Tuesday

31st Jan 2023

Opinion

EU elections: populists gained votes - but lost initiative

  • France's far-right Marine Le Pen. Many Eurosceptic populist parties - who were hitherto insisting on a violent break from the EU - have changed their tune (Photo: European Parliament)

Populists and anti-European parties have gained a substantial number of seats in the European Parliament elections of 2019.

This result had been predicted for some months, and had been expected to confirm a major power shift in Europe.

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However, this was not the ground-breaking populist revolution that some had predicted.

The reality is that result was more fizz than bang; more of a reflection of their popularity at national level over the past few months than the realisation of their vision for Europe.

In addition, despite these electoral advances, the reality is that although the populists are now among the largest parties in some EU member states, in the European Parliament they will not be able to summon under one flag as they have long aspired to do.

Moreover, no matter what combination of alliances these populist factions manage to cobble together, there remains no blocking majority.

Much more importantly, they have lost their initiative in the EU debate. Speaking in disparaging terms about the EU is no longer the go-to topic for the populists, and has been replaced by topics such as identity politics and immigration.

The reason is simple.

The unending Brexit chaos in the UK and the growing hype surrounding anti-European parties has created a flashback: only eight percent of the EU population think they would have nothing to lose if the EU collapsed.

This harsh dose of reality from across the channel has reshaped debates in households across the continent – Europeans simply do not want to leave the EU.

In fact, support for the EU has increased substantially in the wake of Brexit.

As a result, many Eurosceptic populist parties - who were hitherto insisting on a violent break from the EU - have changed their tune.

Now they are advocating putting breaks on integration and focusing on functions, which provide added value for the member states and its citizens.

From an electoral tactics point of view, this shift is highly problematic for populists. Labelling the EU as a threat and advocating exit provided them with a clear position and helped to polarise the EU debate.

Tacit climbdown

Now, Marine Le Pen is calling for radical reform of the European Union, and Matteo Salvini for a Europe of common sense. In doing so, they tacitly admit that the European Union has an added value.

This is already more complex electoral message, and a much more difficult sell for populist parties.

"A Europe of common sense" is a Europe of at least some level of integration. But what is going to be extremely difficult for populists is to continue their own analysis: identifying the areas where integration and some form of supranationalism is needed and how to do it, instead of just rejecting all proposals.

Being unable to do so, they have lost the initiative.

One way the populist parties hoped to manage this problem was to say that the European elections was about immigration, leaving the other topics aside. This strategy did work, but only to a limited extent.

However, despite the fact that populist parties are currently struggling with their inconsistent European narrative, their arrival into the political mainstream cannot be ignored as they continue to challenge democratic norms in member states where they govern.

The explosive Austrian Freedom Party scandal again confirms that many populist parties have inherent nefarious elements which contradict and challenge democratic values and principles.

Despite this, populist parties will remain attractive for many voters as a vehicle for protest.

Nevertheless, the debate on the European Union's future seems to have moved beyond the existential.

A clear majority, including among populist parties, do agree that the EU has added value. For the pro-EU forces, it is time to clarify and consolidate our vision, without ignoring the populists' election results.

Author bio

Tomi Huhtanen is the executive director of the Wilfried Martins Centre for European Studies in Brussels - the official think tank of the European People's Party.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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