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A Parliament is Born

With the latest election, the European Parliament seems to have taken a small but important step toward becoming a true expression of Europeans’ popular will. While many issues are still decided in the European Council, the balance of authority between European and national leaders now seems to be less lopsided.

BRUSSELS – European Parliament elections used to be a boring affair, forsaken by voters and barely noticed by the media. But the latest election, held in the last weekend of May, broke the mold, capturing attention as it confounded expectations.

Voter turnout, which had been declining since the first European Parliament election in 1979, increased sharply this time, reaching just over 50%. That is not only the highest turnout for a European Parliament election in 20 years, it is also higher than the 40-50% typical of a mid-term congressional election in the United States. Turnout excluding the United Kingdom – over 53% – was comparable to that of the 2016 US presidential election.

A key factor driving the increase in participation was probably the rise of populist parties, but not for the reason one might think. For some time, opinion polls have revealed rising support for European Union membership, with citizens reporting more confidence in EU institutions than in national institutions. So the specter of Brexit, and the fear that populist forces in other countries would jeopardize the benefits of European integration, may have fueled higher turnout. Yes, populist forces gained ground, but not nearly as much as some had feared. Moreover, none of the major populist parties proposed leaving the EU (or the euro), whereas 16 of them advocated such an outcome just a year ago.

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