The simple conclusion of the European elections is that the centrist mainstream still holds. But it is what the liberals decide to do now that will help decide the EU's future.
The surge of the far-right and populist parties is usually the lens employed to analyse the results of European elections. At least in this respect, 2019 was not fundamentally different from 2014 and 2009. it was payback time for Marine Le Pen in France against President Macron, while in Italy, Salvini's Northern League stunned everyone with a major win. But this is only half of the story; the other half is that the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) forces did not manage to have the breakthrough they were hoping for. They are stuck on a quarter of the seats, whereas the hope was for a third.
So, the simple conclusion of Sunday's vote is that the centrist mainstream still holds. However, here things get more complicated. As others have pointed out, for the first time since the European elections took place, the duopoly of the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Progessive Alliance of Socalists and Democrats (S&D) is over. The two main parties do not have enough votes to command a majority and will need other partners to move Europe forward. A complex negotiation will start and its contours are as interesting as they are unknown. My advice to the main players would be to pay particular attention to what the new Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group could do as the parliament’s new centre. Moreover, let's hope that they will use their bargain chip to set a clearer liberal path for Europe.
The liberals are one of the key winners of the European elections. Despite coming behind the National Rally, En Marche (LREM) matched the score of President Macron in the first round of the 2017 French presidential elections and will send an important contingent of MEPs to Brussels. In the UK, the Liberal Democrats banked on their pro-European stance and benefited electorally. In the East, good news came from Slovakia and Romania. A new progressive liberal party took the Slovak politics by storm and came first in the race, exposing the vulnerabilities of the until-recently dominating Social Democrats (Smer).
In what was a high turnout election in Romania, USR-PLUS, despite their lack of political experience, were only a few tens of thousands away from edging out the Social Democrats, the big losers of the night. All in all, the liberals have gained 39 seats more in the European Parliament, a performance that is far superior to what the ENF or the Greens accomplished. So, rather than a green surge, we could talk more of a liberal one.
The fragmentation of the mainstream opens the way for interesting realignments. The Spitzenkandidaten game may have worked well in 2014, but this year's lack of enthusiasm generated by the candidates - and the outcome of the election in itself - will most likely kill off the process and much to President Macron’s satisfaction. The Socialists, despite the attempt to form a broad left coalition, cannot get enough votes to give Frans Timmermans the European Commission’s top job.
As a compromise solution, the liberals could bring more diversity to the European establishment, and this in itself is good news. The dominance of the EPP has arguably induced some political and administrative complacency and an opportunity to shake things up should be welcomed. In an institutional framework deemed to be too technocratic, the injection of a de facto checks-and-balances system will potentially address the huge democratic and transparency deficits that characterise the workings of the Union.
If the centre holds, the question is whether it can now deliver. Obviously, it would be a great accomplishment to have Margrethe Vestager run what is happening in the Berlaymont building. But, more importantly, will the liberal agenda sketched out by President Macron be transformed into a fully-fledged and ready-to-go plan endorsed by the other members of a diverse group?
These days, news reports insist that the French president has a historical opportunity in Europe. It is an exaggerated reading of the political situation. The reality is more whether a liberal agenda for Europa could be put forward and become politically viable. This is the challenge for the liberals; rather than opting for the typical negotiations behind closed doors, they could use their recent wins to transform an opaque process into an open conversation about how change and policy go together.
ALDE would be wise to start assuming thought leadership of the new European mainstream configuration. Macron already started this process as regards to the other European leaders, but what I mean is also ideas and policies to bring Europe fully into the 21st century as liberal economic powerhouse that is both competitive and proud of its values.
In the end, the audacity to assume liberal ideas is what could bring the far-right to a fifth of the seats in the next election and reenergise the crumbling European project. Otherwise, we will see the populists advance once again towards a third in 2024.
Radu Magdin is a strategic communications analyst and consultant, former Prime Ministerial advisor in Romania and Moldova
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