ROME—When Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina that “happy families are all alike” but that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” he could have been talking about the European Union.
As the final ballots are counted in the 2019 European Parliamentary elections—posited as the most important such elections in the history of the E.U.—it is clear that the member states are not on the same page. Each individual nation, it seems, sought to solve its own problems without much thought to how they will fit into one bloc or another.
The far-right tsunami ballyhooed by American provocateur Steve Bannon, among others, failed to materialize as anticipated. Those parties did reasonably well in elections that often are viewed as a chance to protest the status quo rather than change policy, and Italy’s Matteo Salvini clearly is on a roll. But the real surprise for many europundits was the surge in green parties, as younger voters across the Continent seized on the environment as the most important issue for their future.
What all this means is that for the first time in more than 40 years, the European Parliament will not be dominated by traditional coalitions of conservative moderates and socialists, replaced instead by cacophonous groups representing what use to be the margins, be they greens or populists.
The far-right nationalist populists, as expected, performed well in countries where they had been polling in the lead, and where internal political divides have been particularly poisonous.
The multi-national far-right coalition, Europe of Nations and Freedom, which includes the parties of Italy's Matteo Salvini and France’s Marine Le Pen, who eked out a slim margin ahead of Emmanuel Macron’s ruling centrist party, are on track to win 58 parliamentary seats—a whopping increase of 21 seats more than the member parties won in the last elections in 2014, but hardly a dominant force in a parliament with 751 seats.
The party of the most successful far-right leader in Europe, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, won a whopping 52 percent of the vote in his nation of 10 million. He has managed to take over most of the press and his authoritarian, anti-immigrant, and allegedly anti-Semitic policies saw his party suspended by the mainstream center-right bloc in the European Parliament only a few weeks ago. He may now add his party's 13 delegates to the far-right grouping.
The Brexit Party of the ever disruptive Nigel Farage in the U.K, appears to have won 28 of 64 British seats after a well funded and organized campaign for representation in a parliament it intends to leave. Most of its votes came at the expense of the shambolic Conservative Party, whose leader, Prime Minister Theresa May, announced her resignation last week. But, collectively, the divided parties that favor remaining in the E.U., led by the Liberal Democrats, also made a strong showing.
In Britain and other unhappy countries, far-right winners will claim, predictably, that the European Parliament vote will give them claims on their national governments.
Le Pen immediately called on Macron to resign, but that is hardly likely since his mandate runs until 2022 and so does his party’s absolute majority in the French national assembly. In the event, Le Pen's party edged out Macron's by less than one point, which, considering Macron's low poll ratings and France's many problems over the last year, is not very impressive. Both parties may end up with 23 seats. Meanwhile the candidates presenting themselves as representatives of the anarchic yellow vest “movement,” which has disrupted French roads and trashed Paris every Saturday for months, attracted less than one percent of the vote.
Salvini is something else. His party won only six percent of the vote back in 2014, and jumped to more than 30 percent in these elections. He’ll be emboldened and may, as many analysts suggest, pull the plug on his fragile coalition with the Five Star movement, which did far worse than it had hoped. The sign he held up in his selfie tweet on the news of the preliminary results said it all: “The first party in Italy. Thank you.” But the bric a brac on the shelf behind him said more: a photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin and a MAGA hat.
When Greece’s center-right New Democracy edged ahead of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s ruling coalition, Tsipras took the defeat to heart and called snap elections.
The environment-first green parties were also clear winners, especially in France, Germany and Ireland, with the coalition expected to win 71 seats, nearly 20 more than five years ago. They are on track to be the fourth largest group in the parliament, which means even if they won’t have enough power to make any meaningful change to how Europe deals with the threat of climate change, they will be able to make considerable noise.
By Monday morning, if the elections are looked at as a contest between pro-European Union and eurosceptic trends, it appears the union has won. But as the dust settles on this important election, which may be the last in which the U.K. participates, it is clear that the European Union is not growing old gracefully. It is anything but clear what will happen when this motley parliament sits for the first time.
“Everyone thinks of changing the world,” Tolstoy also wrote. “But no one thinks of changing himself.”