Election clash over government’s role – Europe last week, U.S. next year

In European restaurants, dishes on the menu have footnotes, numbers that are a key to the food allergies of each item.

The European Union has issued a rule requiring this information.  To some, this rule might seem like overkill.  Maybe customers should take of themselves.

That sort of EU power represented the main issue in last week’s elections for the European Parliament.  Parties in control of several countries lean to the far right and want to weaken the EU.  Others argue that a more unified Europe produces benefits that individual countries can’t.

These European elections, for a population far greater than the US, might be a preview of next year’s presidential and congressional elections.  On both sides of the Atlantic, right-wing parties want to reduce the power of the central government.

The forecasts were for a low turnout and major gains for the far-right, led by the Brexit Party, which wants to get the U.K. out of the EU.  By the same token, if the American turnout is low next years, pundits might reasonably expect Trump Republicans to strengthen their hold on government.

I was in Europe during the voting and found the results surprising.  Turnout was greater than it has been in 25 years and increased for the first time in 40 years.  Although the hard-right parties gained, the left Greens and Liberal Democrats did even better.

The governing parties of the center lost seats, but more went to the left than to the right.  Overall, that left the European Parliament still under the solid control of pro-Europeans.

In Britain, the parties on either side of the Brexit battle each received the same amount of support.  The traditional Conservative and Labour Parties that have waffled on the issue were blasted in the elections.  The result could be anything from an early exit to a new UK referendum.

While the results seem to mean greater American-style polarization, it more importantly shows the growing strength of the political left.  The increased turnout seems to have been driven, at least in some countries, by young voters sending the message they like Europe, even with its rules.

To take just one practical example, the EU outlawed roaming charges on cell phones on Europe, overriding national borders.  Young people like to be able to call from Estonia to Portugal without such charges.

What might the European elections forecast for the 2020 elections in the U.S.?

The left is a strong and growing political force.  It is obviously gaining support in reaction to right-wing moves in national parliaments.  As Brexit turns the U.K. to the right, the Greens rise.  The British Liberal Democrats, once thought to be almost dead, has surged past the traditional parties.

That could mean that left-wing Democrats in the U.S. would not settle for middle-of-the-road leadership.  The rise of the left might not work as well as in Europe, because of the two party American system.

In fact, another message from Europe is that the right unifies more easily than the left.  If the Democrats splinter, that could allow for continued minority control by the Trump GOP.

Also, turnout seems to work as expected.  While small voter participation helps Republicans and the far-right, big numbers help Democrats.  That explains why the GOP seeks to suppress Democrats’ voting.  But young voters, especially those voting for the first time, can change the turnout considerably.

Political parties come and they may also go, if they really miss the mood of the electorate.  British Prime Minister Theresa May resigned, because she has failed to find a Brexit solution.  Her party almost disappeared in last week’s elections.  Traditional conservative parties elsewhere are also seriously challenged.

In the US, where Trump has captured the Republican Party, what would happen if there were a major Democratic victory in 2020?  Would more moderate Republicans take control, justifying Susan Collins’ party loyalty during the Trump presidency, or would the party be pushed aside by a new business-oriented party.

Trump will stress his friendship for the far-right leaders in Europe as a way of showing he is in the mainstream of a new brand of politics.  But the European result suggests that this new, nationalistic movement may have peaked.  Given a chance, it did not prevail.

Just as in Europe, the U.S. now faces an election that may be an historic turning point.  The 2020 election would either add momentum to Trump’s dismantling of the traditional federal government or it may be a complete rejection of attacks on government and renewed support for its role.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.