It was an erratic poll for populists and right-wing nationalists alike, but they extended their power in Europe’s capital nations.
A long awaited election has come to an end. Between the 23 and 26 May 2019, Europeans were called to the ballot boxes in order to lift their candidates into 751 seats that make up the European Parliament. The elections for the European Parliament make room for more than 400 million eligible voters to make their individual vote count. Preoccupied with Brexit negotiations and split over migration issues, the European Union is going through rough times lately. Young adults and anti-establishment constituencies increasingly feel that their interests are ignored or disregarded by the European elites. They are upset of the traditional party spectra and turn towards alternatives. Subsequently, the two largest European voting blocs — the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) — lost their majority in the European Parliament. Whereas the former secured 153 seats, the latter acquired 179 seats. Thus, they missed the threshold for an absolute majority (376 out of 751) which they held after the 2014 European Parliament elections by 44 seats. Shaken but not shattered, they will remain the two leading blocs, but have lost significant ground to groups from the left up to the nationalist right.
It was an erratic poll for populists and right-wing nationalists alike, but they extended their power in Europe’s capital nations. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally exceled President Macron’s Renaissance alliance by a narrow margin (23% vs. 22%) whereas in Italy Matteo Salvini’s League party achieved a considerable victory over the centre-left Democratic Party (34% vs. 23%). Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party could obtain votes throughout the UK and thus dwarf Liberal Democrats that mainly voted to remain in the EU (31% vs. 18%) — except for the Liberal Democratic stronghold London as well as weatherproof Scots that once again reassured their endorsement for Europe. In Poland (46%) and Hungary (55%) government forming national-conservative parties cemented their Eurosceptic viewpoint with large majorities. Germany, specifically, experienced a historical turnout this time. Whereas the Christian Democrats secured a pale win (28%), the expected rise of the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany levelled off around 10%. More remarkable is the share for the environmentalist Green party that exceeded all expectations and doubled its outcome (20%), thereby replacing struggling Social Democrats (15%). The majority of the member states (22 out of 28) experienced hikes in election turnouts — overall the highest in the last 20 years. This is a signifier for a more politicised debate within Europe and subsequently allows us to draw a more precise picture of what really moves voters within the particular member states.
The strong votes for populists and right-wing parties do point in a future that is characterized by a withdrawal from the EU and marked by national isolationism, re-guarding of boundaries and exclusionism. Nonetheless, they gained much less than what surveys had predicted. A gleam of hope and encouragement for the adherence to international rules and regulations and the need for resolute and combined action within the European Union comes from the recently uprising The Greens and European Free alliance (Greens/EFA) group. Europeans are seemingly concerned about climate change and the environment. Most illustrious leading figure for more resolute climate activism came from the 16-years old Greta Thunberg from Sweden. She paved the way for the so called Fridays for future demonstrations around Europe and significantly boosted the environmentalist agenda. The Green vote is also a vote against Brexit, the resurgence of fascist ideology and for a united Europe that embraces diversity and multilateralism. The Greens made remarkable results in Germany (21,5%), Belgium (15%), Denmark (13%), Finland (16%), France (13,5%), Ireland (11%), and the Netherlands (11%).
Many votes came from the youth and first time voters; a young generation that highly benefits from the freedoms the European Union grants them — be it the freedom of movement and residence within the EU territory, the advantages of a common currency, or increased people-to-people contact between fellow Europeans. Young adults and millennials didn’t experience the horrors of the World Wars or Cold War antagonism, and thus don’t essentially see Europe as a peace project. They grew up with the advantages of the Internet, are highly communicative and interconnected via social media and will soon join a labour market that is much more diversified and dynamic, but in the same way more volatile than ever before. Therefore, digital rights, civil liberties and direct climate action, but also economic sustainability and social justice rank high on their agenda.
The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) allied with Macrons La République En Marche (LaREM) for the recent elections. Their combined effort payed off and they acquired massive gains in several countries; In Denmark, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia and Luxembourg people voted by the majority for Liberals. But also in Finland, Belgium, Romania, the Netherlands, Spain and UK they grew big. They favour cultural liberalism, a centrist economic agenda and equitable growth. Their tendency to back efforts to tackle climate change issues makes them potential allies of the Green parties that allocated seats across Europe.
Youth unemployment rates are still a huge challenge for many European countries, in particular from Southern and Southeastern countries. According to Eurostat, seasonally adjusted youth unemployment rates (age 15 – 24) in March 2019 for Greece (39.7%), Spain (33.7%) and Italy (30.2%) remain the highest within Europe. However, also in central Europe young adults struggle with the job market, such as in France (20.2%). The EU average unemployment rates range at 14.5%. These data correlate with the average age at which people move out from home; whereas in Italy, Spain and Greece young adults move out at an age around 29.5 years, youngsters in Sweden move out early at an average age of 18.5 years — the EU average is 26 years. Unequal job opportunities and social insecurity spurs internal migration within the European Union and is mirrored in strong votes for social-democratic and radical left parties in several countries (Greece, SYRIZA 23.8%; Spain, PSOE 32.8% ; Italy, PD 22.7%). In other states, as pointed out for France and Germany, we can observe the steady decline of social-democratic forces and struggling conservatives that fail to cope with labour issues.
Polls for Germany and the United Kingdom portend a widening generational gap in voting behaviour. The Forschungsgruppe Wahlen found out that Under-30s in Germany voted in majority for the Greens (33%), whereas conservatives (CDU 13%) and social-democrats (SPD 10%) fell far behind. Over-60s in contrast voted mostly for conservatives (CDU 41%) — (SPD 22%, The Greens 13%). Out of the 69 won seats by the Green and European Free Alliance, 22 are claimed by Germany, 12 by France and 11 by the United Kingdom. The other 24 seats are almost equally divided between the other North and Northwest European countries (between 1-3 seats each). No Green seats were won in Italy and Eastern Europe. In the United Kingdom Brexit is the most pressing issue. Polls conducted by YouGov (23-24 June 2016) indicate an antithetic trend between generations. Subsequently, younger generations (under 25) were more than twice as likely to vote for remain (71%) than leave (29%) when questioned about Brexit. Among older generations (over 65) the picture is almost the exact opposite, as 64% voted for leave while only 36% voted for remain.
The European Union needs to deliver, and traditional parties are supposed to reach out to the upcoming generations that demand a liveable and economically secure future. That necessitates a courageous reform process for the traditional catch-all parties which probably missed the train altogether. In the foreseeable alliance building process, a participation of the Green and Liberal parties with a pro-EU stance and a greater focus on climate issues is conceivable. The imperative to circumvent right-wing nationalists will ultimately bring parties together in order to save the project EU. The rise of anti-EU and nationalist parties, but even more so Liberal and Greens, shows that there is a demos that longs for a shift from the status-quo. To embrace and allure large parts of society that feel disconnected from their political representatives becomes decisive. Since smaller parties made ground, decisions in the new parliament may henceforth get more sway from newcomers and non-centrist parties. Young generations in particular demand more say in democratic processes. In that regard mainstream, analogue media increasingly compete with digital media and especially social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. In order to reach out to a new generation that access their world via multiple channels, the shift towards a more dynamic, diversified and increasingly digital world needs to be taken into account. To lower the voting age and to introduce more direct democratic processes becomes inevitable to cope with a rightly demanding constituency. To keep alive democracy, is to engage with all sections of society, to discuss, dissent, and most importantly, overcome the status-quo.
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