Slowly but steadily, European politics is Europeanizing. While the last round of European elections seemed addled by disputes over the size of bananas and the color of passports, as the philosopher Luuk Van Middelaar put it, this campaign’s themes looked essentially transnational: immigration, climate justice, sovereignty, European security. Some have even proclaimed the final advent of the “public sphere” Europeanists longed for all along. Although it has grown in and through crises, some kind of sphere is definitely growing.
Appearances can be deceptive, however. In many European countries, the elections remain plebiscites on domestic issues: Macron in France, Merkel in Germany, corruptions scandals in Romania. There is also a danger of exaggerating the significance of yesterday’s vote. The European Parliament remains a notoriously weak body. It still has no real capacity for legislative or constitutional initiative. In 2009, Perry Anderson compared it to “a ceremonial apparatus of government”, providing “a symbolic façade” not unlike the British monarchy. Today its reputation remains stained by its behaviour as a rubber stamp for measures thought out in Europe’s other intergovernmental bodies—the Eurogroup, the Council. Politicians also tend to sell its strengths it differently to their voting publics. To French and Belgian MEPs, for instance, the EP feels like a potent political arena, mainly in light of their own ossified, executive-bound parliaments. Dutch and British members think the EP is pallid and powerless—a mockery of parliamentary government.
Then there is the inevitably partial nature of yesterday’s “European” electorate. Although turnout is up, the numbers are not terrific (it’s gotten better since the time when scholars thought European elections proved a new form of “censitary” suffrage, where only highly-educated voters turned up. But not that much: Frans Timmermans ended his post-electoral speech by “thanking everyone who made the effort of turning out to vote.” Thank you, Frans). Selective turnout transforms elections into proxy referendums on the EU itself: both staunchly pro- and anti-EU forces did relatively well yesterday. Here the question is not what the EU should do, but rather, whether it should exist at all. That is hardly a comforting conclusion.
They do offer useful indicators of national moods. That mood seems one of paralyzed stasis. Firstly, the center has fallen out; for the first time in its history, the mainstream bloc of Christian-Democrats and Social-democrats dropped under 50% in the EP. The only surviving centrists have mainly done so by ridding themselves of their traditionalist trappings. This is a national story as well. In Belgium, the three party families that classically made up the state since 1893—liberals, socialists, and Christians—have now lost their joint majority. If anyone was looking for an example of “post-classical” democracy, this is it. Politically, Europe’s twentieth century seems dead and buried.
Ascribing this death to “populism,” however, seems unwarranted. Europe’s extreme-right parties experienced “victories without triumphs,” as one French commentator put it. The new “centrist” parties—Macron’s Renaissance vehicle, Italy’s social-democrats, the CDU—lost out without being marginalized. Maybe the most convincing story is one of the final breakthrough of postmodern politics: the Greens polling at record numbers, while a single-issue non-party (the Brexit Party) jumped to a whopping 32%. Left-populism underperformed. Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise reached a bare 6.9%, Podemos 10%, while Syriza was overtaken by its old enemy New Democracy. The left’s “populist moment” seems well and truly over.
Yet there are few reasons for Europeanists to rest on their laurels. Claims about the populist tide being “stemmed” yesterday obscure that growth was consistently cast as a default mode for these forces—their only way was up. What happened instead looks more like an uneasy consolidation. Le Pen, Salvini, and Baudet all held on to their bases without making spectacular jumps (Wilders declined, but his losses seem to be other populists’ gains). And consolidation is not the same as decline. If yesterday’s election results seem reassuring to Europeanists, it is precisely because many of have become accustomed to a more frenetic pace of disintegration. Any deviation from that pattern now appears hopeful, an instant reason for jubilation. But European disintegration is here to stay, albeit slower and more grinding than before, with all of Europe’s traditional parties exploring ever deeper depths before their implosion. In this sense at least, European politics is Europeanizing. But not always in the prettiest way.