies) and Rassemblement national (the former National Front of Marine Le Pen, far right). They were neck and neck until end of April but, in the last three weeks of the campaign, RN took the advantage and ended in polls 2,5% ahead from Renaissance (24,5% vs 22%). Given this trend, everybody thought that the higher turnout would benefit to RN. Isn’t RN very popular among Yellow Vests who were aggressively mobilised in the months before election against Macron? Rumours circulated evoking a gap of more than 3%, even 5%, which would be a disaster for Macron, all the more since extremes, right and left, had declared that this election was a referendum against Macron. Such an anticipation was so strong that, when the first estimates appeared on TV at 8pm, journalists spoke of a “clear victory” of RN. People in RN headquarters celebrated while Renaissance headquarters showed silent gloomy faces. Yet the estimatedgap was only of 1,5% then, and it gradually decreased to 0,9% during the evening. The final results confirmed this proportion: 23,3% for RN, 22,4% for Renaissance, 23 seats for each. But reality was so at variance with expectations that medias and public opinion carried on referring to RN’s victory. Even a very good newspaper like Le Mondeinvited its readers two days afterelection to “Ask your questions on the victory of Rassemblement national”! Many journalists and politicians still stick to this opinion. Now, not only figures forbid to speak of a victory of Far-right against Macron, but more careful observation shows that there are two winners at this election, Renaissance and the Green Party (13,5% vs 9% in 2014) and four losers, including RN. The first two losers are obvious: like two years before at presidential election, the two dominant parties who used to govern alternately since 1981 collapsed. The centre-right LR (Les Républicains) which expected 13-15% according to polls ends at 8,5% (against 20,7% in the former EP) and the social-democrat PS (Socialist party) confirmed its breakdown at 6,2%. Last but not least, the Far-left LFI (“Rebel France”, led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, notoriously pro-Russian) gathered a small 6,3%, almost equal to the PS, far from its 19,6% at the presidential election. A stinging failure for a party which claimed to be the only genuine opposition to the “President of the wealthy”, and which noisily supported the Yellow Vests with an insurrectional rhetoric. The result of RN is of course out of proportion with the collapse of the Centre-right, of the moderate Left and of Mélenchon. It is nevertheless a failure for three reasons:

1) Far-right is more alone than ever. Its potential allies have been whipped out: Yellow Vests lists gathered only 0,32% and the radical nationalist (and outrageously pro-Russian) “Debout la France” began the campaign with 8% of voting intentions to end at 3,5% (and 0 seats). This means that RN has already swallowed these electorates and has little margins of progress. Worse, its discreet complicity with Far Left in the EP on various issues, notably to withdraw sanctions against Russia and stop supporting Ukraine will be weakened since Far-left parties lose 14 seats in the newly elected Parliament (from 52 to 38). The perspective once envisaged of a rapprochement with moderate conservatives on immigration, family values, etc., is more remote than ever. Nobody can predict which direction will take the reconstruction of the Conservative party after LR’s collapse, but it is certain that it will not be a rapprochement with RN. The spectacular rise of the Green party changes the political game. RN is not any more the only credible force challenging traditional moderate parties. A quite similar shift is happening in Spain and Germany, and of course in the European Parliament.

2) Its ambiguous and disquieting positions on EU and Euro will haunt for a long time the RN. Since 2017, it successively suggested a Frexit “if French citizens decide so”, then a “change of status” (sic) or Euro, then a reconstruction of European institution more nations friendly. There are 50 nuances of Europhobia among Right populists which RN is not able to reconcile. Except a few extremists, even the voters most pissed off against EU — and there are many —, don’t want to leave EU and are afraid to lose the Euro. Far left is said (and its leaders admit it) to have failed because of the ambiguity of its position on EU: “remain in EU but cancel all European treaties” (sic). RN, although not yet fully impacted, will pay this ambiguity at full price sooner or later.

What about Far-right populists in other countries? Despite a triumph in Italy and good results in Poland, Hungary, Sweden, Belgium, the expected big rise of  Far-right and radical nationalists did not happen: they had 153 seats in the previous Assembly, they have now 173, but might lose soon the 29 seats of the Brexit party of Nigel Farage if UK leaves EU. Even worse for them, the Radical Left, which takes side with them on several issues, notably on Ukraine, loses 14 seats (from 52 to 38). Now what about Italy, unique in its kind? The Far-right Lega of Matteo Salvini dominates the European elections (34,3%, 28 seats) as it dominates the government: Cinque Stelle (17%, 14 seats), once equal, is now a junior if not expandable partner. Anti-European and pro-Russian parties add up 65% of voters in Italy, more than Fidesz plus Jobbik in Hungary (59%)! Some analysts are worried that Salvini’s triumph might announce a further progression of Right populists. This cannot be ruled out in given the uncertainty of European politics, but one should recall that Italy is the only country where decent conservatives have for long been replaced by a corrupted populist. Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia is now at 6,7% but still alive. Berlusconi dominated Italian politics for decades, he ruled Italy four times between 1994 and 2011. He is the only former European Prime minister who visited twice occupied Crimea with his “friend Vladimir Putin” (in 2015 and 2018). The Italian deep compromising with Russia, from Berlusconi to Salvini, is a dangerous but exceptional situation, which is unlikely to spread to other democratic countries.

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So, these elections may be the beginning of a major shift of European politics, with less pressure of populists, a new political life driven by environment, welfare and security issues, rather than existential psychodrama. This is still a wish more than a prediction because European politics does not depend only on the European parliament. But it is not excluded that the EP will take a more important function in EU and contribute to the successful blend of democratic bargaining and decisiveness that EU did not find so far. In this crucial moment when Europe’s civilization is threatened by a world of brutes and might empires, there is a striking affinity between EU’s and Ukraine’s fate after Zelenskiy’s election: great uncertainty, great dangers, great hopes, and in both cases, hopes come mainly from traditional parliamentary politics, although the era of Parliamentary government belongs to the past. Indeed, the next Rada is as unpredictable as was the European parliament, and both will bear huge responsibilities for the future of the continent.

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