2019 may be remembered as the year in which, after a decade of painful, divisive, adolescent disputes over the economic and financial crisis, and how to handle migration, the EU grew up.
Many predicted that this year’s European Parliament elections might have spelt the end of the European project, with a rising tide of nationalism. Instead, the EU seems to have come of age as a political project through these elections, since for the first time we can begin to talk about a European electorate.
Ahead of the elections, the growing importance of European identity alongside national identity was becoming evident. This fed a certain Euro-pessimism among voters: a sense that paradoxically while 68% of Europeans think their country’s membership of the EU was a good thing according to Eurobarometer data, majorities in most member states believe that it is possible that the EU will collapse in the next twenty years.
This state of uncertainty about the world around them, with three quarters of EU voters believing that the political system was broken at either national or European level, or both is the context for an electorate that is stressed and fearful.
From Italy, to France to the Netherlands, nationalist parties recognised this, stopping their talk of exiting the EU, and starting to work on an international alliance for a Europe of common sense – perhaps a continuation of the European project but this time in their vision. Green parties and other progressive activists also tapped into this fear for the future and desire for change, making the connection between protesting against the status quo and voting.
It was perhaps a result of understanding at a more emotional level how Europeans were thinking, that finally led this year to a debate around the European Parliament elections that was more political. Despite the enduring importance of national issues in each of the twenty-eight member states who participated, common characteristics emerged in the way that voters approached these elections. Finally, voters felt they were being given a chance to show what Europe they wanted, and with a significantly increased turnout at 51%, they started to give an answer.
In a ‘day after survey’ that ECFR/ Yougov carried out in the six largest EU member states, we asked what were the major threats that they were thinking about as they went to the polls. For over 170 million voters (43% of the European electorate), climate change and the environment were critical.
An identical share of voters pointed out to the protection of democracy and rule of law as an issue that motivated their vote, while migration was important for 120 million (30%). But motivations were different for voters for pro-European and anti-European parties. The former were mostly influenced by issues of climate change (53%), democracy and rule of law (47%) and nationalism (44%), while the latter voted for parties that promised to reduce immigration (52%) or ensure security and fight terrorism (44%).
There is a certain weight of expectation on the EU institutions to create a “Europe qui protège (“Europe that protects”). In terms of which level of government voters think should respond to the threats that they care about, the largest answer overall is “both national and European level” – 45 percent. The next highest answer, at 24 percent, is that EU cooperation alone is the best level at which to tackle these threats, with the national level the lowest level of response, at 22 percent.
The diversity of Europeans in their fears and how they believe they should be tackled, is simply a feature of the new political landscape. As the EU institutions move forward from these elections, rather than remain preoccupied by the divisions, they need to find ways to respond to the messages that voters have given them. One approach is to work on the issues that matter for voters for all types of party.
Climate change for example is an issue of great importance to all types of voters – not just those who supported green parties. We asked in our survey whether more should be done on climate change despite the economic cost. Here, for all age categories, and for voters for all types of party, there were very strong majorities in favour of doing more.
Examination of the manifestos and promises of the parties that won seats in these elections also shows that there are majorities in favour of more action on building a fairer economy, as well European level co-operation on security and defence co-operation, and strong minorities in favour of Europe behaving as a global actor in a competitive international environment.
2019 has not yet brought us a totally changed Europe. The EU is more fragmented and finely balanced than ever. The institutions have yet to digest the message of change from the voters, and the squabbling between the political families over the Spitzenkandidat (Lead candidate) process suggests there is a long way to go in creating an EU that looks sufficiently different to convince voters that their message has been heard. But the optimists in Europe – and after stress and fear, this is the third largest emotional identification among the electorate – can hope that in ten years we will look back and note the 2019 was the year that the EU turned a corner.
By Susi Dennison
Susi Dennison is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and the director of ECFR's European Power programme. Her topics of focus include human rights, rule of law and justice issues, and the EU's response to the 2015 refugee crisis.