The most sensational result of the elections to the European Parliament is the gains made by xenophobic nationalists in some member countries, particularly France and the UK. The most important result however is that this will not change Europe profoundly, at least not in the short term. In the longer term, the big questions relate to security and a global European identity.
Unusual that the Financial Times, considered by many, me included, the best newspaper of the world, has got it at least partly wrong on the European elections. Tony Barber wrote on 27 May that the election results show that the EU electorate is 'short of confidence in (the bloc's) future.'
The crushing defeat of the two main parties in France by the far-right Marine Le Pen is due to their disastrous policies at home. The reigning socialists are fatally handicapped by a singularly indecisive, unlucky and untalented president. Francois Hollande's lonely good decision could well be his recent appointment of Manuel Valls as his second prime minister. In a probably unintended but highly ironic twist, this French son of a Catalan father and a mother from the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland represents Europe, with its intricate web of immigrants and minorities, far better than Le Pen's pathetic pseudo patriotic act, recalling a Wagner Valkyrie rather than delicate Jeanne d'Arc.
The French conservative opposition, rather than proposing sensible solutions for the strong bout of discontent in France, is seemingly destroying itself via infighting among its three macho men: Nicolas Sarkozy (thrown out of office by a majority of French in 2011), Jean-Francois Cope (just resigned as party chief following corruption scandals) and Francois Fillon (singularly bland as prime minister under Sarkozy).
Such bouts of political 'I can't stand it any longer' are a regular feature in French history, with the string of revolutions in the 18th and 19th centuries as well as the 1968 riots that helped bring down De Gaulle being the most prominent examples. The current bout has led to 25% of the those voting in European parliamentary elections (turnout was only 40%) to send a strong message of discontent without actually affecting the national power equilibrium.
With its still very comfortable (albeit reduced) pro-union majority, the new European Parliament will not, as Le Pen demands, abandon the euro. It also will not, as Nigel Farage claims, vote the EU out of existence.
Just like in France, the disastrous showing of the two major parties in the UK, in particular the reigning Tories, is basically due to bad politics and unimpressive leadership back home, not policy made in Brussels. Deep in their hearts, a clear majority of Brits know perfectly well that Europe is their home continent and the EU their only free ticket to the table of global heavyweights. Prime Minister David Cameron, by imitating honest Europhobes, wants to sway that part of the British electorate which always was and always will be against Europe. The latter will vote for the original euro-sceptic ('honest' Nigel) rather than copycat David in the next national election if Europe really is their first and overriding concern. It likely won't be.
The big question for the medium term future of the EU is to what extent mainstream parties elsewhere in Europe 'will do a Cameron' by tacking to the xenophobic and anti-European extreme right, or extreme left as the case may be (eg. Greece). The strong feeling of many observers, including this one, is that this will happen to a very limited degree in a minority of EU-member countries. First , in a majority of countries, and contrary to what happened in France and the UK, anti-European parties have only made small gains in European elections (Germany and Spain, for example) or indeed have lost, sometimes massively (Italy and the Netherlands). Also, free movement of persons over national borders counts among the most important and most accepted achievements of the EU, notwithstanding harangues about marauding Roma and freeloading Romanians by populist politicians.
One of the EU's long term problems concerns defence and security. The current situation, where Europe is disarming while a majority of the rest of the world is rearming, cannot continue indefinitely without serious loss of influence. Whether this will change will depend on the creation of a European identity. Looking at the European election results from this perspective, the outlook is mixed at best. The message that NATO represents the hardware while the EU provides the software for any meaningful representation of European interests on a global stage has clearly not made headway in the electorate.
Another long term concern is voter turnout, especially in the east (13% in Slovakia). They should know better in a time where at least one bully in the east makes its reappearance.
Photo by Flickr user Blandine Le Cain.