In the run-up to last week’s elections for the European Parliament, the Anglophone press was abuzz with stories about a forthcoming populist, anti-EU wave sweeping the continent. Alarmist headlines proved only halfway right.
True, in some countries, Europe-bashers did very well: Nigel Farage’s newly founded Brexit Party in the UK, along with National Front headed by Marine Le Pen in France and Matteo Salvini’s League party in Italy all topped the polls. And in Belgium, which held a triple “super-election” (regional, federal, European), the far-right Flemish Interest came in second.
But the rise of nationalists and eurosceptics, whether of the soft or the hard variety, was matched by a remarkable growth of support for Greens and Liberals. Environmentalists made impressive gains, notably in France and Germany.
Whatever one makes of this election it is beyond doubt that the major losers were the two main groupings on the centre-right and the centre-left, the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Party of the European Socialists (PES). They lost 42 and 38 seats respectively and, as a consequence, need to negotiate a broader coalition in order to form a majority in the parliamentary body.
Yet, how did this three-way contest play out in the EU members in Eastern Europe: the Visegrad Four, the Baltics, Slovenia, Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria? Did the East-West divide Brussels-watchers often fret about manifest itself? The answer, again, is up to a point.
For starters, there is certainly no green wave in this part of Europe. From seven MEPs Eastern European Greens are down to just three out of a caucus of 69 for the whole of the EU. Put another way, voters in the East are not energised by issues such as climate change and sustainable development which rally citizens in the West.
It is a region where coal is still a king. In Poland, the largest country in the lot, it accounts for 50 percent of energy production. Like other countries across the world, Poland has been working to diversify away from coal but that is not easy, especially if the most economical alternative is Russian natural gas.
Second takeaway, soft euroscepticism is going strong. The European Conservative and Reformist (ECR) group has seen its Eastern European ranks swell from 28 to 40. By contrast, Salvini and Le Pen’s more extreme European Alliance of People and Nations, has won just two MEPs in Eastern Europe.
Beyond ECR, a grouping originally set up by Poland’s governing Law and Justice (PiS) and the British Tories, the “softies” include Viktor Orban’s Fidesz, still part of the EPP though formally suspended. Orban’s party added an additional seat to its caucus in the European Parliament and can now count on 13 MEPs.
Soft eurosceptics are not intent on wrecking the EU from the inside. They are all in favour of the billions of euros their countries receive from the Union’s budget as financial assistance. At the same time, the Orbanites in the East love to scapegoat Brussels as a purveyor of liberal values putting in peril Europe’s Christian civilisation.
Whether it is migrants from the Middle East – of which there are just a handful staying in Central Europe or the Balkans – or LGBTQ rights, there is never a shortage of issues to exploit in populist rhetoric. Needless to say, George Soros is the archvillain of them all.
There is ample evidence that this rhetoric is having a strong appeal to the centre-right and even the post-communist left. In Bulgaria and Romania, for instance, self-labelled Socialists campaigned on a socially conservative platform, which would have come as a shock to their comrades further west. Yet in both cases, that earned them little electoral success.
Lastly, the picture would be incomplete without taking note of the strong showing by newly formed pro-EU and anti-corruption parties in several places. The most impressive example comes from Slovakia. The Progressive Slovakia/Together coalition aligned with the newly inaugurated President Zuzana Caputova came first, winning four out of 13 mandates.
The populist Smer party, governing Slovakia since 2006, suffered a blow. Meanwhile, the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS), once Smer’s coalition partner, remained under the threshold. This victory comes on the heels on mass civic protests over the last years spurred by the brutal murder of a journalist investigating high-level graft and his partner.
In Romania, demands for cleaner government propelled Alliance 2020. The coalition headed by ex-prime minister and EU commissioner Dacian Ciolos secured more than a fifth of the vote and eight MEPs. It drew support from the Romanians abroad who, as in the past, turned out in substantial numbers at embassies and consulates to cast their vote.
In Hungary, Momentum, another newly established liberal movement, gained two seats.
All this suggests that large swaths of the citizenry continue to look at the EU as an ally in the fight for accountability and the rule of law, rather than a bogeyman or a bag of money.
The European Parliament elections have put on display both the dark and the bright side of membership in the EU. Eastern European countries may follow a different trajectory from the “old members” but results show that no one is immune to the populist challenge. And though Euro-cynicism seems to be as healthy as ever, there is indeed a silver lining.