LONDON – Interpreting election results, especially when turnout is not high, is always a risky business. And, in the case of the recent European Parliament election, the results were not uniform. The most spectacular result was in Italy, where a pro-reform, pro-Europe party led by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi won more than 40% of the vote. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats won in Germany and there was a strong vote for the Social Democrats there also. In some cases, the vote simply tracked domestic politics.
But the victories of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the National Front in France and the success of explicitly anti-status quo parties across the continent cannot be ignored. They point to a deep anxiety, distrust, and alienation from Europe’s institutions and core philosophy.
So now the EU must think carefully about where it goes from here, how it reconnects with its citizens’ concerns, and how it can better realize its ideals in a changing world. Complacency about the far right’s showing, on the grounds that there remains a pro-European majority, is dangerous. Even ardent supporters of Europe think there must be change.
Many factors have combined to increase the number and complexity of challenges facing Europe, along with uncertainty and unpredictability about Europe’s ability to meet them. There has been the vast ambition of the single currency, with its intrinsic design flaws; the agony of the financial crisis and its aftermath; and the link between the two in the sovereign debt crisis. There has also been the European Union’s enlargement from 15 member states to 28 in a decade – a decade, moreover, of rapid change in technology, trade, and geopolitics.