Europe’s Protest Against the Protestors

28.05.19 Publication:

It can be counted as a protest vote against the previous protest vote. That is of course an
over-simplification of the European Parliament elections, as any single phrase would have to
be of an election that spanned 28 countries, but it carries a lot of truth.

It had been said a million times beforehand that the main story of these elections
would be the rise in populists, nationalists, sovereigntists or whatever you wish to call them,
all over the continent. Encouraging such a rise was, after all, the purpose of the big
transnational rally that Matteo Salvini held in Milan’s Piazza del Duomo on May 18th . Yet this
wasn’t the main story, even though such parties did gain some seats in many countries.

The main story instead proved to be one of higher electoral turnout, breaking a
trend of declining interest among voters that had persisted in every European Parliament
election since 1979. There can be many explanations for higher turnout – and Italy was a
notable exception to this, in contrast to the impressive rises in voter engagement in the big
neighbouring countries of France, Germany and Spain – but a desire among pro-Europeans
to fight back against the Eurosceptics must rank among them.

It is hard to believe in any other explanation for the pan-European “green wave” of
votes for environmentalist parties that these elections displayed. This was the main positive
trend in the elections, but to link the vote simply to concern about climate change or other
green issues would surely be misleading. Before this vote, there had been no other evidence
of a sudden passion for environmental issues in France, Ireland, even the United Kingdom,
nor even in Germany where the Greens have overtaken the Social Democrats.

The merit of Green parties in such elections is that they are all strongly pro-European
and that they tend to tilt towards the left, but also that having been outside government
they cannot be blamed for the post-2008 economic recession, the migrant crisis or other ills.
So they are an ideal soft protest vote, both against the traditional mainstream parties such
as Germany’s Social Democrats or Britain’s Labour and against the populist-nationalists.

Probably the most significant national result in these elections was the one in
Germany. The junior partner in Chancellor Merkel’s grand coalition, the Social Democrats,
took another terrible beating, proving yet again that the party cannot recover while its
reputation and policies are directly tied to those of Chancellor Merkel and her centre-right
party. But Merkel’s CDU also fared poorly, despite having a new leader in Annegret Kramp-
Karrenbauer who is the front-runner to succeed Merkel as chancellor.

The anti-immigrant Alternativ fur Deutschland did quite well in the former east
German states but with just 11% of the national vote looks far away from a Salvini-style
breakthrough. This combination of Green success and disappointments for the other parties
will probably bring closer the demise both of the grand coalition and of Merkel’s
chancellorship, well ahead of 2021 the date at which she has promised to depart. But it
makes no clearer either who will succeed her or what kind of coalition her party will seek in
the future.

This fragile and uncertain domestic political outlook will weaken Germany’s hand in
EU negotiations over who should become the new presidents of the European Commission,                            the European Council and the European Central Bank. It almost feels as if securing the ECB
for Jens Weidmann, chairman of Germany’s Bundesbank, could turn out to be a consolation
prize for losing the commission presidency. Such German weakness is not good for the long
term, but it might make the European institutions more flexible and accommodating on
issues such as budgetary rules over the coming months.

Yet we mustn’t forget that there will still also be the massive irritation of Brexit to
deal with, along with a European Parliament that will still be home to Nigel Farage and his
Brexit Party colleagues. Britain’s Conservative Party will start to choose a new leader on
June 10th having suffered what some commentators have called its worst election result for
200 years. That result will certainly drive them to the right and to a more confrontational
stance over Brexit.

Yet the opposition Labour Party could prove the more interesting one to watch: it
too suffered badly in the elections, punished by a pro-EU protest vote for the Liberal
Democrats and Greens. Many in the Labour Party are now arguing that their leader, Jeremy
Corbyn, should respond by positioning the party unambiguously in favour of scrapping
Brexit through a second referendum. Even in Britain, the protest vote against the protest
vote could have consequences that may prove to be good for the European Union.