Financial Times

Renzi wins big but bad just got worse for Hollande

May 26 12:19 3 comments Share

Now that most of the results have come in from the European parliament elections, let’s take a family photograph of Europe’s presidents, chancellors and prime ministers. Who have the broadest smiles on their faces, and who are sobbing into their handkerchiefs?

Among the European Union’s six biggest states – France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and the UK – the happiest leader must surely be Matteo Renzi, Italy’s premier. He won, and won big. Mr Renzi (above) demolished the notion that Beppe Grillo’s anti-establishment Five-Star Movement is on an unstoppable roll. He also inflicted an emphatic defeat on Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia party.

Even though it was not a national election, the youthful Mr Renzi can now claim to have a mandate of sorts for the political, economic and social reforms that he knows are necessary to modernise Italy. This is not to say that he will succeed – the power of entrenched anti-reform interests in Italy is formidable. But maybe he has a better chance than he did 48 hours ago.

The second widest smile belongs to Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. True, herChristian Democrats (CDU) did less well than in the 2009 European parliamentary elections. But they kept their commanding lead over the Social Democrats, who must be wondering how they will ever beat the CDU as long as left-leaning Germans continue to split their votes among the SPD, Greens and the more radical leftist Die Linke.

The success of various oddball German parties in winning a handful of seats in the EU assembly cannot disguise the fact that this election – like last year’s national parliamentary election – showed a majority of German voters to be generally happy with the status quo in their country and in Europe. This leaves Ms Merkel well-placed as ever to act as the EU’s ringmaster.

A flicker of contentment should also be visible on the face of Donald Tusk, Poland’s prime minister. His pro-EU, centre-right Civic Platform party held off a strong challenge from the more conservative, more eurosceptic Law and Justice party – bit only just. But voter turnout was very low, making it difficult to be confident about Civic Platform’s prospects in Poland’s forthcoming national election next year.

Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s centre-right leader, will be less happy – but then the same will be true for the opposition Socialists. These two parties did not even take a combined 50 per cent of the vote, which suggests the bipartisan hegemony that has characterised Spanish politics for over 30 years is finally cracking, with the left-wing Podemos capturing 8 per cent of the vote. Strong support for pro-independence parties in the region of Catalonia indicates that Catalan secessionism will be the big issue in Spanish politics in the second half of this year.

After the triumph in Britain of the anti-EU UK Independence party, David Cameron, the UK premier, will find it a whole lot harder to keep his Conservative party united on his programme of renegotiating EU membership and winning a subsequent referendum to stay in the bloc. But Britain is enjoying an economic recovery that will keep alive Conservative hopes of a good result in next year’s general election. It may not be enough to ensure an outright Conservative victory, however.

If Mr Cameron suffered a shock, it is nothing compared to the hammer blow suffered by President François Hollande of France and his ruling Socialists. Mr Hollande’s cup of woe is truly overflowing after the victory of the far-right National Front. Unlike Mr Renzi, Mr Hollande and Manuel Valls, his newly appointed prime minister, have been rejected by the electorate just as they are embarking on a much-overdue renewal of the French economy and the state’s role in public life.

Elsewhere in the EU, those on the up include Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s conservative prime minister, whose Fidesz party secured the biggest victory anywhere – over 50 per cent of the vote. This will prove awkward for Fidesz’s partners in the centre-right European People’s party, which will be the largest group in the next EU parliament. Many are uncomfortable with Mr Orbán’s high-handed methods of government and nationalist leanings.

Another man on the up is Andrej Babis, the Czech Republic’s finance minister. A billionaire businessman whose unconventional style has transformed Czech politics over the past three years, he has just led his ANO party to first place in the EU elections. Yet he and his party are extraordinarily difficult to place on the European political spectrum. He has been negotiating to join the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe in the parliament, but this has not yet happened. The task of reading the results are also hampered by a very low turnout in the Czech Republic, a trend also evident across parts of eastern Europe.

Mr Babis’s rise to prominence reflects a broader pattern of declining public trust in Europe’s traditional parties of right, centre and left. The EU election results show that insurgents in many countries are benefiting from this trend – without yet actually storming the citadels of power.