Populists’ failure to meet expectations in European Parliament elections leaves the door open to continued US–EU cooperation at the legislative level, argues Edward Knudsen.
A Populist Wave Crested?
Most accounts of the decline of the transatlantic relationship focus on the rise of unilateralism coming from Washington, and particularly the White House. While the US likely deserves the lion’s share of the blame for rising tensions, political developments in Europe also threaten to further undermine US–EU cooperation. Ahead of the European Parliament election on 23–26 May a primary concern of Atlanticists was that the continued rise of right-wing populists could do exactly that. The far-right’s failure to meet its predicted vote share keeps the door open to renewed cooperation between the United States and European Union,
To be sure, populists did make significant inroads in some cases. The narrow victory of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally over French President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance, the Austrian Freedom Party’s failure to lose significant support in the wake of the ‘Ibizagate’ scandal, and the Brexit Party’s triumph in the UK particularly stood out. However, these headline-grabbing results obscure a larger trend: the Europe-wide surge of the populist right, which appeared unstoppable only a few years ago, seems to have subsided. Some pre-election estimates placed the far-right’s vote share at over 30 percent, but final results show that they fell far short of that. In the end, their seat share only expanded from 21 to 23 percent, according to the European Parliament. Turnout was at a 20-year high, as pro-Europeans were mobilised by the perceived threat from Eurosceptic forces.
The larger narrative of the elections is that the new European Parliament will be increasingly pluralist and ideologically diverse. The informal ‘grand coalition’ of the centre-right European People’s Party and centre-left Alliance of Socialists and Democrats lost its majority, declining from 54 to 43 percent of seats. A collection of smaller parties, notably a centrist bloc (comprised of the will pick up the fragments of these older parties. While the decline of the traditional parties may make for a more unwieldy decision-making process, the rise of the Greens and Liberals—both of which support increased internationalism and multilateralism—leaves open the possibility of a resurgence of joint transatlantic efforts to confront global challenges. In particular, ties between the legislative branches of the United States and the European Union can build a foundation for greater cooperation, which could be further expanded under a more multilateralist US President in the future.
A History of Cooperation
The European Parliament and the United States Congress have a history of cooperation dating back to 1972, when a group from the US House of Representatives travelled to Brussels to meet and exchange views with the fledgling EU Parliament. After decades of meeting informally on a bi-annual basis, the ties between the two legislative bodies were formalised in 1999 with the creation of the Transatlantic Legislators’ Dialogue (TLD), which aims to foster “harmonized approaches to issues of joint concern” This programme brings together MEPs and members of the US House of Representatives in the form of twice-yearly inter-parliamentary meetings (IPMs) that alternate between the US and Europe.
However, since the election of President Donald Trump in November 2016, the European Parliament has taken a harder line against the US. It has identified US actions as harmful to international relations and overwhelmingly supported a resolution condemning President Trump’s ‘America First’ policies. Still, it is important not to overstate the rebuke coming from . A September 2018 resolution stated that “MEPs still believe it is essential to foster the EU–US partnership in promoting common values” and stand together against challengers to the global system, namely Russia and China. Additionally, the European Parliament recently rejected a resolution that would have called on member states not to support a negotiating mandate for trade negotiations with the United States, leaving open the possibility of an eventual trade agreement between the two sides.
The Democratic-led House of Representatives has also shown keenness to reinvigorate the relationship between the US and the EU. A record number of congress people made the journey to the 2019 Munich Security Conference to show support for transatlantic defence solidarity. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has emphasised the importance of the transatlantic relationship, saying that ties with the EU are a “very strong priority to our economic, our national, our cultural security”. These efforts have encouraged Europeans who value close transatlantic ties. Following the most recent IPM, the European Parliament released a statement saying that they “appreciated hearing so many American Representatives express their commitment to international institutions”.
The Way Forward
Although tensions between the US and the EU remain high at the executive level, the internationalist outlook of both the European Parliament and the US House of Representatives offers a chance to maintain strong transatlantic ties. A triumph for the populist right in the EU elections threatened to derail this possibility, but their failure to substantially increase their share of seats keeps the avenue open.
Although the far-right’s failure to achieve overwhelming gains offers hope for future transatlantic unity, the path ahead will be far from easy. Points of contention such as burden-sharing in defence and the inclusion of agriculture in trade negotiations predate the Trump administration and will not go away, regardless of the composition of the EU Parliament or the occupant of the White House. Still, the contacts between the US and EU at the legislative level offer a way to maintain a constructive transatlantic dialogue on issues of shared concern, such as global terrorism and China’s trade practices. Small victories can be used to build shared trust in the near-term, and possibility facilitate more ambitious cooperation if a transatlantically inclined US President takes office in 2021.
Edward Knudsen is Research Associate at the Hertie School of Governance.