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Kevin HargadenJune 18, 2024
The first provisional results for the European Parliament elections are announced at the European Parliament building in Brussels June 9, 2024. (OSV News photo/Piroschka van de Wouw, Reuters)The first provisional results for the European Parliament elections are announced at the European Parliament building in Brussels June 9, 2024. (OSV News photo/Piroschka van de Wouw, Reuters)

Replacing anxiety over the climate crisis, which was a driving concern of the last round of European elections in 2019, issues like European defense, the rising cost of living and migration were the hot topics of discourse during this month’s elections that will seat the next European Parliament. Based on the results, analysts from Jesuit civic engagement organizations believe that in the coming years European states will set stricter policies on immigration, raising levels of despair among asylum seekers and hundreds of thousands of people living without official status across Europe.

The view from Ireland

Although the European elections were held June 7, results were only confirmed in Ireland over the weekend, on June 15 and 16. Unlike most other member states of the European Union, Ireland operates an electoral system that requires vote-counting by hand during a public event. The results are reliable and the process is transparent, but the whole system is, no surprise, slow. But the clear signal of the vote so far from across the republic seems to be that Irish voters are content to support establishment political figures.

Every government in the history of the Irish State has involved one of the two major centrist parties: Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Those parties appear to be the big winners in the European elections, heading off a challenge from Ireland’s main opposition party, Sinn Féin.

While Ireland has thus far avoided the Euro-skepticism that has wreaked havoc in the United Kingdom over the last decade, this election cycle did witness a rise of candidates who could be considered far right. But it seems that most of the extremist candidates have performed very poorly, though one self-styled rebel candidate—a former television host with an anti-environmental platform—remains in the mix for one of the remaining Irish seats in the European Parliament.

Local elections were also held on June 14 and while a lot of the media analysis focused on how the mainstream parties and various incumbent independents secured the largest number of seats, one very promising development has been the emergence of dozens of successful candidates who were not born in Ireland but part of its increasing immigrant population. A father-and-son team, Baby and Britto Pereppadan, originally from India, were elected to represent neighboring wards on the South Dublin County Council; Feljin Jose, another immigrant from India, topped the poll in one central Dublin constituency, and Helen Ogbu became the first African-born member of the Galway City Council. She had fled Nigeria after the murder of her husband because of his political activism and received asylum in Ireland in 2005.

Results so far suggest that while populist, far-right voices are louder than they have been in Ireland—or at least since a brief “Blueshirt” flirtation with facism during the 1930s—the electorate continues to listen to the establishment parties and are increasingly hospitable to newer voices who embody a rapidly changing Ireland.

Does the vote in this small island republic, which represents just 1 percent of the population of the European Union, reflect the electoral outcomes on the continent? For broader context, I tapped into the expertise from Europe’s network of Jesuit Social Centers. These institutions, which stretch from Lisbon to Budapest and from Palermo to Dublin (where, full disclosure, I work), have specific priorities based on their local context but all share a commitment to engaging in the cultural and political discourse of their nations.

Belgium

Frédéric Rottier is the director of Centre Avec in Brussels. Its remit is to promote the search for the common good and civic engagement. Mr. Rottier reports by email that the results in Belgium indicate “a general shift to the right, but not yet to the far right.” The “right” candidates take a hard line on issues like immigration and European integration, but for the most part they espouse policies that exist somewhere within the European mainstream.

Belgium’s political system is notoriously complicated, designed to reach a balance between Belgium’s Dutch-speaking region (Flanders), its French-speaking region (Wallonia) and the mediating capital city region around Brussels. Infamously, it can take over a year for governments to be formed as compromise is sought among these different factions. To add to the complexity, regional and national elections in Belgium took place on the same day as the European elections.

In Flanders, Vlaams Belang, a far-right party that seeks the independence of the Dutch-speaking region, won 23 percent of the votes—up from 19 percent in 2019. In Wallonia, an alliance between centrist and right-wing parties has created a new regional leadership coalition. The national government now taking shape will depend on a give-and-take negotiation among at least five predominantly right-wing but not far-right parties, including the dominant Flemish N-VA.

One major development in the Belgian elections, and indeed across Europe, has been the collapse of support for the formerly ascendant Green parties. The French-speaking Ecolo party was hard hit. It had elected 13 members of Parliament in 2019, but the upcoming Parliament will seat just three.

Italy

Giuseppe Riggio, S.J., is the director of Aggiornamenti Sociali, the Jesuit Social Center based in Milan. The center plays a leading role in the conversations within the Italian church and wider society. He notes that advance polls were largely accurate. Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni “was the biggest winner” on June 10. Her right-wing party, Fratelli d’Italia, secured 24 seats in the upcoming Parliament, gaining 10 seats over the 14 it earned in the last election.

What might be lost in foreign coverage is the extent to which this victory was really an affirmation of Ms. Meloni herself. She placed herself at the forefront of her party’s campaign, advising Italian voters to “just write Giorgia,” while knowing full well that she would not become a European Parliament member (an office incompatible with that of the prime minister). As is common in some European nations, the seats she won will be taken up by members of her party according to lists drawn up in advance of the vote.

The strategy paid off handsomely. The prime minister gathered 2.4 million votes from people who simply wrote “Giorgia” on their ballots. A campaign like this, relying on the persona of the politician instead of attention to policy, makes it difficult to say where Italian parliamentarians are likely to focus their energies in the next Parliament, Father Riggio said.

Tough talk about migration and a vague Euro-skepticism dominated the election conversation in Italy, according to Father Riggio. Candidates were light on policy details. This might be a factor at play in what proved to be an important element this election cycle: very low voter turnout in Italy and other European states. While participation has been declining for two decades, this is the first time the number of voters in Italy, which has historically enjoyed high levels of voter engagement, dipped below 50 percent of people eligible to vote.

“When you actually see the numbers, it is shocking,” Father Riggio said. “It is clear we really have to encourage participation in a strong way,” he said, suggesting a particular focus on young people.

Aggiornamenti Sociali will contribute to this effort. It will participate along with other actors in this year’s “Catholic Social Week.” The July event is sponsored by Italian bishops, who have declared “participation” to be a key focus. An information campaign and a series of interventions to encourage involvement in civic life are on the agenda.

“We must find the good ideas to put fire again into the democratic life of Italy,” Father Riggio said.

Germany

Stefan Einsiedel is a biologist and economist who works at the Center for Social and Development Studies in the Munich School of Philosophy. He reports by email that the extremist Alternative für Deutschland is now the second-strongest party in Germany with 16 percent representation among the German members of the European Parliament, just behind the mainstream conservative Christian Democrat alliance, which has won 30 percent of the German representatives. The ruling coalition of Social Democrats elected 14 percent, the Green Party won 12 percent and Germany’s Liberal Party earned 5 percent, continuing their recent decline.

Initially emerging as a largely academic protest against Germany’s role in the Euro crisis that followed the 2008 global financial crash, AfD has achieved widespread support with an anti-immigration platform that veers into xenophobia, tolerates Islamophobia and flirts with anti-Semitism. AfD activists are effective on social media, especially TikTok. While the rise of the AfD is worrying, Mr. Einsiedel cautions that “it is important to note that most of the people who voted for AfD are, in my opinion, not anti-European or anti-democratic, but anti-establishment.” He suspects that AfD’s success is the result of a protest vote as many Germans grow increasingly dissatisfied with Berlin’s ruling Christian Democrat-led coalition.

At the Munich School of Philosophy, the challenge is now clear: “How can we continue to contribute to an inclusive society which strives for more solidarity, transparency and social and economic fairness?”

Mr. Einsiedel is not disconsolate: “Our European democracy is a work in progress and I am still a hopeful optimist.”

France

Adrien Tardieu is a computer programmer from France and a graduate of the Faith and Politics formation program in Venice, run by the European Social Centers. He reports that the parliamentary elections have proved extraordinarily tumultuous for French politics.

“Unfortunately, what the polls had been indicating for weeks has proven correct: The nationalist and populist parties have earned 40 percent of the votes after they ran a campaign on the theme of [anti]immigration,” he said. Mr. Tardieu believes a cogent conversation about migration policy is necessary and possible but what happened instead during the parliamentary elections is that foreigners in France were “designated as scapegoats.”

Another takeaway from the elections in France is a diminishing attention to environmentalism, which “played a really minor role in this election. Almost no one talked about biodiversity, adaptation, a just transition,” a political process that seeks to compensate workers who are dislocated from carbon-intensive industries.

Far-right candidates, according to Mr. Tardieu, managed to present the choice facing voters as either prosperity or care for creation. “Multiple environmental policies have been withdrawn to placate farmers who are struggling to live from their work,” he said. “The fight to keep purchasing power is often an excuse to reduce our ecological ambitions.”

Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party had a very bad election and Mr. Macron responded with a high-stakes strategy, calling snap elections. Mr. Tardieu explained, “If the far-right, populist parties prevail in this [national] vote, we can expect really weak environmental policies as their platform is almost silent on the topic.”

The elections in France suggest that environmental activists increasingly face the risk of being labeled as “eco-terrorists” even when their protests are entirely non-violent. Mr. Tardieu joined one protest to oppose the construction of a new highway in Normandy. Activists blocked the site for 30 minutes, and nine people were arrested. “Some farmers did the same thing for two days last January and were not prosecuted,” he said.

Mr. Tardieu is more optimistic when he considers local initiatives on the regional or city level. Paris is being transformed by a mayor who sees the value in active mobility, that is, creating opportunities for transit that prioritize pedestrian and cycling. But across France local communities are, among many other earth-friendly developments, creating more bike lanes, seeking greener sources of energy and offering organic food in schools. Christian voices in France have been a part of the activism that has resulted in these improvements.

The “Fight and Contemplation” alliance includes young people associated with Jesuit spirituality, environmentalists from Extinction Rebellion and members of the Protestant churches. The alliance has sponsored creative and non-violent demonstrations for care of creation, according to Mr. Tardeiu. The group includes about 1,000 active members who combine distinctively Christian modes of public intervention with spiritual formation and prayer.

Future Generations

Recognizing the centrality of young people for this conversation is something all the Jesuit Centers share in common. Benoit Willemaers, S.J., works at the Jesuit European Social Center in Brussels. The center is in touch with many European parliamentarians and runs a highly regarded program to form the next generation of European leaders.

Father Willemaers, responding by email, believes that in the near term, Europe’s dominant parties are likely to decelerate or even roll back parts of the European Green New Deal plans. But in the midst of the political reshuffling, he sees “an opportunity to bring new ideas to the table.”

To that end, the Jesuit center is co-leading a coalition of different partners to lobby for the European Union to acknowledge the rights of “future generations,” which also provide the name for the initiative. Among its goals, Future Generations calls for the creation of an E.U. commissioner, something equivalent to a U.S. cabinet member, who is charged exclusively with evaluating any E.U. legislation in terms of its impact on Europeans who have not yet been born. And it proposes a regulatory structure to ensure different institutions within the European Union work collaboratively to protect the well-being of future generations.

“This represents a radical opportunity to establish serious, ethically robust long-term thinking into the practices of the European Union,” Father Willemaers said. He hopes that structure may serve as a timely counter-balance, as populist sentiments seem to be in ascendance across Europe.

He called Future Generations an example of what can be achieved “when Christians are able to play a detailed and engaged role in the political and cultural life of societies, joining forces across the political and culture spectrum.” Whether or not a specific Future Generations Commissioner in the end becomes an accepted aspect of European governance, he said the next European Parliament will prove a critical pivot point for the future of European integration.

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