Analysis: Voters Choose A New Direction For Europe's Future

Roger Cohen, columnist for The New York Times, analyzes the European Union vote for NPR's Mary Louise Kelly, including the high turnout and the success of the EU's green parties.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Roger Cohen is here to help us understand a little bit more about what these election results mean. He is a columnist for The New York Times. He joins us now from Paris.

Roger Cohen, welcome.

ROGER COHEN: Thank you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So the story going into the elections here was that they would reflect the rise of the far-right, the rise of the populist parties in Europe. And those parties did make gains, but they didn't win as big as a lot of people were expecting. What do you think happened?

COHEN: Well, there were significant gains for the populist far-right, particularly in Italy, where Matteo Salvini got 34% of the vote compared to about 6% five years ago - and also in Britain, where Nigel Farage, with his Brexit Party, also got over 30%. But I think in the end, there was also a reaction to the current situation from the Greens, who did very well. And the liberal democratic parties managed to maintain a majority.

It was never thought that the far-right parties would gain a majority in the Parliament. It was thought that they would make headway, and they did - just not quite as dramatic. Still, you get somebody like Viktor Orban in Hungary getting 54% there. So I would say it's still significant. And what's very significant is the collapse of a lot of the mainstream parties.

Here in France, you have the complete collapse of the Socialist Party. You have the complete collapse of the moderate right. In Britain, you have the collapse of Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party. So there are new forces emerging in Europe, and that's not going to change.

KELLY: Well, let me tease out a couple of things you touched on there. Number one, Green parties did very well. What does that tell us about the state of Europe?

COHEN: Well, it tells us that despite the nationalist surge, there are a lot of people - young people, in particular - who are deeply concerned about climate change and who understand that this issue, like, I would say, most issues in the world today, cannot really be tackled at a national level. They require a transnational response. They require a European response. And so in this European election, they mobilized.

KELLY: Is there a generational thing going on here, too? Younger voters tend to skew...

COHEN: Definitely, definitely.

KELLY: ...Toward the Green parties.

COHEN: These are younger voters. Look, there's a great deal of weariness, even disgust, with politics as usual. We've been seeing that since 2008. It's given birth to the populist, rightist surge that we all know about and that we've observed, also, in the United States.

But that's not the only form it takes. It's also taken the form of this sudden rise of the Greens. There are various splinter parties also on the left. And if I was to name one overwhelming characteristic of this election, it's that the parties that we've gotten used to having govern Europe are fading away.

KELLY: So big picture - if you look at these election results and you're trying to figure out where Europe is headed, what message did voters deliver?

COHEN: Well, it was not a bad day for Europe. The European Union is not about to disappear. It's not about to be taken over by far-right, anti-European populist parties. That said, there's immense dissatisfaction across Europe with the way politics have been conducted over the last five to 10 years, certainly since the economic meltdown of 2008. And that is expressed in the virtual demise of parties that have been at the center of European politics for decades, like the Socialist Party in France, like the two main parties - centrist parties in Italy.

And you're seeing a lot of dissatisfaction expressed but not a demand for the complete breakup of the European project. On the contrary, people voted in far greater numbers in these elections for a long time. What does that mean? That means they're engaged in the European idea.

KELLY: Roger Cohen, thanks so much.

COHEN: Thank you very much indeed.

KELLY: He's a columnist for The New York Times, speaking to us there from Paris about this past weekend's European elections.

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