Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” So wrote the poet W.B. Yeats in 1919, in the aftermath of the First World War. A hundred years later, the sentiments behind those words were at the back of many European minds before the European Parliament elections. The fear of many (and the hope of some) was that nationalist parties would surge and inflict a fatal wound on the European integrationist project.
So did the centre collapse in the early hours of Monday morning? Looking at the big picture, the answer has to be a definite “don’t know”. The two dominant European political families — the centre-left Social Democrats and the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) — have ceased to be dominant. Both broadly sympathetic to European integration, they have together commanded a majority of seats in the European Parliament since the first direct elections in 1979. Without their backing, not much of substance could be achieved. But it would be simplistic to say that we have now witnessed their demise.
Although the Social Democrats and the EPP have lost between them roughly a fifth of their representation, they remain the two largest political groupings. One of the principal beneficiaries of their decline has been the liberal Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE), which has nearly doubled its tally. Another has been the ecologist Green grouping, which has seen an increase of roughly a third. Far from being hostile to European integration, these two parties are some of its loudest supporters. The net result is that the support of the ALDE or the Greens will be necessary to create a majority.
At the other end of the political spectrum, the various varieties of nationalists have also done well, more than doubling their representation. Their message that the elites care nothing about the “people”, that Europe is a scam run for the benefit of big business, seems to have resonated. They now have just over a sixth of the seats in the 751-member European House. And this is probably to understate their support because they also have sympathisers in the conservative grouping and in the EPP.
But does any of this matter? On one level, not very much. While the European Parliament is more than embryonic, it is not a fully grown legislature. It can amend legislation, but it cannot initiate it. That is the prerogative of the European Commission. It can veto legislation, but so can the member states sitting in the Council of Ministers. It can sack the European Commission — Europe’s executive — but it cannot appoint it. That is done by the heads of national governments. Its approval is required for certain international treaties, but national parliaments must also approve them. So the fact that ALDE or Green support will now be needed to pass legislation and approve treaties probably won’t change the day-to-day dynamic and functioning of the European Union’s key institutions.
On another level, however, the results of the European elections matter a great deal. Despite the hopes of integrationists, the European elections are not primarily fought on European issues. They are fought on national ones. Underneath the headline figures, there are a variety of different national stories. And they matter very much for the countries concerned; but also for Europe as a whole. The individual member states remain key actors in the European Union and domestic concerns heavily influence how they act.
In France the nationalist National Rally, led by Marine Le Pen, edged ahead of President Emmanuel Macron’s liberal Renaissance Party — part of the ALDE group — and the Socialists were all but wiped out. The prospect of an extreme right-wing President has come that little bit closer. Were Ms Le Pen to take power, not only would France change dramatically, but given France’s pivotal role so would Europe too. In Germany, Europe’s anchor, both Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centrist Christian Democrats and the moderate left Social Democrats have lost votes to the Greens and the nationalist Alternativ fur Deutschland (Alternative for Germany). In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice Party, which trumpets “national identity” and is under scrutiny for undermining Poland’s democratic institutions, has consolidated its position.
In Italy likewise, where a nationalist-populist coalition is in power, the governing parties won a comfortable majority of the seats. Of the major countries, only Spain seems to have bucked the trend, with the Socialists in the lead and the EPP in second place.
As for the longer term implications, governments led by parties of the centre-right, centre-left or liberal parties will probably turn inward. More than before, any European initiatives will have to be weighed against domestic considerations. Will it diminish or enhance the nationalist threat? Nationalists and populists, on the other hand, will be emboldened. Although they did not achieve a breakthrough, they are likely to feel that the momentum is with them. Continental Europe is in for a rocky ride.
And finally, what about the United Kingdom? Even more than in continental Europe, specific national factors were at play. These were elections that the ruling Conservative Party had said would not take place, because Brexit — the UK’s departure from the European Union — would happen by the end of March. These were elections the Opposition Labour Party did not want to take place, because it is deeply divided. The leader and his entourage — old-style hard-leftists — are Brexiters, whilst the membership overwhelmingly wishes to see Brexit stopped.
The Conservative and Labour parties have paid heavily for incompetence on the one hand, and duplicity on the other.
A new party, the Brexit party, stole most of the Conservative vote, relegating the Conser-vatives to fifth place with less than nine per cent of the vote. It came first, with nearly 32 per cent of the vote. As for the Labour Party, it lost nearly half its vote to the ardently pro-European and anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats, who came second overall with nearly 20 per cent of the vote.
Both parties are now likely to have to go through tumult as they come to terms with their deep humiliation.
So has the centre held? For the moment, probably; for the future, not sure.
The writer is a lawyer and a keen observer of European affairs, and works in the UK and France...