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What Parliamentary Elections Could Mean For The Future Of The EU


How do Europe's election results look to a politician in the center? The European Parliament elections did not go well at all for traditional parties of the center-right and center-left. Populist parties gained. Far-right parties gained. Euroskeptic parties gained. More Liberal and Green parties also gained. Our next guest once led a center-right party in Sweden. In the 1990s, Carl Bildt was Sweden's prime minister and led his country into the European Union. He's now on Skype from Stockholm. Welcome to the program, sir.

CARL BILDT: Thank you.

INSKEEP: How do you read the election results?

BILDT: Well, what happened was not really what a lot of people were fearing, that there would be a surge of the far-right populists. I mean, they did fairly moderately increase, if you look at the overall figures - Italy being the disturbing example, where they did extremely well. Deputy Prime Minister Salvini otherwise didn't do particularly well.

So the big increases are really the Liberals and the Greens. And that means that is really shifting alliances in the center. As you pointed out the, center-right EPP lost somewhat. The Social Democrat lost somewhat. But that was sort of compensated by the Greens and the Liberals, while the extremes didn't do that well.

INSKEEP: I guess we should just explain for Americans who maybe don't follow this every day.

BILDT: Yeah.

INSKEEP: I'm looking at a chart of European Parliament seats. There are multiple parties, which I guess are actually party coalitions, since you have various parties with various names in various countries. And they have coalitions at the European Parliament level. The center-right and center-left are still there. They're still pretty big. But you do note the gain among the Greens.

But also there is this populist gain. I'm even thinking, particularly, of the United Kingdom, where there's this brand new Brexit Party that got more votes than any party, even as, as you note, the Greens did really well. And other parties that favor staying in the European Union went fairly well. I'm trying to find one unified message from all of that.

BILDT: Yeah. And I don't think you should look at the U.K. because that's a rather special case.


BILDT: Because there's a sort of meltdown going on there. But as you pointed out, the Brexit Party became the biggest party. But they really only replaced the U.K. party that was there before. Farage was very strong in the 2015 or 2014 European elections as well. But overall, if you look at the trends, if you can see, as you say, this was 28 national elections, the populist right did extremely well in Italy, Salvini - didn't do well at all in Germany, lost their seats in the Netherlands. Marine Le Pen, that's sort of the far-right party in France...


BILDT: ...Came on top of President Macron but did less well than five years ago. So it's difficult to see that as sort of surge in the support for her.


BILDT: Really, sort of the Greens and the Liberals were the winners of the day, somewhat as a surprise - has to be said. And then another result that should be noted is the fairly significant increase in turnout - not in every country, but in most of the countries, significant increase in interest in these elections, which I think is a healthy sign.

INSKEEP: Is the danger that the European Union is seen as being in actually what's driving that higher turnout?

BILDT: Well, I think that, first, there has been a more interesting debate in a number of countries. Secondly, I think there's an increasing awareness of - that we live in a - we live in a world of Brexit, of Trump, of Putin, of China. And it is more important for Europeans to stay together and see what we can do together. That - that reluctant recognition, I think, has been one of the themes that have been there, in the debate, in virtually every country.

INSKEEP: So you are pushing, in a way - or not pushing. But you're - you're advocating a different view of these elections than some might see. Despite some gains from the populists, it sounds like you - you perceive some bedrock support for the idea of a united Europe.

BILDT: Yeah. I mean, there was an increase by the - by the far-right - but, I mean, fairly marginal (ph) and far less than most people had predicted or most people had feared. And there was a bigger gain for the Greens and the Liberals than people had anticipated. The decline for the main parties, the EPP, center-right main party and the Social Democratic Party, was broadly foreseen.

INSKEEP: When you mentioned the various threats that Europeans may feel that they face, you mentioned Vladimir Putin of Russia. Of course, there was a huge controversy over Russian interference in the U.S. election in 2016. There has been some investigation of Russian involvement in the Brexit debate in the U.K. Was Russia perceived as some kind of player in these elections?

BILDT: As some kind of player, most probably. But that's hardly news. I mean, the Russians have been active with propaganda and with political means to try to influence European countries forever. It normally backfires. There was, of course, the scandal in Austria - you might have noted that - where it was disclosed that they had been - or the far-right party have been trying to - believing that they went into some sort of agreement with Russia in selling out Austrian interests. That has collapsed the Austrian government and led, of course, to significant loss for that particular party.

INSKEEP: So when you look at this mix of seats and party groups in the European Parliament, do you see a parliament that can function and move forward on any particular agenda?

BILDT: I think it's going to be a more complicated parliament than before because in this - the still-sitting Parliament, you had the EPP, center-right and the center-left, grouping together, had a majority. And they often agreed on things. They no longer have that majority. And they will have to go into coalition agreements on different issues with, primarily, the Liberals, I would say - guess - and to some extent, the Greens - hardly with the far-right. So it's going to be a somewhat more complicated parliamentary work ahead, during the next five years. And then, of course - then of course, it's all done in a co-decision procedure, with the 27 or 28 governments.

INSKEEP: Going to be complicated.

Mr. Bildt, thanks so much.

BILDT: Thanks.

INSKEEP: Carl Bildt is the co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations and the former Swedish prime minister. He joined us via Skype. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.