A popular narrative holds that the European Parliament elections in May will be “Act Three” in the populist drama that began in 2016 with the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum and US President Donald J. Trump’s election. We are told to expect a grand showdown between the forces of “open” and “closed” societies, in which the future of the European Union is at stake. It all sounds very plausible. It also happens to be completely wrong.
Brexit and Trump’s election led many political analysts to conclude that European voters, too, would abandon mainstream parties for new identity-based tribes. Yet, in America, the political and regional divides are so entrenched as to affect where one works, who one marries, and how one views the world. And in the UK, similar rifts have long been emerging between north and south, young and old, urban and rural, and graduate and non-graduate.
European politics is more fluid. A recent European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)/YouGov poll of almost 50,000 voters across 14 EU member states suggests that the best model for understanding Europe in 2019 is not the United States or the UK, but Westeros, the main setting of the HBO series Game of Thrones. Far from dividing into stable tribes, the European political landscape is an unpredictable battleground of constantly shifting alliances; its defining feature is radical volatility.
European politics is not moving from the mainstream to the fringe so much as it is spiralling off in all directions – from left to right, anti-system to pro-establishment, and so forth. So uncertain are the electoral options this May that half of the survey respondents say they will not be voting at all. Another 15% have yet to make up their minds, and among the 35% who do intend to vote, 70% are swing voters. In raw numbers, roughly 100 million votes are up for grabs in May.
Unlike the 2016 US presidential election and the Brexit referendum, this will not be merely a vote on migration. Overall, most Europeans do not see immigration as a leading concern for their country. Issues of equal or greater importance include the economy and the threats of nationalism, Islamic radicalism, climate change, and Russian belligerence.
Pundits are simply wrong, therefore, to frame the election as a battle between pro-European globalists and Eurosceptic nationalists – though that does describe the second round of France’s 2017 presidential election when Emmanuel Macron soundly defeated Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front (now called the National Rally). The ECFR/YouGov poll indicates that a large majority of Europeans feel no need to choose between their European and respective national identities. In fact, even nationalist parties have realized that these identities are bound up together, which is why they have stopped advocating an exit from the euro or the EU.
The real issue on most Europeans’ minds is their relationship to the “system”: almost three-quarters of EU citizens believe that the political system is broken, either at the national level, the EU level, or both. How individual voters frame this issue is key to understanding how they will vote.
In the taxonomy of Game of Thrones, these voters can be divided into four main groups. The first is the Starks, who believe that the system still works and that meaningful change happens through political expression and voting. The House of Stark makes up 24% of the EU electorate and has its stronghold in the north (namely Germany, Denmark, and Sweden).
The second group comprises “The Sparrows,” who think politics is broken both at the EU level and within member states. Among this group’s more radical cohorts are protest movements such as the gilets jaunes (yellow vests), who, like the revolutionaries in Game of Thrones, want to cleanse the system of its corruption and start over. The Sparrows comprise 38% of the electorate and are particularly common in France, Greece, and Italy.
The third group is the “Unsullied,” who in Game of Thrones follow Daenerys Targaryen, the mother of dragons, after being emancipated from slavery. The EU’s Unsullied include voters who reject narrow nationalism and seek purpose in internationalism and transnational projects. They think their respective national systems are the problem, and that the solution lies in Brussels. The Unsullied makeup 24% of the electorate, and are well represented in Hungary, Romania, Poland, and Spain.
The final group is the “Wildings” who “live beyond the wall.” These nationalist Euroskeptics may command a lot of attention in the press, but they make up just 14% of the electorate. They tend to have a strong presence in Denmark, Austria, and Italy.
The fundamental choice for all of these groups is not really between “open Europe” and “closed nation-states.” Rather, the question is whether and in what contexts the status quo still works. If there is one major similarity among the US, the UK, and the EU, it is that political parties now focus more on mobilizing their base than on trying to broaden it by persuading voters to come over to their side. Hence, in the European Parliament election, many political parties will focus on the 149 million people who are unsure whether they will vote at all.
But that won’t be enough. To rout the populist and nationalist parties, Europe’s mainstream candidates will need to bring some of the Sparrows and Wildings back into the system, and over to their side. And to do that, they must position themselves as credible agents of change.
At the end of the day, these contests will be won or lost under highly localized conditions; what works for mainstream candidates in some locales will not work for those in others. The battles to win will be in countries where Euroskeptics are in power, such as Hungary and Italy, and in those where pro-Europeans have suffered a political backlash, such as France. The game has only just begun.