- Europe and the European Union in Times of Growing Scepticism
After the surprisingly high turnout for the elections for the European Parliament (EP) in May 2019, Guy Verhofstadt, the president of the Liberal faction in the EP, exclaimed: "Europe is back, Europe is popular." Indeed, after years of a downward trend in voter participation, this increased attention for the European Parliament is remarkable, although it should be emphasized that still only just over 50 percent of those entitled to vote indeed turned out to do so, substantially fewer than at most national elections. The higher turnout can probably above all be explained by the fact that there was actually something to choose: there was a clear contrast and choice between left and right, between more and less "Brussels."1 [End Page 236]
However, it is questionable if Verhofstadt is correct in his observation. For the first time since the first elections for the EP in 1979, the social-democrats and Christian-democrats no longer hold a majority of the 751 seats; the main winners at the elections were, indeed, to a certain extent the Liberals, but above all the flanks of the political spectre, that is, the Green parties on the one hand, and the right-wing populist parties on the other. Although the results differ considerably per country—in Germany, the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland did less well than expected, in France and Italy, two of the other Six Founding Fathers of the European integration process, right or extreme-right parties won—it is clear that the flanks have strengthened their position, with local elements also playing an important role in the outcome of the elections.
There is something paradoxical about the mood in Europe at the moment in general and about the European Union (EU) in particular. In almost all EU Member States, populism, however difficult to define, is on the rise.2 There are strong tensions between the Northern and Southern countries, and there is a clear East-West divide—although this is often portrayed in a far too black and white frame3—especially on the separation of powers, the interpretation of the recent past, the level of democracy, and the rise of illiberal democracies and authoritarian leaders in Eastern European countries. There is much resentment towards the EU, especially on how it handled (or handles) the economic crisis that started in 2008 and perhaps above of all the migration crisis of 2015.
At the same time, despite these crises and the Brexit (or perhaps because of the latter), polls from the Eurobarometer of three months before the elections for the European Parliament showed that 68 percent of the respondents across the 27 EU Member States (Great Britain is excluded) believe that their countries have benefitted from EU-membership, 61 percent stating that their country's membership is a good thing, Italy being the biggest exception.
This figure is as high as its peak level between the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the adoption of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. Support for the EU is strongest among younger and better [End Page 237] educated respondents. However, there is also a growing number of Europeans (27 percent) who are uncertain and see the EU as "neither a good thing nor a bad thing," a trend that is visible in 19 countries. Moreover, despite the overall positive attitude towards the EU, an increasing number of Europeans—around 50 percent...