Europe’s coming paralysis | ECFR

Although the European Parliament election has had very little impact in Brussels, the outcome will soon turn Europe upside down. Yes, fears of a hard-right takeover proved overblown. The election resulted in more of a gentle nudge to the right than a seismic shift. While far-right parties finished first in five countries and second in four others, the implications for the top EU leadership positions are limited.

The centre-right European People’s Party remains the biggest parliamentary faction. With 189 seats, it comfortably outnumbers the far-right Identity and Democracy group and the European Conservatives and Reformists, which have a combined total of 141 seats. Moreover, the centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats lost fewer seats than many expected, owing to strong showings by French, Italian, and Spanish social democrats.

The upshot is a parliament that doesn’t look too different from its predecessor. The three pro-European mainstream groups still hold a comfortable majority. Anyone hoping for a major upset in the distribution of the bloc’s top jobs – or a repeat of 2019’s drama, when European leaders pulled Ursula von der Leyen’s name out of a hat to be European Commission president – will probably end up disappointed.

Barring any major surprises, von der Leyen will keep her job, and the mainstream parties will come together to fill the other posts. Former Portuguese prime minister Antonio Costa and Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas look to be shoo-ins for the roles of European Council president and the European Union’s top diplomat, respectively.

Even if there is no real shake-up from the European Parliament election at the EU level, we have now gotten a glimpse of the political rot in some of the bloc’s most influential member states, most notably France and Germany

But European elections are of second-order importance to national elections. Even if there is no real shake-up at the EU level, we have now gotten a glimpse of the political rot in some of the bloc’s most influential member states, most notably France and Germany. French president Emmanuel Macron, German chancellor Olaf Scholz, and their allies suffered major setbacks, and they are responding in ways that will weaken the EU more than any European Parliament result ever could.

I offer this warning despite the more promising results elsewhere. In Poland, prime minister Donald Tusk’s coalition forced the illiberal Law and Justice (PiS) party into second place for the first time in years (an improvement on the Polish election in October, when PiS finished first but was unable to form a government). In Hungary, Peter Magyar’s Tisza party had a strong showing. And in Finland and Sweden, the mainstream parties did very well.

In Germany, however, the parties of the ruling coalition all came behind the Christian Democratic Union and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The phrase now making the rounds in Berlin is Kontaktschande, which refers to a shame born of association. The Social Democrats, the Greens, and the Free Democrats (FDP) have responded with a campaign of mutual recrimination that will further hobble their unpopular coalition’s already-limited ability to govern ahead of key elections in the east (the AfD’s stronghold) this fall.

The picture is even grimmer in France. After the far-right National Rally thrashed the ruling centrist alliance by almost 17 points in the European election, Macron shocked everyone by calling a snap election. With his penchant for the dramatic, Macron may have been hoping to regain control of the narrative. But the more likely outcome is indefinite parliamentary gridlock and a weak minority government of technocrats or cohabitation with a right-wing government dominated by National Rally, which is committed to the destruction of Macron’s centrist legacy.

These domestic results reveal the true meaning of the European election. Threatened by voter drift, each of Germany’s coalition parties is likely to double down on its core ideology. The Greens and the FDP’s respective bases will pressure them to be more radical, which will drive them in opposite directions on fiscal policy. The result is likely to be more German vetoes on EU decisions about migration and common borrowing for defence.

Macron’s gamble, meanwhile, comes ahead of major NATO and European summits, EU enlargement negotiations, and the US presidential election this fall. In both election scenarios, the grandiloquent plans that Macron recently laid out in a speech at the Sorbonne are likely to be scuppered. If National Rally forms the next government, Macron will continue to preside over foreign and defence policy, but he will be undermined in a thousand ways by his far-right cohabitants.

Perhaps the biggest casualty of these elections will be European unity on the big geopolitical issues facing the continent. With wars raging in Ukraine and the Middle East, and Donald Trump vying for the US presidency, it is difficult to imagine a worse time for Europe to be rudderless. With little room to manoeuvre and their political capital exhausted, Macron and Scholz are in no position to steer Europe through these crises. How they respond to the challenge will test European unity and determine the bloc’s future.

Finally, there is one more election to consider. Although the winner of the British election on 4 July will not secure any seats in the European Parliament or at the European Council, he may end up holding the key to bringing Europe together to address its most urgent challenges. That means all eyes are on Labour, the likely victor, and its leader, Keir Starmer.

This article was first published in Project Syndicate on 26 June 2024.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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