EU parliamentary election is a vote for change and disruption

Poll set the tone of political debate within every European member state

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This, famously, is a year of elections all over the world and so perhaps we should begin with some good news. We have witnessed the greatest exercise of democracy in history, the elections in India. Narendra Modi has now been sworn in for a third term as Prime Minister, although without his party obtaining an overall majority.

Whatever you think of the result, the Indian elections were a stunning achievement. Almost a billion Indian citizens were eligible to vote, in what was a triumph for the democratic spirit in the fast-growing economic and political power in South Asia.

Elsewhere, however, there is turmoil ahead.

One unanswerable question is what the prospect of former US president Donald Trump’s return to the White House might mean. That question energised a discussion I chaired at a weekend conference in the north of England, York Festival of Ideas, but so more urgently did the EU elections.

Senior diplomats, political researchers, academics and international relations and defence specialists met to consider, among other things, what a second Trump term in the White House might mean but also what the rise of far-right parties in Europe might do to shape, or damage, international relations, the future of Nato, European security, support for Ukraine, and other matters.

We met as tens of millions of EU citizens were voting in elections that define the composition of the European Parliament. Those elections also acted as an important opinion poll across an increasingly troubled continent setting the tone of political debate within every EU member state.

At first sight, the results have been greeted with alarm. One key trend has indeed been the rise of parties from the right, far right, or some may prefer to say, extreme right.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron reacted swiftly to the election victory of his key rival Marine Le Pen. Her National Rally party staged a predicted but nevertheless – for Mr Macron – unsettling victory. Mr Macron has therefore called an urgent and surprising election.

It is a brave gamble to see off (he hopes) the far-right challenge but – as we will get to in a moment – Mr Macron’s decision may reveal that the European elections are not quite the far-right tidal wave that some of the more exaggerated headlines proclaim.

What is clear is that right-wing nationalist parties sceptical of, or hostile to, the EU have done well. Germany’s far right picked up votes but so did the equally anti-EU German far left.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban welcomed the election results of his party, Fidesz, with a tweet that could sum up some of the far-right reactions across Europe: “Stop migration! Stop gender! Stop war! Stop Soros! Stop Brussels!”

Soros is a reference to George Soros, the Hungarian-American billionaire philanthropist whom some on the far right love to hate. Migration, the debate about gender, a thinly disguised Islamophobia, and ending support for Ukraine in the war with Russia are also policies that tend to fire up enthusiasts in far-right parties across Europe, although hostility to “Brussels” – the EU itself – is mixed.

It is therefore worth being careful about reading too much into these far-right victory speeches.

In Mr Orban’s case, his ultra-nationalist party did receive the most votes (44 per cent) and will have 11 MEPs. That’s a success. But the vote share of Fidesz fell by 11 per cent compared to the 2022 Hungarian general election, and some calculate that these results actually suggest the party’s biggest loss of support in 18 years. In France, Mr Macron’s snap election gamble may also pay off. That’s because elections for the European Parliament have never been reliable as a guide to how elections to national parliaments will go. Turnout in this year’s continent-wide elections was 50 per cent.

The French elections, and the upcoming UK general election, can expect about 70 per cent of voters to go to the polls. The less enthusiastic 20 per cent of EU voters therefore can make a big difference if they turn out to elect their own national governments.

It is also true that far-right parties across Europe usually agree with Mr Orban on issues about migration. But Europe’s far right disagree profoundly on many other issues.

Some, including Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Ms Le Pen of France, are strong supporters of Ukraine. Mr Orban isn’t. The German far-right AfD party is so disliked by other far-right groups that it was not invited to a recent gathering in Madrid, a gathering attended by (among others) Ms Le Pen, Ms Meloni and Trump supporters and backers in America.

The picture of European politics therefore suggests voters are unhappy. Unhappy voters often merely want “change”, whatever that may mean for them. Yes, far-right parties across Europe are often doing better than at any time since before the Second World War.

Britain’s political disruptor, Nigel Farage, is now running the Reform UK party and is a candidate in the general election on July 4. But at our York conference and elsewhere, the big unknown is about the future for the disruptor-in-chief, Mr Trump. It’s a long road until November.

Published: June 11, 2024, 2:30 PM