The panelists discuss the major takeaways of the recent elections to the European Parliament, including the implications for the populist right, Brexit, and the future of European integration.
Visiting Senior Fellow
TREVELYAN: Hello, everybody. I’m Laura Trevelyan. I’m an anchor and correspondent with BBC’s World News channel. Thank you so much for joining us for this Council on Foreign Relations conference call.
And I’m delighted this afternoon to introduce you to our speakers. We have James Goldgeier, visiting senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and also Charlie Kupchan, who is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. And we’re going to talk about Europe’s recent parliamentary elections.
So for those of you who have not grown up with Europe, as I did, I’ll just give you a little primer on the European Parliament. So it’s made up of 751 members. They’re called members of the European Parliament. The parliament has been directly elected since 1979. And the way the parliament works is there are MEPs’ sitting groups. They sit next to the people that they share ideas with; so center-left, center-right, green, liberals, that kind of thing; Euroskeptics.
And the power that the parliament has really is to change laws. The European Commission is the initiator of laws, and then parliament can debate and change them. So these European parliamentary elections were very closely watched. They had the highest turnout in years, over 50 percent.
And to give an overview of the results, I’d first of all like to invite Charlie and James to give us their analysis on that. We’re going to talk for about twenty minutes. And then at twenty-five past the hour we’ll open it up to questions from all of you. So please do think of any questions that you’d like to ask our experts.
So, first of all, James, if you could just give us an overview of the results, please.
GOLDGEIER: Well, I think the most important thing to say about the results is that this is the first time in forty years that the two biggest groupings, the center-left and center-right, don’t command an outright majority together. They both lost enough seats that now they depend on others in terms of trying to build coalitions within the parliament.
You have the Liberal and Democrat group, the third group led by Emmanuel Macron, who, you know, everybody’s been focused on the fact that his—within France itself, Marine Le Pen’s party came out slightly ahead of his. But that was expected, and so I don’t think that’s as big a deal to him as the fact that he’s in a really good position to—as the negotiations begin over the top positions in the EU, that he brings his bloc to bear in those conversations.
Worth noting the strength of the populists on the right in the UK with Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, with Le Pen, France, with Salvini in Italy. And the greens are going to be very happy, especially given the demographics that favor them. You have a lot of youth who turned out to vote green, who want climate change to be taken seriously. I think we see that in both Europe and the United States, and I think that that’s—you know, from the Green Party standpoint, that’s a good sign for their future.
The only—the last thing I would say is that it’s important to just remember the big thing in front of the EU in the near term is picking the top positions, the president of the parliament, the president of the European Commission. You know, it’s basically the bureaucracy of the EU—the president of the European Council, the council being the heads of state and government; the high rep for foreign policy; and then the head of the European Central Bank.
And, you know, given the election results and the losses suffered by the top two parties, there’s going to be a lot of horse trading taking place in the coming weeks.
TREVELYAN: There certainly is; horse trading being the key.
I should have said this at the beginning, sorry, but this call is on the record. And before I bring in Charlie for his overview, I’ll just give you the statistics as we have them in the parliament. So, remember, there are 751 seats. And James was talking there about the different groupings.
So the European People’s Party, which is the center-right, currently has 180 seats. The Social Democrats have 145. So those are the two traditional groupings that lost ground. The liberals are on 109, greens on sixty-nine. So that’s 503 for what you might broadly say pro-European parties. But then the more populist right and the Euroskeptic groups, they currently have 171 seats between them.
So Charlie, with that in mind, could you give us your overview of the results, please?
KUPCHAN: Sure. And just to add a quick description so people get a sense of what’s happening now, there aren’t pan-European parties in this election. The candidates run as members, as candidates for individual national parties. And then once they get to the European Union Parliament, they enter into groupings based upon their ideological persuasion. And then those groupings start to negotiate with each other to form blocs.
And as Jim said, for the first time in a long time, the two main parties, center-left and center-right, do not have a working majority. And that therefore means that they will have to reach out to the liberals and/or the greens to get a majority. And that means that the governing majority in the European Parliament will be more fragmented, less focused than it has been in the past.
The good news for those who are pro-Europe and pro-European integration is that the far right, the populists, the Euroskeptics, did not enjoy the huge surge that many feared. They went up from roughly 20 to 25 percent. But this is not an election that suggests that the wheels are coming off on the project of European integration.
On the other side of the ledger, you know, I think the $6 million question here is, is the populism that we’re seeing in Europe and in the United States abating? Have we hit an inflection point or a tipping point? And the answer to that is the election doesn’t give us a clear answer. We have too many data points on both sides.
You know, on the one hand, the populists didn’t do as well as expected. On the other hand, they’ve done better than ever. On the one hand, you have elections in Spain where the center-left does well, both nationally and in the elections over the weekend. On the other hand, you have data points that suggest that center-right and center-left are both in deep trouble.
Look at Hungary, where Orbán got over 50 percent. Look at Italy, where the center has not held and the League did very well in the votes for the European Parliament.
So bottom line is I think we’re still in a holding pattern. You know, we don’t know which way the political forces will go in the days ahead. But I do think it’s worth pointing out that in France the populist party, the National Rally, did come out on top. Macron doesn’t have as much wind in his sails as I think the pro-European folks would like and so, again, I end up saying that this is an election that is more of a kind of holding pattern than a decisive signal one way or the other about the fortunes of the center versus the populists.
TREVELYAN: Indeed, so I thank you very much for that, Charlie.
So James, if we look at the founders of the European project, France and Germany, who after the Second World War, it was their leaders who felt that this was the way to ensure peace and prosperity in Europe, and those two capitals, Paris and Berlin, have been at the heart of the European project for more than seventy years. And they—the European project has fared rather differently in both of those countries, didn’t it?
Just talk us through the results in Germany and in France if you could, please, James.
GOLDGEIER: Well, I mean, I think the big picture—you know, you’re right. I mean, this is the—you know, France and Germany have been the engines, and if you were looking for Europe to, you know, do more with respect to integration, you know, to push the European project forward, certainly to go back to when Macron came in as president—you know, he had such huge ambitions for what Europe could do; you know, wanted to, you know, have greater reform within the Eurozone; wanted to create a finance minister; I mean, wanted to do both fiscal and monetary policy in the EU—was looking when he came in to partner with Germany on that.
You know, Merkel was weakened politically that year and continued to be weakened, and in this election we see that the center—really suffering mightily in Germany. And so it’s really hard to see the—you know, the path forward for that kind of—even with, as you pointed out, the five hundred or, you know, so seats, you know, clearly with, you know, center-right, center-left, greens, and the alliance of liberals and democrats within the European parliament, you know, pushing forward on the European project and addressing some of the weaknesses in Europe is going to be rather difficult.
It was interesting—I was in Brussels all of last week, and there was—there was—I mean, the two big, big issues that I heard from people, you know, one, the concern about just the increased fragmentation that was going to be coming in the parliament and just that it would just make things that much harder for the parliament to act because of the failure of the center-right and center-left to stay where they were. And the other was people had sort of all these fantasies that Merkel—that because there would be deadlock on the negotiations on the top positions that Merkel would emerge as the next president of the European Council. And that doesn’t seem particularly likely, especially because it now appears that what she most wants to do is to try to stay in power until 2021 and not have a succession process within her party in Germany at this point, and to try to see what she can do to recover somewhat.
TREVELYAN: Interesting. Now in Germany, of course, the greens got over 20 percent of the vote, as well in Britain and elsewhere in Europe.
Charlie, what do you think this means? And what could it even mean for policy if the European Commission itself was receptive to this strong showing by the greens?
KUPCHAN: Well, the overall pattern of European elections over the last five-plus years has been that the mainstream parties have continued to lose market share even though they have remained in power. So the center has generally held, but it has shrunk. The main exception to that general statement is in Italy where the center did not hold, and you now have a populist government in charge, and that is, I think, a very important data point because if it can happen in Italy, which is a founding member of the EU, it can probably happen anywhere. So, you know, this story is not over yet.
The greens have done extremely well in the EP—the European Parliament elections. They did extremely well in the recent German elections, and I think there are a couple of different things going on there. One is growing concern about climate; that the green agenda is catching on in ways that it hadn’t until now. And the other is that the greens are the beneficiaries of the hard times that social democrats are finding for themselves.
The Socialist Party in France barely has a heartbeat. The Social Democrats in Germany are sinking day by day—sinking so much that people are talking about them potentially pulling out of the grand coalition that they are now in with Merkel, and then who knows what would happen in Germany.
The immediate consequences I think will be greater sensitivity to issues of climate change because the greens are now kingmakers of sorts, particularly if they end up joining the governing coalition in the European Parliament, and support for climate legislation, doing more to curb greenhouse gases, is something that is broadly shared across the political spectrum, both center-left and center-right in Europe with the exception of the populists, but they are not going to be in a position to veto these kinds of issues. They will make legislation more difficult. They could engage in activities similar to what we call a filibuster in the United States to muck up votes in the European Parliament. But they do not have the strength at this point to be a deal breaker. So I do expect to see more movement on the climate front.
TREVELYAN: Thank you, Charlie. Now of course one of the oddities of this election was that Britain, despite having voted to leave the EU in a referendum almost three years ago, still hasn’t been able to agree on the terms of its departure because parliament is divided. And so, therefore, because Britain is still in the EU, Britain had to contest the European election, slightly at the last minute, and what happened was that Nigel Farage, who used to lead something called the UK Independence Party but then founded a new party called the Brexit Party, his party—well, they got over 30 percent of the vote, the biggest single party, the victors of that election.
So—(laughs)—Britain, of course, is supposed to leave the EU by Halloween. That’s the new deadline. But James, can you just talk a little bit about—you were just in Brussels—(laughs)—about how you think this result in Britain is going to go down in the corridors of power in Brussels, and what they make of it, and what it could mean for Brexit?
GOLDGEIER: Well, you know, as you can imagine—(laughs)—everyone in Brussels is rather sick of the whole thing, and especially just because of how much oxygen it sucks up. You know, I mean, it’s—the UK itself, the government itself can’t really do anything else at this point, and I think, you know, it’s just exasperation in Brussels about all of this. And I think that exasperation is going to grow, especially I think—you know, you’ve got, you know, the Conservative Party looking at this and thinking about how it can sort of recapture support, and basically the attitude right now seems to be, well, the best way to, you know, bring voters back—you know, to the conservatives who voted for the Brexit Party is to just say, OK, you know, we’re for a no-deal Brexit and, you know, we’ll commit to leaving on October 31 and just, you know, go for the hard Brexit, which, you know, doesn’t—I mean, it just doesn’t really make a lot of sense. Then you know, there’s—or have the parliamentary support.
Then you have the—all the jockeying for position to leave the Conservative Party with Prime Minister May’s announcement of her stepping down and, you know, there’s a lot of—of course, in Europe, you know, the concern is that Boris Johnson would be the next prime minister. There are a lot of candidates running, and I think the general sentiment is that if he can get himself into the final two, at which point it goes to the Tory rank and file, that he will then—that if he gets in the final two, he would become prime minister because he has so much support among the rank and file. But it’s not a given that he can get himself to the final two.
And then, you know, those who are arguing, oh, you know, we can negotiate a better deal than the one that May negotiated don’t really have a leg to stand on because the European Union—if there’s one thing the European Union is right now, it is united that, you know, they have offered a deal, there’s a withdrawal agreement on the table; that’s the agreement that the British need to agree to and there’s not going to be a renegotiation.
TREVELYAN: Charlie, when you look at the results in Britain, although Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party emerged with over 30 percent of the vote, actually, the pro-European parties together across the United Kingdom got a bigger share of the vote. Do you think there’s any prospect at all in Britain of a second referendum, which of course I’m sure many in Brussels would quite like to see?
KUPCHAN: You know, I still think that the—that the chances of a second referendum are low, and that, Laura, the reality that you just pointed out explains why the country is paralyzed. And that is that, you know, you have passionate leavers and passionate stayers. There is no seeming majority or center of gravity to push this issue in a—in a clear direction, which is why May is basically throwing in the towel and stepping down.
And I guess my read on the outcome is that a hard Brexit is now more likely because the Brexit Party came in number one. The likely successor to May I’m guessing will lean in the direction of getting on with it, whether that means a new deal or simply leaving without a deal. So in general I would say things are looking bleaker and bleaker for the UK
And just one broader comment. I do worry that what we’re going to see emerge is a timid EU—timid because the coalition that’s governing the parliament is more unwieldy; timid because the results of this election, in some ways they send shots across the bow of leaders like Merkel and like Macron. And I—you know, I feel that the status quo is not a good place for Europe to be. Europe needs to move on the defense front. It needs to move on eurozone integration and stimulating growth because it needs to re-legitimate the project in the eyes of voters. And I’m not sure that what the outcome of this vote will be will be that kind of forward momentum.
And I think Jim already mentioned, though, you have in Macron someone who has been laying out really ambitious visions. You have for the first time in decades a European leaders who’s actually fighting for Europe—giving speeches, writing letters, public letters in newspapers. But there’s just a deafening silence, particularly from Germany. Merkel has really done very little to give Macron support in building a more effective Europe, and I fear that the outcome of this election is going to make Germany even more timid when it comes to the kinds of reforms that are needed.
TREVELYAN: Very interesting. And so, meanwhile, today Europe’s national leaders are grappling with this new political reality. They’re meeting in Brussels to start what’s an often-protracted process of filling the EU’s top posts, the presidencies of the European Central Bank and the European Commission. The executive arm of the EU are up for grabs. The parliament has a say in choosing those positions. And, James, given that fragmentation and polarization seems to be really one of the results of these elections, what’s that going to mean for the top jobs and who gets them, do you think?
GOLDGEIER: Well, it means we’ve got some really tough negotiations ahead. I think—you know, there’s been a lot of speculation, I think. You know, nobody has any idea who’s going to get these positions. The one thing we do know is that in the negotiations, you know, everybody’s going to want to get something. And they are also—when they do these negotiations, they’re also very mindful of gender balance. They’re mindful of geographic balance. You know, you’ve got to think about north and south, and east and west, and small and large countries. And so I think there’s just a lot of confusion about how this is going to play out.
You know, there had been this notion of the—that the process would be one in which the person who led the largest grouping—Manfred Weber, who leads the center-right—that he would be in line to become the commission president. But there seems to be plenty of opposition to that. And so I think, you know, that it’s a wide-open question. Again, that’s where Macron is going to be so important, and he has a very strong ally in Mark Rutte, the prime minister of the Netherlands. So I think, you know, it’s anybody’s guess.
And then once the commission president is chosen then, you know, that’ll have an impact on the council president, as well as on the high rep for foreign policy and national security. European Central bank, there are a couple of Finnish bank governors that people are looking at, especially those who do not want to see the head of the Bundesbank become the head of the European Central Bank. So there’s—it’s going to be—it’s going to be a lot of—lot of negotiation and a lot of people trying to, you know, get something as these positions get talked about.
TREVELYAN: Well, thank you both so much for those overviews.
We’re now going to open the floor for questions. I just want to remind all participants that this call is on the record, and I hope all of you have many questions about these fascinating results. And I’d like to ask the operator to please give you all instructions for asking a question.
OPERATOR: At this time we will open the floor for questions.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
TREVELYAN: And just while people are queuing, I’m just going to briefly ask Charlie just to tell us about Steve Bannon, architect of President Trump’s election victory, and his role in the European Parliament campaigns.
KUPCHAN: Well, after he left the White House, Bannon has been spending a lot of time in Europe trying to organize what some folks call the populist international. And he has had a certain amount of success in that there has been an effort led mainly by Mr. Salvini, the deputy prime minister in Italy, to put together a working coalition of far-right parties.
One of the things we haven’t yet talked about is the degree to which those parties are less likely to cooperate with each other than other parties of other ideological persuasions, in part because they’re all nationalists. Like Trump and America first, it’s Italy first, it’s Hungary first, it’s Poland first. And that’s one of the reasons that up till now these parties have been spread across different groupings in the European Parliament, which to some extent dilutes their impact.
KUPCHAN: I don’t think that’s going to change. I don’t think they’re going to be able to form a unified bloc.
And it’s interesting that Bannon has to some extent been pushed out of the limelight by the European populists. And that’s in part because Trump is not a very popular person in most European countries, including among far-right parties. The one—the one exception to that might be Hungary or possibly a few people in Poland because they’re courting Trump. But in general, the president of the United States, even among right-wing populists, is not a—someone that they want to cozy up to in Europe.
TREVELYAN: OK, great.
So, Operator, if you could introduce our first questioner, please.
OPERATOR: Our first question comes from Katherine Hagen, the Global Social Observatory.
Q: Thank you so much. I’m based here in France and very much appreciate your comments about where things are going.
I liked what Laura Trevelyan had said about the fact that in the UK there were more votes in favor of pro-EU positions than Brexit positions. And I do think that’s worth looking at not only in terms of the fact that there is a larger proportion of people who do want to stay in the EU rather than who don’t, but more specifically because it’s different groups that seem to be attracting these votes. And in France, too, the commentary about Macron is that he got support from the center-left and center-right that have themselves disintegrated, so that it is a new center. And I’m just wondering if our speakers would comment about the prospects of this kind of momentum moving toward an entirely different concept of what is a pro-European central position as opposed to the more status-quo groups that have been involved in the past.
TREVELYAN: Yeah, so it’s a good question. So, James, is there a prospect for a new center emerging out of these disparate results?
GOLDGEIER: Well, I think that’s a really important point about sort of—about the strength of pro-Europe sentiment. And I think there, you know, a big factor in that has been Brexit.
You know, if you remember when Brexit—when the referendum was voted on in 2016, after the British voted in favor of Brexit there was a lot of feat that you would have Nexit and Frexit and Italiexit and, you know, all the other countries would be also looking to leave. And you had leader like Salvini or like Le Pen talking about how it—you know, they wanted their countries to leave the European Union. But everybody has watched Brexit with such horror and, you know, really brought home—I mean, you know, everything about the Brexit discussion leading up to the referendum in 2016 was—you know, there was a lot of slogans thrown around and a lot of discussion about how easy it would be and how great it would be. And then reality hit, and now people realize this is not a good thing. For whatever country you’re in, it’s not a good thing to crash out of the European Union.
And so I think, you know, that Brexit has really helped galvanize sentiment in favor of Europe. And you know, even the Salvinis and the Le Pens, you know, are talking about the need for reform. They’re not talking anymore about crashing out of the European Union. And so I do think that provides a real opportunity for new visions for what the center means.
KUPCHAN: I would just add, Laura, that—
TREVELYAN: And, Charlie, what are your thoughts? Yeah, go on.
KUPCHAN: —that I think a good place for a centrist to be is in the camp of what I would call progressive populism because, you know, we are witnessing lots of angry voters on both sides of the Atlantic, and it turns out that the ones who are winning are those who take on the establishment. Barack Obama was a populist in the sense that he overturned the Democratic Party that was owned by Hillary Clinton. Macron did the same thing. He ran against the French establishment and to some extent brought down the traditional political system, but he’s a centrist. And so I think one way to kind of see the task ahead is to find centrist candidates who are also able to tap into the anger and the populism because, if not, those voters will continue moving to the far right and the far left.
TREVELYAN: Well, thank you so much for those answers, and Katherine for an excellent question.
Operator, could you please introduce the next questioner?
OPERATOR: Yes, ma’am. Our next question comes from Seth Johnson, Harvard University.
Q: Hi. Good morning, everyone. Thanks very much.
About one week ago the president of the French National Assembly and four or five of his predecessors had an op-ed in Le Figaro condemning foreign influence in these elections. And they were mostly talking about Steve Bannon, who we’ve already addressed. But these leaders also spoke to Russia as a source of foreign influence, and of course we’ve seen that in other elections in the West over the last few years. Have there been any indications, evidence, or discussion that you’ve seen so far about Russian or other foreign influence in these elections?
TREVELYAN: Well, James, you were in Brussels last week. Was there any talk of that over there?
GOLDGEIER: Well, I mean, in that regard a lot of the talk was over the Austrian government, you know, which just fell over the fact that a leading politician within the Austrian government had a nefarious connection with the Russians.
And so I mean, I think, you know, we should have the general expectation that the Russians will continue to want to interfere in our electoral systems, our electoral processes. You know, Putin has had the goal for some time now of trying to push back against what he saw as the West’s efforts to establish its hegemony in Europe and its domination over Russia. And you know, we’ve seen him in various ways push back against that and try to strengthen his own position within his own regime. And you know, I mean, in terms of interference and, you know, sort of information manipulation and all that sort of thing, I mean, this is something the Soviets were doing during that period of Russian history. So I don’t—I don’t think it’s—you know, the tools—the tools Putin has are different than the ones his Soviet predecessors had, but it’s sort of a well-worn tradition and something that we should continue to expect. But I don’t—you know, it wasn’t a big story in these elections.
A bigger story was that people cared enough to come out and vote. The fact that the turnout was much higher than it had been previously, the fact that you have young people coming out to vote the way we saw young people voting in 2018 in the United States. I think this is—this is a sign that, you know, people want to take control over their futures. And I think that’s the—that’s the big story.
And you know, Russian election manipulation, you know, as long as it’s not messing with the voter—voting systems, the election—the information manipulation is really an issue of population susceptibility to the kinds of things that the Russians are peddling. And to the extent that our own populations aren’t susceptible to that, it won’t really have much of an impact.
TREVELYAN: Charlie, do you have anything on this? Because, of course, the Europeans have been very tough, haven’t they, on Facebook and wanting them to crack down on all forms of disinformation.
KUPCHAN: Yeah, I mean, I more or less agree with Jim. I think it is interesting that it wasn’t a big story. That doesn’t suggest to me that it wasn’t happening, but that it’s been—it’s been contained or to some extent priced in.
And I also think that it does vary country by country in the sense that the Russians prey on countries that are already deeply polarized. They have been very successful in the United States because the United States is fertile ground. Germany, for example, doesn’t have the same scope of ideological polarization, and that just makes it a little bit more difficult for the Russians to ply their trade.
TREVELYAN: Great. Thank you. Thank you so much to our questioner.
And, Operator, if you could introduce the next questioner, please.
OPERATOR: Yes, ma’am. Our next question comes from Stewart Ain, The Jewish Week.
Q: Hi. I was hoping maybe you could tell us how these elections—what they say about the rise in anti-Semitism that we’re seeing throughout Germany and Europe.
TREVELYAN: Charlie, what do you have to say on that issue?
KUPCHAN: I don’t—I don’t think the elections themselves tell us a whole lot. You know, clearly, the—we knew that the—that the far right was doing well, and now we know that they’ve increased their electoral share. But I think that we come into the elections with, well, a strong awareness that anti-Semitism is on the rise. It is—it is part and parcel of the populism and the nativism and the nationalism that is surging in our—in our democracies.
I found it interesting I think it was in yesterday’s New York Times a story that a federal official in Germany has suggested that religious Jews not wear their kippah out in the street—wear a hat, wear something else—because it’s becoming dangerous to walk around and be visibly Jewish. Anti-Semitic acts have been rising sharply in many European countries. And some leaders, like Viktor Orbán, are in not-so-subtle ways actually deploying anti-Semitism for political gain.
So I think these are very worrying developments and that one of the—one of the tasks, I think, of centrist politicians is to try to—to try to beat back these appeals. And I have to say that, as here in the United States, I’m distressed by the degree to which this kind of political pandering is finding a great deal of traction.
TREVELYAN: James, do you have something to add on anti-Semitism and the—and the European parliamentary elections?
GOLDGEIER: I think Charlie covered it pretty well there.
Q: Thank you very much.
TREVELYAN: Operator—yes, thank you for that question.
Operator, if you could introduce the next questioner, please.
OPERATOR: OK. Our next question comes from Kat Lucero, MLex Market Insight.
Q: Hi. Thanks for the call.
I was just—my question is, what does this mean for the U.S.-EU trade deal that the two sides have initially decided to work on? What’s the fate of that? Is there still an appetite?
TREVELYAN: Excellent question.
James, we’ll start with you, please.
GOLDGEIER: Well, I mean, you know, the prospects for a trade deal between the U.S. and Europe any time soon, I think, is—the prospects aren’t good. I mean, you know, the U.S. and Europe were working on this for quite some time in the previous administration. You know, there have been—you know, a lot of the discussions, of course, have been in the other direction because of the tariffs and discussions about whether or not the United States would insist on Europe going—supporting voluntary export restraints the way the United States pushed on Japan in the 1980s.
So I don’t—I don’t see this administration making huge moves in the direction of a trade deal. And I think once you get—once, in the United States, we get caught up in the 2020 election process, then I think it becomes even harder. We’re seeing—you know, we’re already—there’s a big question as to whether the New NAFTA can get passed within Congress.
And I just don’t see a big pro-trade coalition in the United States right now. And in my view that’s unfortunate, but I just don’t see a big coalition in the United States. And, of course, within Europe, a lot’s going to have to get sorted out, as we’ve been discussing, with a parliament that’s fragmented and what that means for the various top positions within the EU.
TREVELYAN: And Charlie, did you have anything to add on that thought of a U.S.-EU trade deal and the prospects?
KUPCHAN: The one data point on the other side of the ledger would be that the liberals are likely to be in the governing coalition, and the liberals are generally market-oriented, pro-free traders.
But I agree with Jim that the prospects are pretty dim. The growing strength of the greens and their desire to put environmental standards in any agreement will make things more difficult. And it’s difficult, I think, to overstate the degree to which there remains a lot of skepticism across Europe, popular skepticism, about the liberalization of trade with the United States. The Obama administration ran up against that big time.
And now that you have what I would say is a post-World War II low point in relations between the United States and Europe, I don’t see much political gain to any leader standing up and saying I just struck a deal with Donald Trump and we’re going to close a new trade agreement. I think it’s very unlikely.
TREVELYAN: Thank you for that. Excellent question, Kat. Thanks.
Operator, if you could introduce the next questioner, please.
OPERATOR: Yes, ma’am.
(Gives queueing instructions.)
Our next question comes from Damian Bernard (sp), de Witt (sp)—de Witt (sp).
Q: Hi, everyone. Thank you for this opportunity and the great insights today.
You guys mentioned the Greens getting more seats and more momentum behind it in France and Germany, and there’s a chance to kind of maybe take more action at the EU Brussels level on climate in the next couple years. What do you guys see as potential pro-climate efforts or important upcoming national elections in, say, 2019 or even 2020 that have an impact on some of the climate policy that the Greens and others are going to try and do at the Brussels level?
TREVELYAN: Interesting. Charlie, what do you have to say on that one?
KUPCHAN: I’m going to have to defer to Jim on specifics, because he just came from Brussels and he may have picked up items that are on the agenda when it comes to the environment.
It is, I think, a particularly important issue in Germany, where the greens are doing well and where the country is trying to both get rid of its nuclear-power generation and also to cut back on power generation through fossil fuels. And so this is an increasingly big issue in Germany.
I would also point out that the rising fortunes of the greens—it’s not just about the appeal of the environment. It’s that the green party has, to some extent, become more mainstream. It has moved to the center. It has stolen a lot of the voters from the Social Democrat. And so that’s one reason to think that this is not just about an insurgent environmental policy. It is about a reformulation of the political landscape in which an increasing number of left-leaning voters are defecting from the Social Democrats and moving to the greens.
But Jim, do you have any thoughts—
TREVELYAN: Jim, do you think—
KUPCHAN: —on specifics?
GOLDGEIER: Yeah. I don’t any insight into specific policies that we will see being proposed on the environment.
I’ll just add on to what Charlie just said in terms of sort of the general overall leanings of those who vote Green and what we’ve seen historically, because, you know, the big—one of the big concerns that I heard last week was, for those people who would like to see the Europeans do more on defense and, you know, really create more of a strategic capability and would like to see some of these processes within the EU that are designed to strengthen the European commitment to defense within the EU and not just as, you know, member countries within NATO.
You know, given historically the green position on the left, I think that may well complicate efforts as—they were already complicated. I mean, for Europe to move forward in a coherent manner on defense is rather difficult. Again, that’s another place where Macron would really like to see more happening within Europe among European countries. But I think that that will just get more complicated as the Greens continue to do well.
TREVELYAN: Thanks for the question, Damian.
Operator, if you’d like to introduce our next questioner, please.
Q: We have no further questions in the queue at this time.
TREVELYAN: OK, so in which case I’d just like to turn to both of you, Charlie and Jim, for some closing thoughts, really, about, you know, when the next European Parliament elections are held, what sort of a landscape we may face, because it is a very interesting time. And we have pivotal national elections coming up, not least here in the United States; not that we’re in the EU, but we are so extremely influential, as we’ve seen that President Trump’s populism has been mirrored in Europe.
So, yeah, I’d just like to ask you both, if you could, for some closing thoughts. And now, James, let’s start with you.
GOLDGEIER: Well, I do think it’s worth remembering that if the—I mean, if Brexit really does go forward on October 31st and the UK goes out of the EU and, you know, there’s a no-deal Brexit, I mean, that takes the parliamentarians out of the EU and you then have to, you know, recalculate what the lineup looks like within a parliament that doesn’t include the UK representatives. So—and then, you know, there’s going to be a—you know, a new calculation with respect to seats and all of that.
So I think that there’s—I think on—to me, the big issue is just how much uncertainty there is compared to the past. Again, you don’t have the two big blocs being able to run the show on their own. They do depend on other parties. They will depend on other parties. We’ll have to see what kind of shifting coalitions come about within the European Parliament and thus—and then what that does as the heads of state and government begin, as they are today, their discussions about who should be proposed for these big positions within the European Union.
I just—to me, the uncertainty surrounding what the composition of the new parliament means, the uncertainty that continues to surround the UK’s relationship with the European Union, remain the big stories.
And Charlie, you know, it’s always said, isn’t it, in U.S. diplomacy the big question is when I want to get Europe on the phone, who do I call? Has that question just become even more complicated?
KUPCHAN: You know, I guess I’d start with picking up on Jim’s comment about the greens and defense, because, you know, as I said earlier, I think that one of the most important takeaways from the populist surge on both sides of the Atlantic is that they are providing a wakeup call.
We cannot afford to dismiss this as some sort of fleeting aberration and that we’ll all wake up from the nightmare and everything will be back to normal. And we know that because it’s systemic. It’s happening in the U.S., in the UK, in Poland, in Hungary, in Italy, in Turkey. Twenty-five percent of the European Parliament is going to be in the hands of folks.
And so I think the key is, well, what do we need to do to make voters feel more satisfied? What’s the problem? And one thing that Europe can do is to become more capable on the defense front, to show that it can provide security for its citizens. That has just become harder because the greens in general have not been very supportive of spending more on defense and seeing Germany become a more normal country.
And I think that the uncertainty that Jim just talked about is magnified by the fact that in my mind there are two urgent, pressing questions. One is, what’s the future of work? What are normal Americans and Europeans going to do 10 years from now to earn a living wage? And the other is immigration. And it seems to me that those are the two key issues that underlie the shakiness that we now see in liberal democracy.
I’m hoping that the new European Parliament and the member states can attack head on those two issues, the future of work and immigration. But I worry that the results—the polarization, the fragmentation—are going to make it—are going to make it more difficult. As I said, now is not the time for timidity when it comes to addressing the issues that are disaffecting voters.
TREVELYAN: Charlie Kupchan and James Goldgeier, thank you so much for all of those thoughts.
Thank you to everybody who took the time to be on the call. Thank you for your very thoughtful questions. Thank you also to our operator.
These are indeed uncertain and febrile times, as reflected in these extremely diverse European Parliament results.
So thank you all for joining us, and I hope you have a great afternoon. Thanks.
KUPCHAN: Thanks, Laura.
GOLDGEIER: Thank you, Laura, for chairing.
KUPCHAN: Bye, bye, everyone.
GOLDGEIER: Bye, guys.
TREVELYAN: Bye, everyone. Thanks for joining us.