1. What happened in yesterday's European Parliament elections?
Far-right political parties that are skeptical of the European project and hostile to immigrants saw an upswing in their fortunes. The UK Independence Party won a plurality in the United Kingdom, as did the National Front in France, and the Danish People's Party in Denmark.
Far right votes in EU elections: 25% France 23% Denmark 22% UK 20% Austria 15% Hungary 13% Finland 12% Greece It's just depressing— David Patrikarakos (@dpatrikarakos) May 25, 2014
Yet for all that, the basic outcome was, in a sense, uneventful. Parties affiliated with the center-right European People's Party (EPP) won the most seats followed by parties affiliated with the center-left Party of European Socialism (PES). The EPP and the PES are both broadly supportive of the process of European integration, and between the two of them have a majority. This is the exact same outcome as in the past few European Parliament elections, so in a sense nothing very interesting happened.
This sense of a rising far-right tide appears to be dominating English-language media coverage of the election perhaps because of the influence of the UK press. But outside of the (admittedly large and important) cases of France and the UK the trend is less marked. In Italy, for example, incumbent Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's center-left party won handily.
In Greece the far-left SYRIZA Party won the most votes, but the main parties from the incumbent coalition combined for a majority. In sum, Euroskeptical parties got 130 out of 751 seats. In Spain, a new left-wing anti-austerity party called Podemos got about 8 percent of the vote.
In Germany, Europe's largest country and the one with the most seats in parliament, the new Euroskeptical party finished in sixth place.
2. What is the European Parliament?
The European Union blends characteristics of an international organization (like NATO or the UN) with characteristics of a nation-state (like Mexico or South Korea). One of its nation-like qualities is that it has an elected parliament that needs to approve legislative proposals and that has some hazy influence over the selection of the European Commission — effectively the EU's cabinet and executive branch — and the commission president.
And yet the EU is not a nation-state and the European Parliament is not quite like a national parliament.
For one thing, the elections for the Parliament are conducted separately in each EU member state and voters typically seem to be voted based on their feelings about the national parties' conduct in national government.
In one respect, the European Parliament is about to become more like a national parliament. For the first time ever, the main parties agreed to nominate rival candidates for the office of President of the European Commission. This is not traditionally how the Commission has been formed, and it is not entirely clear that EU member states will go along with the plan, but many European elites want to elevate the status of the parliament and believe this sort of campaigning will make the races more engaging.
3. Is this is a backlash against austerity?
Sort of. Certainly the rise of new and often extreme political parties is a reflection of the failure of European economic policy to delivery prosperity to ordinary people.
On the other hand, in the grand scheme of this the results largely underscore the surprising durability of the European consensus. Mainstream parties who favor continuation of the current approach to eurozone economic policy retain a majority in every single eurozone country. The biggest surge in anti-EU voting happened in the United Kingdom, which never joined the eurozone in the first place.
4. What happens next?
In practice, the increased vote share for far-right (and to a lesser extent far-left) parties will make very little difference. The EPP's candidate, former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker will very likely form a Commission composed of members of mainstream parties of both the left and the right, with the center-right in the driver's seat — exactly the situation that has prevailed since 2004.
There is some chance that national-level European politicians will attempt to deny the Parliament the right to have the election results determine the Commission presidency, but even if that happens the overall complexion of the Commission will be similar.