European voters do the continental

Instead of a win for anti-EU parties, the European Parliament election shows continuing, if different, approaches to universal solutions.

Germany's Green party chairwoman Annalena Baerbock and EU parliament member Sven Giegold celebrate after the May 26 results of the European Parliament election.

Nothing unites Europe more as a universal culture than Eurovision, an annual singing competition in May between single entrants from each nation. This year, the singer from Britain came in last. That triggered angry demands from many in the U.K. – home of the Beatles, Elton John, and Adele – to withdraw from the contest forever.

Alas, such nationalist self-isolation is unlikely to happen. Good songwriting and singing are too borderless in their appeal. And Eurovision has long been popular on TV in Britain.

This tale is helpful in understanding another Europewide event in May, the election last week of a new European Parliament. Pundits had predicted euroskeptic nationalists would ride to power in a legislature that represents more than a half-billion people in the 28-nation European Union. After a decade of deep challenges in Europe, they said, voters would opt for inward-looking domestic interests rather than shared solutions based on common values across the Continent.

That prediction did not happen. While political parties with an anti-EU narrative did mark gains in four of the six most populous countries, the big surprise was an upsurge for smaller parties reflecting issues such as climate change, migration, trade, and corruption that cross borders – and require cross-border compromises. Meanwhile, Europe’s traditional parties, which reflect mainly left-right differences over each nation’s economy, did not do well.

“This was in fact the first European Parliament election with genuinely European themes,” concluded Princeton University professor Harold James.

Voter turnout for the parliamentary contest was the highest in a quarter century, reversing a 40-year decline. This reflects a new intensity of interest in Europe itself.

Even the biggest winner among nationalist parties, Italy’s Five Star Movement, fashions itself as a reformer of the EU. Party leader Matteo Salvini says he wants other European countries to take on more of the burden of dealing with migrants crossing from Africa. He promises to change EU rules on fiscal austerity in member states that overspend.

The EU was set up to ensure prosperity but also to shave off the kind of nationalist impulses that had led to two wars in the 20th century. Its politics may be complex, aloof, and prone to setbacks, such as in the case of Brexit. But its transnational project endures. Some values and solutions – like a good song – are just too universal.

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