Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 27 May 2020

Prophesies of the European Union's demise have been premature

The institution is badly in need of reform but pro-European forces have been dealt a reprieve​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

Leader of the Brexit Party Nigel Farage, arrives at a party's news conference following the results of the European Parliament elections. REUTERS
Leader of the Brexit Party Nigel Farage, arrives at a party's news conference following the results of the European Parliament elections. REUTERS

The clear victor in the European parliamentary elections was the EU itself. This was the first vote in its history that revolved around legitimate transnational issues beyond the borders of individual member states; namely, the relevance of the union itself to Europe and climate change. They weren’t the only issues that motivated voters to go to the polls but they were decisive, especially for the record numbers of young people who voted and helped lead to the highest turnout in 20 years, with the majority casting their ballots for pro-EU parties. In its moment of need, Europeans came to the rescue of their creation.

Even though many of the far-right Eurosceptic parties fared well and will send about 40 additional parliamentarians to Brussels, the nationalists took less than expected. They will be a thorn in the side of democrats and pro-Europeans but they have neither the numbers nor the cohesion to sabotage the EU. They are not only divided among themselves on many issues but also into several factions in the European parliament. And if and when the UK leaves the EU, that would also presumably mean the departure of its 70 European parliamentarians.

Yet with swollen numbers, the far right has certainly taken another step away from the fringe and into the mainstream of European politics. The national populists come from every EU country, save Ireland, Portugal and Malta, and even overtook the governing parties in France and the UK. Their key campaign issue – migration –remains a fraught and emotive topic. There were significant gains for populist parties, particularly in Britain, France, Italy and Hungary. In a Britain mired in Brexit negotiations and now facing a leadership contest, the two major parties haemorrhaged support, giving an advantage to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which eclipsed the competition with more than 33 per cent of the vote, despite being only formed six weeks ago. But the overall picture was somewhat more nuanced than a simple vote for populism. The significant losses for the centre-right and centre-left were counter-balanced by a surge in seats for the pro-EU Liberals and Green parties.

And while nationalist fringe parties across the continent surged ahead, there were legitimate global issues which lured out voters, among them climate change, which voters in countries such as France and Germany said was their number one concern. Even in the countries of central and southern Europe, where either populism or bread-and butter issues usually determine elections, climate shot from the bottom of their list of priorities to near the top. European citizens seem, finally, to have grasped the urgency and scope of the problem of our planet’s rising temperatures and its threat to civilisation. They clearly recognise that the only way to combat it is through a cross-border, multilateral approach.

The Green party, which doubled some of its tallies from five years ago, owes at least part of its success to the young activists of the Fridays for Future school striking movement, who declared this ballot a “climate vote”. Worldwide protests in March saw an estimated 1.6 million demonstrators gather on the streets in 125 countries. Students too young to vote implored their parents and the adult world to look beyond their garden walls and begin to deal with a calamity that will affect their lives most.

Parliamentarians in the EU, therefore, have a new raison d’etre: climate change. The promise of peace and security is no longer the only driving force. A fragmented European parliament won’t make this goal any less possible. In fact, it might just breathe new life into the institution.

No matter who takes the helm as president or which parties form new alliances, the EU now has a mandate to expand renewable energy production and overhaul the oil-dependent transport sector. This isn’t just the purview of the Greens alone.

All of this doesn’t for a minute give the EU a free pass on the need for reforms. While there is support for the idea of a united Europe, the result also reflects Europeans’ dissatisfaction with the EU as a distant, bureaucratic, intransigent, out-of-touch institution, badly in need of a shake-up. Prophesies of the union’s demise have been premature but they have not been nullified. Pro-European forces have been dealt a reprieve. They can best use it by reforming the EU in a way that helps it set the global agenda on climate change. That could do more to boost multilateralism than anything else.

Paul Hockenos is the author of Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin

Updated: May 27, 2019 06:58 PM

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