What do Europeans really want?

This month’s EU elections aren’t a fight between nationalists and progressives. They are total chaos.

Chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies
Vormingplus Regio Brugge CC BY

In less than a month, Europeans will cast their ballots to elect the next European Parliament. If you read the continent’s major newspapers and listen to political leaders, you will come to believe that the European electorate is radically polarised and voters are prepared to make a fateful choice. The elections this month, we often hear, will become a kind of referendum. The far right expects it to be a referendum on migration (or more accurately, on Brussels’s failure to deal with it), while progressive pro-Europeans foresee it as a referendum on the very survival of the European Union. Far-right strategists hope that the election will resemble Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, while pro-European progressives expect the elections to resemble the second round of the presidential vote in France in 2017, when Emmanuel Macron defeated Marine Le Pen. Both sides, we are told, agree on one thing: We face a tribal war between populist-nationalists and committed Europeanists.

Except none of that seems to be true.

An in-depth electoral survey of almost 50,000 people in 14 of the most populous EU member states, conducted by the polling firm YouGov on behalf of the European Council on Foreign Relations, has found that there is a yawning gap between how the news media portrays Europe’s mood on the eve of the elections and the reality.

It is not that the situation is necessarily more hopeful; it is simply different. The notion of deeply polarised voters fits in Poland, where crossing the line that divides the populist nationalist government from the opposition is as unlikely as defecting to the enemy camp in wartime. But for the rest of the countries, the problem is not that voters can’t be persuaded to change their minds; it’s that they cannot make them up.

A vast majority of Europeans want change, but that desire can manifest in very different ways. In the Netherlands, for example, voters in provincial elections in March came out to support an anti-migration, right-wing party. The same month, Slovaks elected a liberal woman as president after many years of their country’s being regarded as an unbreakable populist stronghold. Both were votes against the status quo, but in the Netherlands the mainstream parties were considered the status quo, while in Slovakia it was the populists.

What is going on is not the mainstream moving to the fringes but voters moving in all directions, from left to right, from anti-system to mainstream. The constant crossing of ideological borders is the 2019 version of Europe’s migration crisis. But in the case of voters’ migration, the rate of return looks to be dramatically higher. More than half of voters who say they plan to vote for insurgent parties also say they are considering changing their vote.

There is near total uncertainty in this election. According to our poll, half of the public plans to sit it out. At least 15 percent have not made up their mind at all. And among those who have decided that they will cast their ballot, 70 percent are swing voters. That means that 97 million voters are still up for grabs.

But there may be something that unites voters across Europe.

In 1688, the Swiss physician Johannes Hofer coined the term “nostalgia” for a new disease. Its symptom was chiefly a mood of melancholia that derived from a longing to return to one’s own land. Those who were afflicted often complained of hearing voices and seeing ghosts. Europe today is threatened by an epidemic of nostalgia. European voters are angry, confused, and nostalgic. Many believe that the world was better yesterday than it is today, but they are unsure when that glorious yesterday was. They fear their children will be worse off than they are, but they do not know how to prevent it.

Europe’s paradox is that Europeans are united in their belief that the world was better yesterday, but they are divided as to when the golden age was. Anti-migrant parties dream for the time of ethnically homogeneous states – as if they ever really existed – while many on the left are nostalgic for the progressivism that was the defining feature of European integration.

European voters seem to be torn between their desire for change and their nostalgia for the past. Europe is not divided between those who believe in Brussels and those who believe in their nation-states – the biggest group of Europeans is still those who are sceptical about both the EU and the nation-state – but it is largely united by those who fear that yesterday was better than today but today will be better than tomorrow.

One wonders whether the European parliamentary elections will be a reinforcement of the malady and a deepening of the continent’s backward-seeking malaise or the first stage of recovery, with an attendant turn to the future. One thing is certain: The border between pro-European mainstream parties and Eurosceptic insurgent parties is the least guarded border in Europe today. These next weeks will be critical in shaping the electorate’s final decision about where – on which side of the border – the majorities will take shelter.

This article originally appeared on 1 May in The New York Times.

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


Chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies