BERLIN — Phew. Turns out the bark of Europe’s far right is worse than its bite.
Yes, illiberal parties did well in France and Italy, Poland, Hungary and beyond. But overall no better than expected, and in some cases worse so.
Bottom line: The populists’ finish wasn’t that much stronger than in 2014.
That’s good news for Europe’s democratic parties and even better news for the European Union. The strategy of Europe’s centrists, from Merkel to Macron, to cast the election as a question of “Europe’s destiny” helped drive voters to polling stations.
Throughout the campaign, pro-EU parties warned that the scourge of Euroskeptic populism, in the guise of France’s National Rally, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), Italy’s League and many others, threatened to undo decades of European integration.
Even in France and Italy, where the populists did best on the Continent, the results were below some expectations.
Europeans heeded those calls and turned out to vote in large numbers, with voter participation across Europe at about 51 percent, compared to 43 percent in 2014.
The strong participation helped temper the results for the Euroskeptics, who tend to benefit from low turnout because they’re good at getting their own voters to cast a ballot.
In Germany and Austria, the far-right populists finished below their results in national elections in 2017, down by 1.8 and 3.3 percentage points respectively.
Though the AfD was quick to note its result was up by more than 50 percent compared to the last European election in 2014 — from 7.1 to 10.8 percent — the comparison is problematic because the party has undergone a dramatic metamorphosis since then. Five years ago, the AfD was still focused on its opposition to eurozone bailouts; its hard-right lurch and focus on migration came only later.
The German-speaking far right’s reversal of fortune might have been influenced by the recent “Ibiza affair” in Austria, but there were signs of weakness elsewhere too.
The anti-immigration Danish People’s Party won only one seat in the European Parliament, compared to four last time out. In the Netherlands, far-right parties performed worse than many of their opponents feared. In Spain, the populist Vox party managed to win only about 6 percent of the vote. Estonia’s far-right EKRE party, which recently joined the country’s governing coalition, finished only third in Sunday’s European election.
Though Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party did well in the U.K., capturing first place, it’s unlikely to play much of a role in next Parliament without membership in one of the main alliances, which seems unlikely.
Even in France and Italy, where the populists did best on the Continent, the results were below some expectations. Marine Le Pen’s National Rally recorded a strong 23.5 percent of the French vote, finishing first — but that was still slightly below the party’s 2014 result. Her rebranded party is on course to have two seats fewer in the European Parliament this time around.
Salvini’s League party appears to have performed strongly in Italy, winning more than 33 percent of the vote. But his dreams of forming the biggest group in the European Parliament will remain just that. POLITICO’s projections suggest his group will have around 70 seats in the 751-member chamber.
Salvini has been laying the groundwork for a new populist alliance that is expected to include the AfD, the National Rally, Austria’s Freedom Party and possibly Viktor Orban’s Fidesz, which may leave the center-right European People’s Party soon.
With or without Orbán, there are big questions over just how cohesive the planned populist grouping will be. While the parties share a basic aversion to migration and an illiberal, anti-democratic ethos, they don’t have much else in common.
Salvini, for example, thumbs his nose at European rules regarding budgetary discipline, a position that’s anathema to the AfD and Austria’s Freedom Party. The Italian leader also wants other European countries to take in many of the refugees now stranded in Italy, something Orbán rejects outright.
While such divisions aren’t new, they illustrate the advantage the centrist parties — a group expected to control a majority of the new parliament’s seats — will have vis-à-vis the populists.
By definition, the populists pursue a nationalist agenda at odds with coalition-building at the European level. That means the mainstream parties don’t have to try to divide and conquer them. The populists will do it themselves.