European election 2019: Can we cry wolf one more time?

If Europhobic parties gain significant ground in June next year, it will be as much the fault of the mainstream parties as the insurgents

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It is a regular feature of every European election that the pro-Europeans will cry “wolf” and call on all the good Europeans to come out and defend their project from the Europhobic enemies who are preparing to kill it at the polls. But either the warning bells have had their effect and mobilised Europeans to win in good faith; or the alarm was exaggerated, and the Europhobes represented a much smaller threat than the one outlined. Whichever the case, the worst predictions have never been fulfilled.

Far from taking the European fortress, the anti-European forces have failed to win results that would allow them to work together to block the normal functioning of the European institutions. Whether from ignorance of the possibilities before them, contempt for an enemy they consider inferior, or pure numerical and organisational weakness, they have used the media as a loudspeaker and the economic and organisational resources provided by the European Parliament to reinforce their electoral appeal in their countries of origin, rather than using their seats to demolish Europe from within. Shouting a lot in the plenary session, collecting the attendance fees, and going home as soon as possible has been their established pattern of acting.

Could this time be different? Without ignoring the fact that each time you cry wolf you usually use the argument that ‘this time is different’, let‘s think about some of the factors at play. The first is the current global crisis of representative democracy. At the previous European Parliament election, in 2014, the horizon was full of populist and Europhobic dark clouds. Because of the economic and financial crisis that began in 2008, anti-establishment forces achieved good results, although not decisive ones. Since then, liberal democracies and traditional parties have experienced a veritable electoral tsunami: from the Brexit referendum in June 2016 to the election of Trump, the rise of Marine Le Pen in France and Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, the combined victory of the Northern League and the Five Star Movement in Italy, and the illiberal drift of the governments of Poland and Hungary; in just over two years the anti-establishment forces have achieved a series of very significant triumphs. After the fall of London, Rome, Warsaw, Budapest, or Vienna into the hands of anti-European and/or xenophobic forces, we no longer speak of the “enemy at the gate” but of the “enemy inside the gates”.

Europhobic forces will decide to change the EU from within instead of destroying it

Second, as shown by the US, Mexican, or Brazilian elections, we are facing a global and interconnected phenomenon. The populists have hit bullseye on enough occasions, and they have self-confidence and a catalogue of fraudulent but effective electoral and communication techniques. It is no coincidence that the head of Trump’s successful election campaign and representative of the US alt-right media and politics, Steve Bannon, has triumphantly appeared in Salvini’s xenophobic Rome and promoted a foundation based in Brussels (The Movement) that seeks to group together all those who want to bring things with the European Union to an end. The Europhobes intend to convert the May 2019 election into a referendum on the continuation of the European project. For this they will link the establishment parties with the opening of borders that have filled Europe with refugees and immigrants who compete with the working classes for scarce and precarious jobs, weakening a fragile welfare state. They will also be held responsible for the submission of Christian values ​​of European civilisation to an odious multiculturalist relativism. If, as they did with the Brexit referendum, they manage to turn the European election into a referendum on how much immigration we want – a lot or little? – pro-Europeans could have a very hard time.

Third, the electoral system that governs the European election tends to overrepresent Eurosceptic and anti-system forces in comparison to national elections. Add to this the ‘second order’ nature of this election – of not choosing a government – many voters choose to cast a protest vote, opting for parties or forces that they would not trust in for national elections. From Spain, traditionally free of Europhobic forces, the European election is contemplated with less apprehension. However, just as in 2014, when Podemos successfully used the European electoral platform to bring together the anti-system protest vote against the economic crisis and corruption, on this occasion it could be Vox that captures the votes of those who want to vote in a nationalist and xenophobic fashion and give the Partido Popular and Ciudadanos a free wake-up call.

In the 2014 election, conservative, socialist, and liberal parties achieved 61 percent of the seats. Now, the European establishment parties may be only slightly above the absolute majority that allows the parliament to pass the most important legislation. With only one-third of the seats, Europhobes could protect themselves from the sanctions that the EU is set to impose on Hungary under Article 7. And if they manage to surpass that threshold, they would put at risk or delay a significant number of European policies, which generally require broad consensus among conservative, progressive, liberal, and green parties. Germany, France, Italy, and Poland – four large countries with significant xenophobic right-wing parties – choose 303 MEPs, 43 percent of the total of the 705 at stake.

Almost more worrying than a blockade of parliament or of some of its policies is the possibility that this time around, instead of being satisfied with shouting in the plenary and ignoring the day-to-day of parliamentary work in committees, the Europhobic forces will decide to change the EU from within instead of destroying it. Even though the EU is the deepest and most advanced space of values ​​in the world, an illiberal and sovereigntist about-turn in the EU is possible, especially in migratory and asylum/refugee matters.

As we know, the Aquarius was not shipwrecked, but the call for European solidarity was. Instead of facilitating channels for regular immigration, investing in integration policies, and agreeing ways to relocate asylum seekers and refugees, European capitals prefer policies that emphasise the control of external borders (and internal borders when these fail), areas of disembarkation and common processing, and a chequebook diplomacy with the countries of origin and transit oriented towards repatriation rather than a global and balanced policy for the long term. As Italy and Germany show, well-meaning gestures towards refugees can end up being corrosive and open the doors to xenophobia. I hope Spain does not end up the same way.

In this Europe swollen with fear over the future, Europhobes could find in the polls a means to hack the European project to serve their interests. For this they would not need a victory, much less, but instead for the European right to decide to embrace the cause of the wolf either for fear of the electoral consequences of opposing it or to intimately embrace the motivation. The vote on Hungary in the European Parliament in which only 115 members of the European People’s Party managed to find within it the moral strength to approve the sanctions against the illiberal policies of Viktor Orban (57 voted against and 28 abstained) demonstrates that conservative Europeans are more than willing to accept the wooden horse that the extreme right leaves at the door after each election. If Europe falls it will not be because the Europhobes demolish its walls, but because its guardians open the doors to them.

This article appeared originally on 22 October in El Mundo, in the Spanish language. The title has been adapted into English. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow

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