How Europe Voted

As I watched the results rolling in from the European Union’s twenty-seven member states in the 2024 Euro-elections and heard the pundits and psephologists analysing them, I was overcome by the twin sensations of déjà vu and deja entendu. Had I really seen this and heard all these things before? Or had I been transported by a time-loop to the day after the 2019 Euro-elections?

For the 2024 results were uncannily similar to 2019’s. What follows are my three main conclusions from five years ago (in italics) to check against what happened this year:

1/ The mainstream centre-left and centre-right parties continue a decline that has been going on for several decades.

In 2019 the two parties in Germany’s Grand Coalition—the CDU and the SPD—got only 45 per cent of the vote jointly when once they would have scored in the high seventies. France’s traditional parties of government disappeared from sight, all scoring in single figures. And Italy’s Christian Democrats and socialists retreated as the Five Stars and Lega parties advanced. That process has continued this year in France and Italy—where the populist Giorgia Meloni has either defeated or conscripted the earlier populists—but in Germany the CDU has begun to recover under a more conservative leader.  

2/ Where the centre retreated, however, the populist right did not fully occupy the abandoned territory.

In 2019 national populists advanced modestly and consolidated their 2014 breakthrough gains in Hungary, Poland, France, Britain, and elsewhere. They suffered no major defeats anywhere. But they didn’t win as many votes or seats as the Left and Brussels had feared and they fell short of gaining a majority in the European Parliament. 2024’s results are even better for the populist Right, which made major headline gains in France, Germany, and Italy. Again, they fell short of gaining a majority in the Strasbourg Parliament but came significantly closer to it. If the European People’s Party dominated by the CDU were to abandon its current coalition with the Left, liberals and Greens for the populist Right, it would enjoy a healthy majority.

3/ If the centre had retreated and the populist right advanced only so far, then European liberals and the Greens occupied some of the vacant ground.

That’s the single biggest difference with today’s results, which saw a massive retreat by the Greens in Germany, by President Macron’s Liberals in France, and by their broad centre-leftist tendency generally across Europe. Their advance in 2019 had been fuelled both by voters’ enthusiasm for Greens’ sacrificial energy and environmental policies and by voters’ fears that populists were a threat to democracy and the European Union. Their retreat this year reflected the voters’ realisation that the Green policies were actually imposing sacrifices while the populists wanted not to destroy the European Union but to reform it along more democratic and national lines—and less masochistic ones.

There was also a marked similarity in the interpretations of the pundits of the 2019 and 2024 Euro-election results. In both cases they blended fear and hope in an analysis arguing that populist conservatism was a clear and present threat to European democracy which fortunately was already running out of steam. Plainly they were wrong in 2019 since populism has just made its largest gains so far. But they seem to be equally wrong about 2024 too.

Their examples of where populism was held in check this time are Poland, Hungary, and Denmark—all of which demonstrate a somewhat different trend. Take Poland first. Poland’s Civic Platform, which won the recent Polish general election, did come first in the Euro-elections—moving ahead of the previously governing Law and Justice Party but by less than one percentage point. It almost certainly would not have achieved even that modest success if Prime Minister Donald Tusk had not adopted the opposition’s decision to reject a proposal from Brussels for a mandatory regime of quotas for relocating migrants across Europe. Curbing migration—and the EU’s assumption of more powers over it—is a key item in the populist playbook. To inflict a small defeat on Law and Justice by taking its side against Brussels on what is perhaps the EU’s most controversial policy is hardly a defeat for populism. And that’s not a nuance.

Similarly with Denmark, celebrated by most European media as a case of a progressive left-wing country that kept the populists at bay. Certainly, the populists didn’t win the election, which wasn’t a surprise. But their vote rose and they gained a seat at Strasbourg. So what did this signify about populism? Let’s hear it from the horse’s mouth—namely an informative election analysis from the Danish Progressive Post: “There was no big turn to the populist right at the Danish EP election partially because all parties now seem to agree on a stern immigration policy that strengthens the control of EU borders and does not allow more refugees into Denmark. In fact no parties argued strongly against this position.”

That description underplays the sternness of Danish immigration policy. It goes to show that populism is a reaction by the electorate to the failure of government to solve obvious problems and to meet legitimate grievances. As the Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde said some years ago: “Populism is an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism. It criticises the exclusion of important issues from the political agenda by the elites and calls for their re-politicisation.” And if government does solve problems and meet grievances, populism tends to disappear.

Consider, in this context, Hungary’s election results. Media reports suggest that these were “disappointing”—presumably to Viktor Orban and presumably because they showed the waning of populism. But Orban’s political coalition won 45 per cent of the total vote, which in a multi-party system is a landslide. His migration and other policies are the reason for this sustained success. Furthermore, the new political party challenging him is a broadly conservative one which wants to join the EPP. It won not far from a third of the national vote. Which means that almost all of Hungary’s other parties—which are on the Left—were forced to share the remaining 25 per cent.

The Left is losing ground in Hungarian politics—but not in Danish or Polish politics. In those two countries all parties recognise the real problems of immigration and deal with them. But voters also recognise that some political parties, usually on the Left, are not treating real problems but pursuing fantasies that create problems of their own.                                                                                                                                     

What can be seen in these three elections—2014, 2019, and 2024—is a rising tide of opposition by voters to the liberal technocratic governance of the European Union and its signature policies. It ebbs and flows in response to events such as the crises of the Euro, the social problems caused by mass immigration, and local (that is, national) political scandals. Far from being a transitory political passion doomed to wither away when prosperity restores common sense, however, it is now a permanent factor in politics. It advances in one election, is halted in the next, but holds onto its earlier gains, then resumes its advance in the next election from a stronger position.

If that’s the case, then populism will occupy an increasing acreage of the political spectrum until it bumps into hostile forces. In the EU context those forces are all the parties that make building a European federation the overriding priority of government—and one that is historically inevitable, removed from democratic correction, and thus doomed to clash with practicality. That commitment not only turns out to be a utopian one; it also shapes other unrealistic policies such as mass immigration, Net Zero, and the abolition of internal EU borders without a strong external one. Populism doesn’t accept those priorities even though most populists support EU membership for its economic advantages. And though populism is often seen as unrealistic, its commitment to democracy forces it to respond to reality when the voters insist that something isn’t working. That’s been very evident in the debate over Net Zero.

As disputes over such things multiply and as their support wanes, the mainstream parties begin to lean on each other in coalitions and to try to exclude populists and other newcomers from positions of real power. That has led to “grand coalitions” from Berlin to Dublin and indeed to the European Parliament itself to resist the populist parties as they have grown. They will continue to grow in size and influence, moreover. Younger voters support them in large numbers; they are now present in majority or coalition governments across Europe. The wretchedly poor performance of governing elites in mainstream parties and global bodies weakens the already weak argument for excluding the populist parties. And at a certain point in their rise, it becomes simply impossible to keep them out of office.

Nothing in that argument means we should not subject them to the same tough criticism as government always deserves.

That said, my guess is that the weak link in the resistance to them will be the EPP in Strasbourg. Germany’s CDU voters will eventually become alarmed at the continued Merkelite leftwards drift of their MEPs inside a grand coalition in which they have less influence than their key position should give them. They’ll be strongly pressed to switch coalitions from Left to Right. Once that possibility emerges, watch out for two subtly-related developments.

Mainstream parties, the intelligence agencies, and the media of the countries concerned will launch campaigns to counter “disinformation” and prevent “entryism” by “right-wing extremists” into “democratic institutions”. And the populists themselves will do some thorough separating of their own sheep and goats—or should do if they have any sense.

5 thoughts on “How Europe Voted

  • pgang says:

    And then there was France. Could anybody have predicted how low Macron would go, or how stupid the French people really are?

  • Alistair says:

    Here we go again. The “populist right” When is someone going to mention the “populist left” or are you guys implying that your polices are unpopular and therefore somehow must have more merit.

    The term “populist” arises directly out of the Roman Republic “populares” movement – a derogatory term devised by the ruling Senatorial oligarchy in order to marginalise a democratic movement that arose in opposition to their monopoly.
    The continued use of the term “populist” – at least in my mind – indicates a desire align politically with an oligarchic elite to marginalise any democratic movement that threatens their cosy power-sharing status quo.
    We cant have democratic movements interfering with “democracy” can we?

  • James McKenzie says:

    Saudia Arabia is extremely rich, sponsors ‘mosques’ worldwide: Biden administration slapped their face. Islam is an unrelenting force to dominate, ergo multiculturalism is a farce. Mentioned in a previous comment the petrol dollar fifty-year agreement is at an end, and the Saudis enrichment their elsewhere.

  • ianl says:

    My earlier description of wishful thinking by centre-right people as Pollyanna was accurate enough, and based on much previous experience.

    Sure, Macron and his political allies came up very quickly with political slipperiness in consolidating lefty factions into a single group large enough to swamp the centre-right. Very slick, and leaves Macron with a management issue – although that is what he excels at.

    My point in describing the premature boasting of the centre-right as Pollyanna is that time and again, the left understand how to wield power and the centre-right do not, so the centre-right always invite the purity of political impotence. It’s just another version of virtue signalling. Of course I wish it wasn’t so …

    About 18 months ago I had a discussion with a well known righty of think tank fame here in Aus. My point was that voting against Net Zero won’t matter (even if such a choice was available) because general voting on actual policy is substantially ignored by whoever wins. To really win, just observe how BLM, or Free Palestine, or French lefty groups in Paris, go about changing what they don’t want. Our well known righty was appalled – “I won’t organise street protests !!”.

    Just so .

Leave a Reply