When he accepted the Charlemagne Prize from Europe’s leaders in May 2016, a month before the United Kingdom voted by a slim majority for Brexit, Pope Francis urged them to give to the idea of their union a new birth in our time. Recognizing that the European Union had in many ways lost its way, becoming weary and sterile, he called for it to be bold again, to integrate outsiders, to involve the young and to connect with the concrete needs and values of ordinary people. It was time, he said, to “update” the idea of Europe in what he called “a new European humanism.”
The gains by Euroskeptic and anti-immigrant, far-right parties in last week’s European Parliament elections (they now hold almost one fourth of the seats) suggests the warning may have come too late. Yet the sudden flourishing of Green parties, the engagement of young people and the surprise increase in turnout seem to offer another story: precisely the signs of new life the pope was calling for.
The main story out of the elections is that the big parties grew smaller and the small parties bigger. The center is barely holding, while the extremes have grown bold. The result is a fragmentation of politics, one that brought into the European Parliament what has long been happening in the member states.
The big parties grew smaller and the small parties bigger. The center is barely holding, while the extremes have grown bold.
The two big center-left and center-right coalitions that have run the parliament in Strasbourg since the first European elections in 1979 can no longer do so. The socialist bloc, or Social Democrats, and the conservative alliance, or the European People’s Parties, now represent less than 40 percent of the voters. After losing almost 80 seats in the 751-seat Parliament, they have lost their joint majority (down to 179 seats for the E.P.P. and 153 seats for the Social Democrats).
Who has gained at their expense? First, the center-left Alliance of Liberals and Democrats, led by French President Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche, which won 105 seats. Then there are the Nationalists (hard-right parties, dominated by Matteo Salvini’s League Party in Italy and Marine Le Pen’s rebranded National Rally Party in France), which took 73 seats; the Greens, which won 69 seats, and Freedom and Direct Democracy (oddities like the Brexit Party in the U.K. and Italy’s Five Star movement), which won 54 seats.
Once you add in the other groupings on both left and right, such as the so-called Nordic Green Left (which includes Ireland’s Sinn Fein and Podemos in Spain), the conservatives and reformers (including Britain’s Conservative Party and Poland’s Law and Justice parties, which are more anti-E.U. than the E.P.P. is), and the non-aligned (don’t ask), the picture is even more fragmented.
But is that bad either for democracy or for the European Union project? The haggling over key jobs in the E.U. institutions will now be even more intense and tortuous. Ad hoc alliances and cross-group coalitions will be needed for even elementary legislative business. That puts the fringe into the center. The Greens, for example, are likely to emerge as key deal-makers, while the far-right parties could easily block measures that do not command cross-party support. The yawning ideological gaps will make it harder to create consensus over issues such as climate control and migration. But while all of that might sound gloomy, increased political competition may well lead to ordinary Europeans being more engaged.
The yawning ideological gaps might sound gloomy, but increased political competition may lead to ordinary Europeans being more engaged.
Part of Francis’ critique of the European Union in his Strasbourg address in 2014 was that its institutions were too remote and technocratic. Euroskeptics have long lambasted “faceless bureaucrats” and “unaccountable officials” in Brussels, exploiting a disconnect compounded by the desire of the dominant socialist and conservative blocs to depoliticize debates wherever possible, focusing on procedures and technical matters. Lively disagreements across political divides could help change that culture.
It was precisely because Europeans now feel that their future is at stake in these debates that they voted last week in record numbers: While still low, a 51 percent turnout is much better than 43 percent last time and is the best yet. In 21 of the 28 voting states voter numbers increased, and in some countries—Spain, Hungary and Poland—dramatically. True, many were turning out for anti-E.U. and hard-right parties (in the United Kingdom, Nigel Farage’s pop-up Brexit Party topped the results), but the widely predicted wave of national populism failed to take more than around 170 seats in the Parliament.
When the United Kingdom voted 52-48 for Brexit in 2016, there were dire predictions that the rising far-right parties in other nations would soon catch the same bug. But if there was a Brexit effect in the European elections, it has been to turn E.U. quitters into reformers. Who now wants to follow the United Kingdom into the damaging, humiliating spectacle of trying to disentangle itself from the world’s largest trading bloc?
Of course, the nationalist surge will rein “integrationism,” or the drive toward a more uniform, centralized European Union, but that, too, may not be bad news in the long term. To pursue a more uniform, centralized Europe just at the moment when it is demonstrating its political diversity would only increase the disconnect. The task is not to impose an artificial, technocratic uniformity but to reconcile the diversity that is seeking expression. There are many different Europes—and many different visions of Europe—that can come together only through negotiation.
What role has the church, and Pope Francis, played? It is striking that the two big issues dominating the European political debate, immigration and ecology, are precisely those that the pope has put at the heart of his teaching and witness, placing the Vatican squarely in the firing line of the emerging far-right alliance in Europe. The pope’s consistent call to decarbonize and humanize capitalism makes him a natural partner for the rising Green movement in Europe, just as insistence on keeping the doors open to the stranger in need clashes with the far right.
As they have made clear in their increasingly vociferous opposition to him, Francis’ unambiguous stance on migrants and on friendship with the Muslim world is highly inconvenient, to say the least, to Mr. Salvini, the deputy prime minister of Italy, and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in Hungary, who claim to be defending Judaeo-Christian civilization from what they perceive as the threat of an Islamic takeover.
Just how inconvenient was made clear in a poll by the French daily La Croix, which showed that in France non-practicing Catholics were twice as likely as practicing ones to vote for far-right parties. As Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich, the Jesuit archbishop of Luxembourg who presides over the church’s liaison body to the European Union, pointed out a few weeks before the elections, the fears being stoked by the populists have been increasing at the same time as Sunday worship has been declining. Linking the anguish behind the scapegoating of foreigners and “global elites” to the loss of family and roots, Archbishop Hollerich pointed out the irony of populists claiming a Christian identity while having “political desires in clear contrast with the Gospel.”
For now, the center in Europe is holding—just—and with it the European project, which is still strongly supported by churchgoing Catholics. But it feels finely balanced. Unless the church is quick to craft a compelling alternative narrative capable of rebuffing the siren call of nationalist populism, the paralysis of polarization threatens to deal a fatal blow to the idea of Europe. Now, more than ever, is the time for the reinvigorated Christian humanism the pope is calling for.