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The European Center Weakens

It is never clear how seriously one should take elections to the European Parliament. The body itself controls a budget that runs only to 1 percent of the European Union’s combined GDP (compare that to the U.S. federal budget’s 20 percent or France’s nearly 50 percent). Voters regard the European Parliament elections as rather low stakes and thus often use them to cast protest votes for minor or opposition parties. While voter turnout for last weekend’s elections was the highest in twenty-five years, it still ran 20–40 percentage points below the rate for national elections.

That said, the European Parliament does hold real if limited powers, the most significant being the ability to investigate and censure Member States of the Union for violating its fundamental values. This is precisely what the Parliament did last year against Hungary for the first time in its history. Moreover, European Parliament elections are valuable windows into the mood of the European electorates, especially when narrowly following or preceding important national elections. The Brexit fiasco in the United Kingdom, the gilets jaunes protests in France, and the new populist government in Italy are all being tested in these elections.

As in America, the mood in Europe is disgruntled and polarized. Last weekend’s elections show the political center continues to weaken. Three large centrist political groups are as old as European parliamentary politics itself: the center-right EPP group of Christian democratic parties (think Angela Merkel); the center-left S&D group of social democrats (think Jeremy Corbyn); and the liberal-centrist ALDE group (think Emmanuel Macron). Since direct elections to the European Parliament began in 1979, the EPP and the S&D have not only been the two leading political groups in Europe but together have held a clear majority of seats in the Parliament. After last weekend’s vote, the combined center-right and center-left are projected to hold just 43 percent of those seats. For now the ALDE has plugged its finger in the leaking dike of the European center. Thanks mainly to Macron’s continued destruction of the French Socialist Party and the resurgence of Britain’s hard-core Remain party, the Liberal Democrats, the ALDE group grew from 67 to a projected 109 seats. These three original stalwarts of the European project together will hold only 58 percent of the seats, when at the start of the 2009 Parliament they held a combined 72 percent.

Read more at First Things. 

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