In the past, European elections were regarded as unimportant. At most, they were an opportunity to shake up the system through the use of protest votes, leading to the election of anti-establishment figures like Nigel Farage. However, the 2019 elections were a different story. In the UK, voter turnout increased to 37% (even though these elections were never meant to happen here) whilst the average voter turnout across the whole of the EU increased to 50.5%. What is clear from these elections is that mainstream parties need to up their game and that, despite the presence of a comfortable pro-EU majority in the European Parliament, there is a growing divide in attitudes towards Europe which could present uncertainty about its future.
It was a painful evening for mainstream parties. In the UK, Labour and the Conservatives were completely blown away with the former gaining 14.1% of the vote whilst the latter gained just 8.7%, resulting in a miserable fifth place. Mainstream parties were also demolished in France. For example, the traditionally strong, centre-right Republicans gained just 8.5% of the vote. One of the only countries in which traditional parties held firm was Germany, where the Christian Democratic Alliance came first with 28.9%. Put another way, Germany appeared to be the only country in which stability prevailed, as was the case with the Eurozone crisis.
Off the back of disastrous results for the larger parties came huge success for new and more marginal parties. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the UK, where the newly established Brexit Party of Nigel Farage topped the polls with 31.7% of the vote. On the other side of the spectrum, the Liberal Democrats bounced back from an awful performance in the 2017 General Election to come second with 18.5% of the vote. The Liberal Democrats also seized control of the Labour stronghold in London. Finally, there appeared to be ‘a Green Wave’ surging across Europe, with green parties performing well in nearly all EU countries. What this suggests is that people are getting sick and tired of conventional political parties engaging in petty quarrels with each other instead of working together to solve pressing issues and that they are desperate for a change of scenery. If mainstream parties are to have any chance of bouncing back from this humiliation, they should stop saying that they are listening to voters’ concerns and start taking action which produces tangible results.
But what do these elections actually mean for the composition of the European Parliament? As things stand, there is a comfortable pro-EU majority, with the four main pro-European parties gaining 500 out of 736 seats between them. This reduces the chance of parties like Marine Le Pen’s ‘National Rally’ or Mateo Salvini’s ‘La Liga’ pushing through reforms that could lead to the break up of the EU. These results also suggest that support for the EU across Europe is just about holding. However, this does not mean that pro-EU factions should become complacent. In fact, the massive success of far-right parties in France, Italy and Belgium shows there is a steadily increasing amount of scepticism being expressed by voters towards the EU. As well as this, the build-up of pro and anti-EU forces has the potential to cause an increasing amount of political polarization in Europe, leading to it getting ripped apart like a Christmas cracker. To avoid this from happening, the EU must adapt to the rapidly changing political landscapes within its member states and address concerns expressed by Eurosceptics through a programme of reform.
There are two key messages from these European elections. Firstly, there is an increasing disillusionment with conventional political parties among ordinary people. If these parties do not listen to what voters are telling them, their influence could end up being substantially reduced. Secondly, despite the strong presence of pro-European parties in the European Parliament, the gains made by Eurosceptic parties across Europe suggest that the EU must make itself more approachable to ordinary people. If it doesn’t, Britain might not be the only country deciding to leave.