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The “Green wave” and 4 other takeaways from the European parliamentary elections

The Greens and far-right populists gained as Europe’s center caved.

A supporter of the German Greens Party in the European Parliamentary elections waves a flag at an election campaign event on April 29, 2019, in Berlin, Germany.
A supporter of the German Green Party in the European parliamentary elections waves a flag at an election campaign event on April 29, 2019, in Berlin.
Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Fragmentation will define the new European Parliament.

Voters across the European Union went to the polls this past week to vote for the parties they want to represent them in the European Parliament, one of the legislative bodies of the EU and the only one whose members — known as MEPs — are directly elected by EU citizens.

And now that the results are in, the message is clear: European voters want a change. Both the center left and the center right appear to have lost their absolute majorities for the first time since 1979, when the first European parliamentary elections were held.

Voters on the left and center instead threw support to the pro-environment, pro-EU Green parties (known as the “Greens”) and liberals. But far-right populist and nationalist parties led by the likes of Italy’s Matteo Salvini and France’s Marine Le Pen also bolstered their position in the European Parliament.

Some voters may be fed up with the establishment, but they’re still largely backing pro-EU parties, even if they’re looking elsewhere than the traditional centrist blocs. At the same time, this is less about an overarching European narrative than about an expression of 28 separate national political debates, amplified on a continental scale.

These European parliamentary elections were considered the most consequential in years. And voter turnout reflected that: At more than 50 percent across Europe, it was the highest in two decades.

Here are the five big takeaways from the European Parliament elections.

1) The Greens were the surprising success story everyone should have seen coming

On Friday, student activists around the globe went on strike to demand more aggressive climate change policies. On Sunday, the Greens emerged as the success story in European politics.

The Greens came in second place in Germany with a whopping 20 percent of the vote, beating the traditional center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). The Greens had their best-ever results in Finland, picking up more than 16 percent of the vote.

In France, the Greens came in a surprising third place, with 13 percent of the vote. In the UK, the pro-EU Greens snagged about 12 percent of the vote, gaining approximately seven seats and coming in in fourth place, in front of the governing Conservative Party.

In total, the Greens will take about 70 seats in the 751-member European Parliament, up from 51 in the last election, in 2014. With the losses within the center — especially the center left — this will give them a lot more influence in the European Parliament.

So what’s behind this so-called “Green wave”? Environmental activism and worries over climate change are certainly part of it. But more broadly, the Greens have managed to articulate a vision on social and economic issues — pro-immigrant, pro-Europe — that the center left has muddled a bit in recent years, especially in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

The Greens have made steady gains in places like Germany, and while their successes this election weren’t evenly distributed across Europe, the European parliamentary results have proven the Greens are a political force.

“It’s a long-term story,” R. Daniel Kelemen, a professor of political science and law at Rutgers University, told me. The Greens have evolved from being considered radical and unconventional to becoming a more mainstream force. And that trajectory intersects with the decline of the center-left social democrats.

“The votes are shifting from one party to the other,” he said.

2) Far-right populists didn’t live up to the hype, but they’re still a strong force

The European parliamentary elections were expected to test the rise of the far right — and their nationalistic, populist, and generally euroskeptic approach to the EU.

The far right will hold about 25 percent of the seats in the European Parliament, up from about 20 percent. It’s their best showing ever, but also not exactly a European sweep. And the nationalist parties did better in some EU countries compared to others.

In Italy, Salvini’s Lega party dominated the polls, winning 34 percent of the vote compared to 6 percent in 2014, for a gain of about 28 seats. And in France, Le Pen’s National Rally edged out French President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist reformist coalition.

“They’re neither a tidal wave of taking over nor have they gone away,” Mabel Berezin, a professor of sociology at Cornell University, said of the far-right nationalists.

The reality, though, is that these parties are here to stay — and while they haven’t conquered Europe, it’s also hard to make the case that they are outlier, fringe parties. They’re part of the European political landscape now.

But the question that dogged these far-right populists before last week’s election still holds: Will they be able to work together in the European Parliament when what they all have in common is a desire to advance their own national interests and weaken the EU?

“Their positive agenda is that they want to be better off than their neighbors,” Josef Janning, a Berlin-based senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told me. “If something is zero-sum, it should be in their favor, and that makes it very complicated for them to make a real, coherent political agenda.”

In other words, these parties can agree on what they want to destroy — but not what they want to build.

They’re more likely to be an obstructive force, rather than a constructive one. “They might be able to throw some sand in the wheels, as it were,” Berezin said. “And that seems to me the question.”

3) The center-right and center-left coalitions lost their 40-year majority

The center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) have essentially ruled the European Parliament since 1979.

This weekend’s election effectively ended their 40-year majority. “It has very much been under the control of these two political families, and now this is going to be different,” Janning said.

Support has instead gone to the fringes — though parties like the Greens and even some of the nationalist parties have become such a force that it’s a little disingenuous to call them “fringe.” They’re cutting into support for the mainstream parties, a trend that’s been repeated in elections in Germany, Spain, and elsewhere.

But the pro-EU center is not depleted; instead, it’s reemerged among the Greens and liberals and other smaller centrist parties. This means the Greens, along with liberals, will likely be the kingmakers in the new European Parliament, as the center-right and center-left will need to rely on them to get their agendas passed.

That dynamic may also serve to isolate the far right. In the past, the center-right coalition included more nationalist elements, most notably Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party. The idea was that bringing in the far-right would moderate them, but these European elections have shown that’s just not the case. What’s more, that alliance with the more mainstream parties gave a sheen of legitimacy to these far-right populists — legitimacy that will dissipate somewhat if all the nationalist parties hang out together instead.

“It’s better if they all go off in their own far-right party, where they can be clearly identified, and isolated, and in their corner,” Kelemen told me.

How everything shakes out will be much clearer once the new European Parliament takes power in July. But what does seem obvious is that EU voters wanted some sort of change, though they weren’t totally sold on the far right’s vision for the EU.

As Susi Dennison, also a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told me before the elections: “The case for the European project is still there. But the current version of it is really not inspiring voters right now.”

4) Did a no-deal Brexit just become more likely?

The United Kingdom wasn’t even supposed to be participating in the European parliamentary elections this year because it was supposed to be out of the EU by now.

That hasn’t happened yet, obviously, so the UK had to vote after all. As a result, the European parliamentary elections — like basically everything else in the UK these days — turned into a referendum on the Brexit debate that’s dividing the country.

Nigel Farage, the former head of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), and his newly formed Brexit Party placed first in the elections, winning more than 31 percent of the vote and 29 of the UK’s seats in the European Parliament.

His victory was likely a combination of eating up all of UKIP’s support and siphoning off some Conservative voters who are disillusioned about (soon-to-be-departed) Prime Minister Theresa May and her party’s handling of Brexit.

The Liberal Democrats, a staunchly pro-Remain party and supporters of a second referendum, came in second with 20 percent of the vote. The Labour Party came in third, and the Conservatives came in fifth — the UK’s two main parties falling behind two others that had clearer, though differing, visions of the UK’s relationship to the EU.

In some respects, this doesn’t really matter for Europe; if the UK leaves the EU on October 31, 2019 (the current Brexit deadline), these MEPs won’t serve even a full year of their five-year terms.

But the results in the UK have implications for domestic politics. Farage’s Brexit Party outperformed both the Conservatives and the Labour Party — a sign that UK voters are also fed up with the establishment.

And the Brexit Party poses the most immediate threat to the Conservatives, who promised to deliver Brexit and have so far failed to do so. With the specter of the Brexit Party looming, the Conservative prime minister who takes over for May will have even more incentive to get the UK out of the EU in whatever way they can.

The EU has said that May’s Brexit deal remains the one and only Brexit deal available and that renegotiation is not an option. “I was crystal clear,” EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said Tuesday. “There will be no renegotiation.”

With the same unpopular deal as the only one on offer, the next prime minister must try to find some way to sell May’s deal better than she could — or take the UK out of the EU without a deal on October 31.

A no-deal Brexit would be bad for the EU but likely worse for the UK. In this scenario, the UK will cease to be a member of the EU literally overnight. All the trade and regulatory arrangements that it once shared as part of the EU will evaporate — which could deal a devastating blow to the economy and cause short-term disruptions in the supply of food, medicine, and other goods.

Parliament has said it doesn’t want a no-deal Brexit, but it remains the default for the EU. And to the strongest supporters of Leave, it’s becoming a more attractive option for disentangling the UK from the bloc as soon as possible.

5) The European parliamentary elections were still a tale of 28 individual member states

Everyone who voted in these elections, regardless of what country they were in, was voting for representatives to serve them in a central legislative body: the European Parliament.

Yet the elections are much more a story of 28 different elections rather than one collective European narrative.

In the UK, the elections were a referendum on Brexit. France witnessed a rematch of the 2017 election between Le Pen and Macron, though this time, Macron brought his baggage from his first years in office.

In Spain, the center-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), which won the most votes in that country’s parliamentary elections last month, strengthened its performance in the European elections, likely making it the most dominant party in the center-left bloc in the European Parliament.

In Italy, Salvini consolidated Lega’s power after the 2018 Italian elections. In Germany, frustration with the grand coalition between the center-right and center-left parties led by Chancellor Angela Merkel has contributed to a surge of support for the Greens in state elections — and the polls this weekend in the European Parliament reflected that trend.

So while millions voted in the world’s second-largest election to pick their representatives for the European Parliament, their concerns (and their votes) had far more to do with the political debates and divisions back home than anything else.

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