For those of us who are more used to two-party democracy, last week's elections to the European Parliament could easily be a source of confusion. By my estimate, the European Parliament's 751 seats will soon be divided between representatives of 198 different national parties, themselves organized into seven (or possibly eight) official groups—with each of those representing a political faction that draws support from at least 25 members of the European Parliament (MEPs) who must, between them, represent no fewer than seven of the E.U.'s 28 member states. Got it?
If you want to know more, read on for a guide to Europe's main political factions, how they did in last week's elections, and what it means for the future of the European Union.
A majority of seats (62 percent) went to representatives of Europe's three main groups: the European People's Party (EPP), the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament (S&D). Collectively, these groups represent the pro-E.U. mainstream, and include the main national parties from most E.U. member states. Nonetheless, each of these groups represents a distinct European political tradition.
The EPP are best described as Christian democrats. They are on the center-right of politics, being relatively pro-market and fiscally conservative in European terms, but nevertheless committed to a comprehensive welfare state and a regulated, mixed economy. They are moderately traditionalist, but not in an outspoken way—they have very little in common with America's religious right, for example. After last week's elections, the EPP remain the largest group in the European Parliament with 28 percent of its seats, but that is down from 36 percent last time. France's center-right opposition party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), lost half its seats in the European Parliament; the main center-right parties in Italy and Spain lost almost one-third of theirs.
ALDE are Europe's liberal centrists. The group contains both classical liberals and moderate social democrats; they generally favor trade, competition, and individual freedom—but not to the extent that you would call them libertarians. Moreover, two of the group's largest national parties—Germany's Free Democrats and Britain's Liberal Democrats—suffered heavy losses in last week's elections, and that looks set to further diminish the influence of classical liberalism within the group. Expect this bloc, which holds 9 percent of seats in the European Parliament (down from 11 percent last time), to trend in a more interventionist direction in future.
S&D, meanwhile, are typically referred to as socialists, a term that doesn't carry the same stigma in continental Europe as it does in the U.S. But while some of S&D's constituent national parties are eager to embrace socialism (here's looking at you, Ed Milliband), others (like Matteo Renzi's Democratic Party in Italy) are much more reformist, pursuing tax cuts, privatization, and market liberalization. What's more, many S&D members accept the E.U.'s strict limits on public debt and deficits. S&D, then, are perhaps better described as a broad, social democratic coalition—they are certainly committed to social justice and the welfare state, but they are not everywhere and always opposed to fiscal consolidation, business, and markets. They have 25 percent of seats in the new parliament, down 1 percent from 2009.
Another reason to hold off on calling S&D socialist is that a genuinely anti-capitalist group—European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL)—won 6 percent of seats in the European Parliament, up 1 percent from 2009. The biggest news here was in Greece, where the radical left-wing parties (Syriza and the Communist Party) doubled their share of the vote, from 16 percent in 2009 to 33 percent in 2014—a sign of the deep unpopularity of the "austerity" policies that were imposed on Greece as a condition of its repeated E.U./IMF bailouts. With Syriza's leader, Alex Tsipras, now demanding an early general election in Greece, there may soon be renewed concern about the stability and integrity of the eurozone.
The Greens/European Free Alliance also lean left, albeit not quite so radically as GUE/NGL. This group, which consists of environmentalists and progressive parties representing "stateless nations and disadvantaged minorities," maintained its 7 percent share of seats in the European Parliament.
Perhaps the most interesting news to come from last week's elections, however, is the rise of the euroskeptic right, who oppose the doctrine of "ever-closer union" in Europe, and in some cases want their countries to leave the European Union altogether. But this is a very long way from being a homogeneous political bloc. Indeed, it may yet result in three formal parliamentary groups, and still leave several nationalist parties out in the cold.
At the respectable end of the spectrum are the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), a group dominated by the U.K.'s ruling Conservative Party and Poland's Law and Justice (PiS). As things stand, the group looks set to have 6 percent of seats in the European Parliament after last week's vote, down 1 percent from 2009. However, the alliances among euroskeptic parties are currently in flux, so the group could easily end up bigger than that. This group is united by its desire to make the European Union more open, decentralized, and free market. But beyond that, there are some differences of opinion. The U.K. Conservatives are relatively liberal on social issues, but also favor stricter immigration controls; PiS is more socially conservative, but also opposes restrictions on the free movement of people within the E.U.
The next euroskeptic group is Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD), which currently appears to have increased its share of parliamentary seats from 4 to 5 percent. This group is dominated by the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), which topped the U.K. poll with 27 percent of the national vote. UKIP seeks Britain's withdrawal from the E.U. and favors very strict immigration control, but it also has a number of free market policies and sometimes describes itself as libertarian. (I'm not convinced that it deserves the label.)
Interestingly, it is possible that UKIP will be joined in EFD by Poland's Congress of the New Right, which advocates a minimalist, nightwatchman state. The party won four seats in the European Parliament with 7 percent of the Polish national vote. It also "gained 28.5 percent of votes among 18- to 25-year-olds—more than any other party," according to The Guardian. It is unfortunate, then, that the party's leader, Janusz Korwin-Mikke—described by some as a Polish Ron Paul—is said to favor monarchy over democracy, oppose the right of women to vote, and has been quoted heaping scorn on the Paralympics, as well as questioning whether Hitler knew about the Holocaust. Libertarians would be well advised to contain their excitement.
Another problem for UKIP is that its Italian ally, the Northern League, plans to defect to the far-right European Alliance for Freedom (more on that in a moment). Meanwhile, its Nordic allies—the Finns and the Danish People's Party—might be off to join ECR. This could leave UKIP unable to gather representatives from seven different E.U. member states, and therefore prevent them from forming an official parliamentary group. (Official status is important because it comes with central funding, which pays for the groups' staff, facilities, and research.) It would be a cruel irony if UKIP's electoral success were to translate into parliamentary isolation, but it remains, for now, a possibility—to his credit, UKIP leader Nigel Farage has ruled out an alliance with several parties that are widely viewed as xenophobic and nativist.
Speaking of which, Marine Le Pen's National Front came out on top of the French poll, with 25 percent of the votes cast. She will now seek to win official status for her European Alliance for Freedom group. The National Front have 24 seats, and were previously in a parliamentary alliance with Austria's Freedom Party (four seats) and Belgium's Flemish Interest (one seat). The Dutch Party for Freedom won four seats (a surprisingly lackluster performance), and its leader, Geert Wilders, has said they will join Le Pen's alliance. Italy's Northern League (five seats) plans to sign up as well. Throw in the Sweden Democrats (two seats) and the European Alliance for Freedom has 40 seats in parliament (5 percent of the total) but still needs to find an MEP from a seventh country before it wins official status.
Taken as a group (there is some variation between the individual parties involved), this bloc can be expected to espouse a robust, nationalist ideology that is culturally conservative and authoritarian, opposed to immigration, concerned about Islamification, and skeptical of the benefits of global trade. Unlike UKIP, they have no particular affection for free market economics, and their chosen name (European Alliance for Freedom) will strike many as a misnomer. The previous nationalist group, which collapsed when its Romanian and Italian members fell out with one another, was at least more honest: it called itself "Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty."
Despite this, there are three nationalist parties that won seats in last week's elections, but with whom the European Alliance for Freedom will probably not wish to be associated. These are Hungary's Jobbik (three seats), Greece's Golden Dawn (three seats), and Germany's National Democrats (one seat). Though they all reject the neo-Nazi label that is usually applied to them, there are too many telltale signs of racism, anti-Semitism, and fascism for other parties to tolerate. As a result, Jobbick, Golden Dawn, and the National Democrats are likely to remain isolated.
Most coverage of the European election results—this article included—has focused on the rise of radical, populist parties. This is certainly significant. But the near-term effects of these elections will mostly be felt at the domestic, rather than the European level.
In Britain, UKIP's popularity may—if it endures—sway the course of 2015 general election, making the opposition Labour Party more likely to win by depriving the Conservatives of crucial marginal seats. It could make Scotland, which is relatively pro-E.U., more likely to vote for independence from the rest of the U.K. in September this year. And it could make other European leaders more willing to help UK Prime Minister David Cameron in his efforts to reform the E.U., and thus avoid a British vote for withdrawal in the referendum that is tentatively scheduled for 2017.
In Italy, the strong showing for the ruling Democratic Party is good news for Matteo Renzi's plans to liberalize, privatize, and reform his way to faster economic growth and a more sustainable debt burden in Europe's fifth-largest economy. The country's traditional center-right groups face a challenge to redefine themselves in a (possibly) post-Silvio Berlusconi era, after losing out again to the Five Star Movement's amorphous protest vote. France's UMP faces a similar future: how do they ensure that they are the ones to benefit politically from the failure of President Francois Hollande's failed socialist agenda, rather than the reactionary National Front?
Yet it may well be Greece where the impact of these elections is most keenly felt. The electoral success of parties on both the radical-left and the far-right suggests there may be trouble ahead for the Greek economy, Greek society, and perhaps the eurozone as a whole.
Back in Brussels and Strasbourg (the two homes of the European Parliament) the three traditional parties—EPP, ALDE, P&S—are likely to function as a grand coalition, ensuring the continued dominance of pro-E.U., "ever-closer-union" policies. Although the election results may have some immediate and unwelcome impact on policy—the Financial Times notes, for example, that the loss of several liberals from key committees may lead to more heavy-handed financial regulation—chances are that business will continue very much as usual.
This, in itself, is a shame: While there is no need for E.U. politicians to react to the rise of far-right and radical-left parties by copying their policies, there are lessons they should learn. They ought to be more respectful of the principle of subsidiarity, and decline to legislate and regulate things that are better left to national or local governments. They should realize that the E.U. is not meant to be a superstate, and accept that its direction should be dictated by representatives of national governments, rather than E.U. functionaries. Most important of all, they should realize that much more radical action is needed to boost economic growth in the eurozone, and to prevent it sliding into a Japanese-style "lost decade." That means taking measures to liberalize the E.U.'s internal market, reduce the deadweight costs of E.U. regulation, and pursue genuine free trade deals with the rest of the world, while also supporting efforts reduce corruption, redesign tax codes, and reform outdated and costly public services in E.U. member states.
In a context of decentralization and renewed economic growth, far-right and radical-left ideas would likely fade from view as quickly as they've appeared in this round of European elections. But if power continues to accrue to distant elites, and eurozone economies continue to fester, these ideologies will continue to attract European voters.