Europeans will go to the polls between May 23 and May 26 for pan-European elections—and this year, for a change, the elections really matter. Nationalist and populist forces are on the rise, support for traditional parties is declining, and the entire future of the decades-old European project is up in the air. Foreign Policy spoke with Mark Leonard, the co-founder and director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, about the populist rebellion, Brexit, and whether Europe can ever really recover its mojo.
Foreign Policy: European elections are normally boring. This year it seems to be all anyone is talking about. What’s going on?
Mark Leonard: I think there are two main things. Traditionally, European elections have been relatively low-turnout, and predominantly national, but this time they are much more European. That’s for two main reasons. First, there is a concerted attempt for the first time to launch a pan-European campaign, organized by [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orban, [Italian Deputy Prime Minister] Matteo Salvini, [former Donald Trump advisor] Steve Bannon to try to turn the European election campaign into Act Three of the Brexit-Trump story. So that is something which is a completely new phenomenon, and it’s an attempt to unite all kind of different populist forces. Before you had the anti-austerity populists in their lane, and the anti-immigrant ones in their lane, and this is trying to bring them together.
On the other hand, the Brexit vote has created a real sense in many European minds of the fragility of the European Union, and that has led to a surge in support for EU membership and also created a fear of contagion.
And then the third thing is what happens after the elections. In the past, the elections didn’t make very much difference. There were two main groups, center-left and the center-right, and they would carve things out among themselves, and very little would change as a result. But the polls show that this time they are likely to lose their majority in parliament, and you’re going to see potentially 35 percent or more of the seats going to anti-European parties, and they could try to block the appointment of the new European Commission, and the budget, and various other measures. It could be a much higher-stakes outcome than in previous elections.
FP: This idea that the elections boil down to a referendum between populists and pro-Europeans—you’ve argued that that’s an incorrect reading, that there’s more going on here.
ML: What we’ve found is this is not an anti-European moment—most voters don’t see this as a choice between Europe and the nation-state. Instead, people feel that Europe is part of their system of government, and the bigger challenge is how people feel about that system.
There are four main groups in every single country, which is related to how they see their system. About one-quarter of European voters think everything works well at a national and European level. Then you have a second group who are kind of desperate people, who think everything is broken, at a national and European level, and they make up just under four in 10. And then there’s a third group who think that politics is broken at a national level, but they see Europe as the solution, the cure to the national disease, and that group is just over one in five. And then the smallest group are the nationalist Euroskeptics, but they’re less than one in six.
These percentages differ from country to country, but they explain much more about the election than asking people whether are pro- or anti-European. The thing which they tend to be anti- is the system itself, and sometimes Europe is seen as a way of resetting the system, rather than something that they want to destroy.
FP: If you’ve got less than one in six in the nationalist Euroskeptic camp, does that mean French National Rally leader Marine Le Pen, Salvini, etc. are going to flop, or will they be able to join forces with the “desperate” voters to make a bigger bloc?
ML: This is the question: whether the mainstream parties can show that they are agents of change, rather than supporters of the status quo. The thing which is most striking about the polling is the extreme levels of volatility. In the U.S., you have these settled tribes, and people’s political identities are very fixed, and they consume different media, and they live in different places, and they have very little contact across party lines.
What our polling showed is that the dominant voter in the European elections is going to be sort of the confused voter. The vast majority of European voters are undecided, and we found that people are moving in all sorts of different directions. It’s not that they are choosing between two very similar parties on the left or the right, but you have a situation where people have gone from populist parties to mainstream, from right to left, from left to right, from Euroskeptic to pro-European, and that kind of radical volatility is very different from the U.S. and also from post-Brexit Britain.
FP: You alluded to Steve Bannon’s nationalist crusade in Europe. That started by trying to ride the 2015 European migration crisis. Is migration still a big concern, or is the fear of nationalism an even bigger driver for some voters?
ML: Yeah, absolutely. Migration is still an issue, but in 2015 it was the issue. Now, it’s one of half a dozen issues. In every single country we polled, we asked what issues people were concerned about. Most people didn’t mention migration in the top two issues. Hungary was the only one that said migration was a top threat. Instead, migration is taking its place alongside other issues like the fear of nationalism, fear of climate change, Islamic radicalism, Russia, the economic crisis, and trade wars.
What we also found, even among those people who saw migration as one of the top threats, what they meant was very different. One of the most surprising things we found, in most of the Southern and Eastern European countries—Poland, Hungary, Romania, Greece, Italy, and Spain—people were more worried about their compatriots leaving the country than they were about foreigners coming into the country. And that was quite a striking finding.
And then the second thing, which was also very interesting, was that in the Western European countries that were worried about people coming in, there was a stark division between people worried about migration per se and people worried about Islamic radicalism. So, more people were worried about Islamic radicalism, and those people tend to support mainstream, center-right, center-left parties. The people who said they worried about migration, they tended to support the far-right parties like the AfD [Alliance for Germany] in Germany, or Vox in Spain, or the Freedom Party in Austria, or the RN [National Rally] in France.
FP: There’s a real paradox with these elections and the European mood. Enthusiasm for Europe is the highest it’s been since 1983, and yet you have majorities expecting the European Union to collapse, and many even fear a European war. How do you explain that?
ML: I think one is related to the other. There wasn’t really a big pro-European movement in the U.K. until after the Brexit vote, and now millions of people take to the streets waving European flags. I think there’s the fear of losing something that makes people realize how much they would miss it. That’s what’s happening within Europe at the moment: You have very high levels of support for the EU, but a general sense of uncertainty, which is partly about Brexit, but partly about economic uncertainty, geopolitical fears, [U.S. President Donald] Trump and [Chinese President] Xi [Jinping], climate catastrophe, and other things which are leading to widespread anxiety.
FP: You mentioned Brexit. How do you see that playing out?
ML: Britain’s political situation is extremely difficult to read, because you have total paralysis in both of the mainstream parties, and that means it’s impossible for the House of Commons to come up with an answer to what kind of arrangement they want to have with the EU. I think it’s equally plausible now that they could have another referendum, or that there could be some sort of deal, or Britain ends up leaving the EU without a deal, or that there’s a sort of permanent rollover of temporary arrangements.
A lot will depend on how other member states play it. If it was left to the U.K., the political system would probably find it impossible to come up with a solution—it will depend on whether the rest of the EU forces the U.K. to make a decision. Mark Twain once said, “never put off till tomorrow what you can put off till the day after tomorrow,” and that does seem to describe the British political class at the moment.
FP: These elections are going to help determine the next European Commission, which is going to have a lot of big issues on its plate later this year: trade talks and trade wars with the United States, figuring out how to deal with Russia… What kind of impact could the elections have on the workings of the EU itself?
ML: Traditionally, the European Commission has been largely insulated from political events at a national level. I think what could happen after the elections … you could end up with a commission that is more divided, with more anti-European forces in it. And if there is an anti-European bloc [in the European Parliament], they will no doubt try to block certain commissioners. The Parliament has to sign off on the budget for the next seven years, they have to sign off on any trade deals, if the EU wants to enlarge, if the EU wants to take action against member states for not obeying the rule of law, as they did with Hungary and Poland, the Parliament can block that has well. So there will be lots of scope for the European Parliament to be a disruptive force.
FP: In recent years, we’ve seen the resurgence of great power politics. Can Europe engage as a great power, the way the United States, China, Russia are doing? Is that a model that Europe can even emulate?
ML: This is the big question about the next decade of the European project. When it was first set up after the Second World War, the big challenges were internal, within Europe. In today’s world, the big challenges are coming from outside, and many countries realize if they want to be sovereign in the world the only way to have sovereignty is by complementing national sovereignty with European sovereignty.
And we’ve seen in lots of different areas a huge debate going forward: In the economic and financial sphere, there are questions about the role of the dollar, and secondary sanctions, and whether Europeans can find ways of protecting the Iran nuclear deal from America’s unilateral actions. There’s fear of technology wars going on, and people are looking at the EU as a possible regulator of the digital world. There are questions about how you deal with investments from Chinese companies and pressure on technology. I think there’s an economic and financial aspect where things have been moving forward.
I think there’s sort of a political, diplomatic piece about how Europeans organize themselves in the multilateral system, to work out how to protect their interests, and I think that is the big existential question for Europe over the next decade.
The early steps have been quite promising, but there’s a long way to go. Lots of politicians are now starting to think about this debate: Unless Europeans are a player in this world, they’ll be the chessboard on which other great powers play out their rivalry.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.