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Lessons from EU election: Inaction of the centre is rejected

Early analysis of election results is usually a risky business but even at this stage, as the last do-or-die seats are still in contention, it seems a few headline lessons cannot be ignored. 

The first must be that Europeans engaged with the democratic process far more enthusiastically than in the last election in 2014. 

Turnout was up from 43% to 51% and, though far from ideal, the graph is travelling in the right direction. 

Turnout in Ireland was just below 50%. Reports of the EU’s imminent collapse have been rebuffed, even if a proportion of those who voted supported Eurosceptic candidates. 

The EU, for all its faults, has been validated once again, and it is up to the incoming parliament to justify and deepen that support.

That welcome re-engagement repelled the far-right tide that threatened to swamp so many of the humanitarian objectives at the heart of the European project. 

It is as if Europeans had learned the back-to-the-future lessons offered by the incoherence and nastiness of the Trump presidency and the increasingly divisive chaos of Brexit. 

If, in time, deeper analysis confirms that view, then liberal, progressive and now green, Europe is indeed indebted to Trump and Brexit extremism for highlighting the dangers of disengagement. What delicious, heart-warming irony.

As ever, there is an exception that proves the rule, and it seems important to try to understand why Ireland South election workers had to adjudicate on 40,000 spoilt votes. 

Something around 25,000 ballot papers were left blank, throwing tallymen off the scent in a constituency where 23 candidates stood. This was at the root of early predictions that may have been inaccurate.

 

Nevertheless, 40,000 is a significant figure, a message and should not be ignored.

The results further undermined the traditional centre-left and centre-right alliances. 

It is as if Europeans have decided that today’s great questions cannot be resolved by low-wattage, repeatedly deferred change — or, probably more accurately, they have concluded that far too high a proportion of what passes for moderation today is, in fact, the dead hand of the status quo. 

That view seems to be behind the loss of something around 40 seats for the European People’s Party (EPP) bloc, the grouping supported by Fine Gael. 

The EPP has the parliament’s weakest record on environmental protection so, in another delicious irony, it will have to rely on the support of newly-elected Greens and liberals if it is to retain its influence, much less lead the parliament.

If the rejection of the right — despite the success of the Brexit party — is one lesson, the surge in support for the Greens is the other side of that coin. 

The Greens all but doubled their vote. Showing a new assertiveness, German voters put the Greens in second place behind chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU conservatives. 

This shift was, like so many across Europe, predicated on the fact that a third of German voters are under the age of 30. 

It seems reasonable to suggest that situation will prevail here after the next general election — as long as the Greens find plausible but not necessarily moderated candidates. 

The centre will have to learn to differentiate between moderation and inaction if it wants to keep up.

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