European Union

Europe’s earthquake

The European Parliament election results challenge visions of a sovereign, democratic EU

June 15, 2024
Image: JLBvdWOLF / Alamy
Image: JLBvdWOLF / Alamy

The earthquake was a long time coming. It was widely predicted. And yet, it took many by surprise. The spectacular success of political forces skeptical toward European integration in the European Parliament elections will significantly change the continent. As we enter a chaotic period of negotiations and horse-trading for the EU’s top jobs, it seems easier to predict where Europe will be in ten years, than what shape it will be in ten days.

The idea of an ever-closer union is gone, as peoples with separate identities threaten to enter the stage of European politics. I use people in plural to say from the outset what many pro-European scholars and commentators refuse to accept as given: Europe does not constitute a polity analogous to a nation state. Instead, it is constituted by 27 member states with their 27 separate demoi. This doesn’t make it into a demoicracy, a pioneering concept advocated by the Oxford academic Kalypso Nicolaidis. Nicolaidis wants to see Europe as “a Union of peoples, understood both as states and as citizens, who govern together but not as one”. But such a Europe eschews the question of ultimate authority, making it unworkable, particularly in times of crisis. For who is to be the sovereign in such a polity? Who would decide on the exception? It is in answer to this question that French President Emmanuel Macron has advocated the creation of a truly sovereign Europe. “Our Europe is mortal”, Macron and his German counterpart, Chancellor Olaf Scholz wrote in May, “and we must rise to the challenge”.

They have not risen to the challenge, however, and I suggest that they will not be in the position to shape Europe’s future. Scholz’s ruling Social Democratic party gained only 14 percent of votes, coming third after extreme-right and eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD). In France too, Macron’s Renaissance party scored only 15 percent, which is less than half of Marine Le Pen’s Rassamblement National party. In many ways though, these were not European elections, these were 27 national elections. As the legal scholar Alberto Allemano put it, in these elections, “we’ve seen people vote for national parties running national candidates, presenting national agendas”. 

Allemano is right in the diagnoses but wrong in his prescriptions. He calls for further Europeanisation of Europe. Make elections truly European and you will create a European demos which will give rise to a European democracy. It won’t be perfect, the contestations will continue, but the people will have their voices heard and Europe will become ever more democratic, or so the argument goes. But this is not going to work. To save democracy in Europe, its polities should not be further Europeanised but re-nationalised. That relentless process of Europeanisation brought us to where we are now: a populist backlash, not just against liberalism but against the basic principles and values that make democracy possible and sustainable.

In years to come, these elections will come to be seen as a major turning point. They will mark the end of the EU’s ambitions to turn itself into a supranational, quasi-sovereign federation. The Europe we are heading towards will be much closer not only to what David Cameron demanded before the Brexit referendum, but also to what Margaret Thatcher advocated while opposing the creation of the kind of European Union we currently have. Cameron wanted more control of migration both from outside and within the EU, while Thatcher famously fought for a Europe of nation states. As she put it in a speech at the College of Europe in Bruges in 1988: “Let Europe be a family of nations, understanding each other better, appreciating each other more, doing more together but relishing our national identity no less than our common European endeavour”.

Thatcher’s message would resonate with voters today across the Union---whether they express their dissatisfaction by voting for right-wing, or left-wing parties opposed to the mainstream consensus. This is not to understate the vast differences between the concerns voters have within individual member states. Europe has always meant many different things to different peoples---a truism applicable even within the founding six: Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Just think of the differences between France and Germany. While French elites have seen the European project as a vehicle to aggrandise France, for many Germans, Europe’s purpose was to restore the nation’s credibility after the descent to barbarism during the Second World War. To achieve this, Germany used Europe to hide its strength.

The post-election developments in France are a reminder, if we needed it, of the centrality of domestic politics. Despite many internal problems, Macron until very recently had been seen as the leader of Europe. Calling a snap election following his party’s poor performance in the European Parliament vote is bound to hasten his demise. Whether Marine Le Pen’s Rassamblement National gains an outright majority in the French National Assembly, or merely comes close to it, Macron’s power-base will be greatly diminished. He will no longer be seen as a credible leader of France—and even more so—of Europe.

By contrast, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party took the largest share of the national vote (29 per cent). This has further strengthened her democratic credentials, notwithstanding the overall size of her party group in the European Parliament (fourth after the mainstream centre-right party, a centre-left party, and Macron’s Renew Europe party). Thus Europe will be renewed but along the lines of what Meloni and her supporters have advocated for some time: rather than making Europe sovereign, member states will seek to reclaim their national sovereignty from Europe. And collectively and as individual nation states, they will seek greater control over migration into Europe as well as maintain (some) control over their national economies.

The spectre of Donald Trump returning to power looms large in Brussels and other European capitals. And the situation in Ukraine remains dire. Russia’s willingness to destroy the nation appears undiminished. But a Europe with (some) powers returned to its constitutive member states is not all bad news for Ukraine. The EU as a whole consistently overpromised and under-delivered to the embattled nation. The decisive supporters have been (some) member states and countries outside of the EU, namely the US and UK. Their role will only become more important — from within and alongside NATO.

What of sovereign Europe, then? Remember, a Europe that would stand up for its interests in the world? One that was autonomous, resilient and independent of other major powers, including the US and China? That Europe is the future that never was. To regain its power and credibility, Europe needs to become more responsive to its citizens. And this is more likely to be achieved at the level of nation-states, than within a supranational polity in the making.