What to Make of the European Elections

Right-wing populism is still growing—and has already established itself as a fixture on the political stage.

The Brexit Party leader, Nigel Farage, reacts to the results of the European Parliament elections in Southampton, Britain, on May 27, 2019.
The Brexit Party leader, Nigel Farage, reacts to the results of the European Parliament elections in Southampton, Britain, on May 27, 2019. (Hannah Mckay / Reuters)

The sheer scale of the European elections, coupled with the huge differences among the parties that were on the ballot from Sweden to Greece, makes it possible to find evidence for just about any story about the results. Perhaps because the rise of far-right populism has, three years after the surprise victory of Brexit and the shock election of Donald Trump, come to look rather old hat, many publications have opted for a more refreshing narrative: What we saw on Sunday, they say, was a populist wave that ended “in a ripple,” or, more simply, “the populist surge that wasn’t.”

This narrative points to some important facts. Far-right populists had a disappointing night in a number of big countries, including Germany and Spain. Their advance slowed or went into reverse in a few smaller countries where they once looked as though they could pose a real threat, including Denmark and the Netherlands. And though their overall ranks have swelled, they are in no position to take down the European Union anytime soon.

At the same time, these facts only add up to an optimistic takeaway if one’s baseline for populist success is unmitigated triumph. The real story here is that right-wing populists are still growing—and have already established themselves as a fixture on the political stage.

When the far-right Freedom Party joined the Austrian government as a junior coalition partner in 1999, the shocking news of its ascent dominated European headlines for months on end. Statesmen across the continent vowed that they would never treat extremists as legitimate leaders of European nations. The member states of the EU unanimously imposed diplomatic sanctions on Austria.

There were good reasons to hope that the populists’ success in Austria would remain a strange aberration. In that year’s elections for the European Parliament, far-right extremists failed to break into the double digits in any other country; nowhere did they win an outright majority.

Twenty years later, it is painfully obvious that the events in Austria were a harbinger of things to come. Movements that are every bit as extreme as the Freedom Party are now in government across large chunks of Europe, from Hungary to Italy. In Sunday’s elections, they posted their best results in the history of the European Parliament, entrenching themselves as a major presence in virtually every country across the length and breadth of Europe, and claiming the top spot in some of its most influential states.

In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally beat Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche. In the United Kingdom, Nigel Farage’s newly founded Brexit Party took a significantly greater share of the vote than Labour and the Conservative Party combined. In Poland, the far-right Law and Justice bested a broad alliance of moderate politicians. And in Hungary, where Viktor Orbán has already amassed so much power that the country’s election results should be interpreted with a healthy dose of skepticism, his Fidesz party once again crushed the opposition.

The results in Italy were especially striking. By engaging in ever more extreme demagoguery against immigrants, Matteo Salvini has transformed the Northern League, a small separatist party fighting for northern independence, into the dominant force in national politics. When he entered government last year, his party was the junior coalition partner to the Five Stars, a populist movement with roots in the political left. Now he has eclipsed his rivals, winning six times as many votes as he did five years ago, and twice as many as he did last year. In the process, he has cemented his position as the likely next prime minister—and radically transformed Italy’s political geography.

For 100 years, Tuscany was one of the most reliable strongholds for Italy’s left. In the bitter years of Benito Mussolini, brave anti-fascist partisans used to find refuge in the woods that cover the nearby mountain. When democracy returned to Italy, local peasants and tradesmen voted for mayors who proudly belonged to the Italian Communist Party. Even when the parties that had shaped the postwar period disintegrated amid a giant corruption scandal in the early 1990s and Silvio Berlusconi rose to power, most Tuscans dutifully transferred their allegiance to the center-left Democratic Party.

Throughout this period, far-right parties such as the Northern League had little support in the region. As recently as 2014, it barely scratched 3 percent of the vote in the province of Grosseto.

But this century-old tradition has now come to an abrupt end. In Arcidosso, where I have spent a part of every summer for the past dozen years, the Northern League took 39 percent of the vote in Sunday’s European elections. In Castel del Piano, a beautiful hilltop town I can see out of my kitchen window, it surged to 41 percent. In Seggiano, a picturesque village I look at from my garden, it got 48 percent.

The cumulative impact of these right-wing-populist victories in Tuscany, in Italy as a whole, and throughout Europe is evident in the overall composition of the European Parliament. While the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) has long enjoyed the loudest voice in Brussels, its influence will now be rivaled by the far right. If you add up the different factions of right-wing populists, they now outnumber the EPP. If this is what it looks like when the populist wave crests, then I suppose we’ve all become used to living underwater.

It’s tempting to imagine that some of the progressive parties that are now in the ascendant across Europe might be able to stem the right-wing tide. As they have shed the radicalism of their founding period, the Greens have, for example, become ever more popular in Germany. Five years ago, they took 11 percent of the vote, finishing third. This time around, they doubled their share of the vote, comfortably taking second place. For the first time in history, they have beaten Germany’s Social Democrats in a nationwide election. And Germany’s Greens are part of a wider trend: Their sister parties also posted significant gains in France, Portugal, and the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, liberal parties, which tend to pursue more pro-market policies but have similar views on many social issues, performed strongly in Britain, Spain, the Netherlands, and parts of Scandinavia.

But while they have proved very powerful in urban centers and among the highly educated, these parties struggle elsewhere. Young students in Berlin and London feel seen by Germany’s Greens and Britain’s Liberal Democrats. But a huge cultural and economic gulf separates these parties from the older workers in Wolverhampton, the middle-aged electricians in Gelsenkirchen, and the young shop assistants in Arcidosso who once favored traditional left-wing parties. Despite the success of the Greens, the left across Europe now captures a smaller share of the vote than it did five years ago. (In 2014, the three left-wing factions in the European Parliament held 293 seats between them; now their share has shrunk to 260.)

Thinking of those hills and valleys of Tuscany I love so deeply, and of the locals who have always been so kind and welcoming to me and my friends, I cannot help but hope that they will soon come to regret their support for Salvini’s demagoguery. But I also fear that none of the parties that are currently on the political menu in Italy, or in other parts of Europe, is doing very much to lure them back.

Traditional parties have disappointed too many people, too many times. The Greens and the liberals speak a different language, directed at a different audience. For now, only Salvini directly addresses the disenchanted voters of the Monte Amiata. Unless that changes, he may be able to count on their support for many years to come.