The message, it seems, is clear. European citizens are at best unimpressed with mainstream politics, at worst outright dismissive of it. The French Front National (FN) and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) have grabbed the headlines, but disaffection is apparently the order of the day more or less everywhere.
In France Manuel Valls, the Prime Minister, was quick to go on record as calling the FN victory “a shock, an earthquake” before stressing that it was something that “all responsible leaders must respond to”. His sentiments were echoed around the continent by centrist politicians desperately trying to claim that they understood.
But what is there to understand from all this? First of all, it’s worth remembering that the “earthquake” came in different forms and, indeed, didn’t really come at all in some places; while the Eurosceptic Danish People’s Party became the biggest party in Denmark, the Freedom Party in Austria (FPÖ) finished third – certainly an improvement on 2009, but not quite what it had hoped for.
Syrzia, a left-wing anti-establishment party, led the way in Greece, but it stands for quite different politics to the FN and UKIP (and indeed the FPÖ). Geert Wilders’s PVV finished only third in the Netherlands, with a vote share notably down on where it was in 2009, while the voice of anti-establishment politics in Italy – Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement – came in well behind the party of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. In Germany, meanwhile, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) entered the European Parliament with seven MEPs, but Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU topped the polls by some distance.
Can’t return to business as usual
There is much for Europe’s pro-EU politicians to be worried about here, and the message is clearly one of dissatisfaction. But it is not a coherent one. The fact that UKIP rejects working with the FN out of hand indicates the incompatibility of their respective messages, while the German AfD will not be keen on working with either of them. Syrzia leads a group of disaffected left parties that will be at pains to attack all of those three (as well as parties in the centre) at every opportunity. The deeper you look, the more the peculiarities of each of the new dissidents comes to the fore.
The danger here is that politicians in the European Parliament will – despite their rhetoric to the contrary – soon return to business as normal. The EP remains in the thrall of a grand coalition of centrist parties; the dissidents will shout and scream from the fringes, and they will soon claim that, once again, the concerns that they raise are simply being ignored. The way that the EP works ensures that they are almost certain to be right. EPP leader Jean-Claude Juncker has a point when he claims that “we will have a clear pro-European majority in this house”, but that looks suspiciously like a return to the day-to-day process of pushing European integration forward. And that plays right in to the hands of recalcitrants of all colours.
The challenge for pro-EU forces is now twofold. A majority of voters do indeed still regard the EU as a “good thing”. But many of them remain less than enamoured with the performances of their (national and international) politicians. These voters still remain loyal to the cause. For now. Politicians in national parliaments and in the EP have to find a way of explaining why the EU is a project worth persevering with, why the messages that the critics espouse are humbug and a language that resonates with the masses. They need to avoid the platitudes and to engage with the worries that seem to be engulfing much of their electorates. That, even with a fair wind, is not going to be easy.
Secondly, mainstream politicians need to tackle their critics head on. This is, of course, easier said than done, but they can no longer let their new(ish) challengers set the tone on delicate issues such as immigration or freedom of movement. They have to stand up and tell the populists, the protectionists, the old-school nationalists and the xenophobes that they are wrong. They also have to explain to voters why, at times, they are wrong too. The evidence is out there, the real challenge for the centre-left and the centre-right is how to get that message across to those who currently aren’t listening.