Last weekend the EU had its election - the second largest democratic election in the world (after that of India). The results tend to be rather difficult to interpret, especially as the reporting focuses on the most sensational outcomes. So let's start by looking at the broad trends:
Conservative & economic liberal parties: These parties, on the centre-right of European politics, were the biggest losers of the EU election, dropping down from 414 seats to 338 seats. This is a nasty swing, moving from ~55% of parliament to ~45% of parliament, but overall they still constitute the largest political grouping, and will continue to have the largest say in the new EU parliament.
Socialist & green progressive parties: These parties, on the centre-left of European politics, were the unsung winners of the EU elections. They rose from 285 seats to 316 seats, an increase from 37% to 42% of parliament. This more than eliminates the losses they were inflicted at the last EU election (which were considered a disaster at the time). Of course, not losing as badly is not the same as winning, but there was a clear gain, and the progressives will likely be more influential in the new parliament, especially if the centre-right wants to distance itself from the far right.
Far-right crazies: These were the talk of the election, and if the media was to be believed Europe was going to experience a far-right tide (in relative terms, of course, most of these nutters would feel at home in the Republican party in America). The far-right did indeed steal votes from the centre-right, and increased from 67 seats to 97 seats (from 9% to 13% of parliament). But to put the EU results in a bit of perspective, the entire far-right surge in seats was due to only two parties - UKIP in the UK (up 12 seats) and the Front National in France (up 21 seats), and both of these were due to the losses on the right. Despite the large gains, expect the far-right to be ignored in the next parliament - their politicans don't have the skill to work behind the scenes and they don't have any incentive to actually get anything done. These parties only survive in opposition, so they will continue to act like it.
Ignoring the hype, what is the actual outcome of the EU election?
- There is no "European earthquake". The left-right balance more or less reverted from the shift to the right in the last election. The vote turnout more or less stayed the same. There is an ongoing process of the major parties losing votes to smaller parties, but this is fractioning the existing ideological make-up, rather than representing a profound shift within Europe. The composition of the parliament that will actually work together is fairly similar to the last parliament, and even the one before that.
- The centre-right is reaping what it sowed. For the past decade, the centre-right in certain European countries (UK, France, Italy) has played up populist racist messages in order to beat the centre-left. This was a successful short-term strategy, but it is now backfiring, as the hatred stirred up in voters has boiled over to the point where the far-right is now cannibalising off the centre-right (similar to the Tea Party in the US). In volatile Italy and Portugal, this exploded in the last EU election and has reverted to normal in this one. Hopefully we see the same in France, and the Front National becomes a one election wonder. The opposite of Italy is the situation in Poland and Hungary, which slid to the radical right last election and have stayed there. Unfortunately, I doubt we will see any centre-right wing parties learn from this lesson, and if anything I expect them to lean even more to the far-right.
- Someone needs to make the case for Europe in the UK. In the UK, the last ten years have seen UKIP rise from nothing to being the largest British party in the EU parliament. Notably, the British only vote for UKIP in EU elections, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. It is a good thing, because the British public clearly understand that UKIP are a bunch of incompetent crazies, good as a protest vote but not the type of people you'd put in charge of anything that mattered. Which brings us to the bad - the UK treats the EU elections as an appropriate venue for a meaningless protest vote. "Why" is an interesting question. I think part of this might be that the "European party" in the UK (the Lib Dems) is led by the least popular British politican, who is synonomous with selling out his party. More long-term, I think it is because being in opposition is easy, so governments like to pretend that the EU is the opposition and blame the EU for things that the government voted for. Someone more competent than Clegg needs to make the (very strong) case for Europe in the UK.
- Czechs and Slovaks just don't care. In both countries, the turnout was below 20%. Overall the turnout in Europe rose slightly (43%), but in several Eastern European countries turnout was shockingly poor. If these countries want to have any say about the Europe they are part of, they should look into their electoral systems and consider making substantial changes.