After months of hand-wringing about the potential for radical right-wing parties to sweep to power in this year's European Parliament elections and fundamentally change EU policymaking, the illiberal revolution didn't happen. While some far-right parties made gains, liberal centrists will remain in the driver's seat.

The way to defeat the populist far right, it seems, is to oppose it tooth and nail. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk can attest to that. Since ousting Poland's populist Law and Justice (PiS) party from power last fall, he has been uncompromising in opposing the anti-democratic illiberalism that it represents. And in the European Parliament election, his Civic Coalition (KO) had the best performance of all major mainstream parties in the EU, securing a surprising 37.1% of the vote.

To be sure, the result confirms the enduring strength of PiS's populist base. Even with a low turnout in the countryside, the party can count on a minimum of 30% support. Tusk succeeded not because PiS has grown substantially weaker, but because he made this election about the very fate of the European Union. He framed it as a contest between his coalition and all parties - not just PiS - that oppose the EU.

Within Poland, KO's victory should improve the chances of its likely presidential candidate, Warsaw Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski, in next year's election. A Trzaskowski victory over the incumbent, PiS stalwart Andrzej Duda, is crucial to reversing the damage done after PiS's near decade in power.

KO's success has implications for all of Europe. Following the defeat of French President Emmanuel Macron's Renaissance party, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz's coalition, and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez's Socialists, Poland's influence as a representative of the European center has grown significantly. Tusk is now the de facto (winningest) leader of the largest faction in the European People's Party (EPP), the pan-European grouping of mainstream conservatives and centrists that won the most seats overall.

But this is not to suggest that Tusk's victory was exceptional. For all the fears of a far-right wave, there was no Europe-wide illiberal revolution. The same centrist parties that have controlled the European Parliament for many years retained a safe majority of 453 seats (out of 720). Though populists won in France (spectacularly), Italy, and Austria, they will not hold enough seats to reverse or fundamentally change EU policy. Moreover, the far right is itself divided between several factions.

In Germany, the Greens and the Free Democrats have been weakened, but the center-right Christian Democrats remain strong within the EPP. And since a majority coalition is unlikely - if not impossible - without the EPP's participation, Ursula von der Leyen's position as president of the European Commission is probably safe. Operating from the center, she will be able to build different coalitions to address controversial issues - for example, by relying on the right on immigration, and on the left with respect to green policy.

The biggest concern for Europe now lies in France, which can export chaos to the rest of the EU. Marine Le Pen's far-right National Rally beat Macron's party by a two-to-one margin. Macron will now face three years of paralysis and dysfunction before the next French presidential election, which will further increase the likelihood of a Le Pen victory. Macron has already responded by announcing a snap parliamentary election. While Le Pen's favored candidates are almost certain to win the largest share of support in many first-round votes, the second round is what matters.

One big problem for Macron is that he is now the far left's bête noire. Unlike in the past, there is no guarantee that a majority of French voters will unite against far-right candidates in the second round. The Macronists thus have already signaled that they will not field their own candidate in races where a candidate representing the broader left stands a good chance of beating Le Pen's candidate. They also will be betting on the assumption that voters tend to behave more "irresponsibly" in European elections (where the stakes are seen to be lower) than they do in national elections.

If Le Pen does win a majority in the French parliament, Macron will be stuck with a hostile cohabitation arrangement. Though he will still represent France at the European Council, Le Pen's allies may represent the country at various sectoral councils (such as summits of foreign ministers). These changes would not yet alter France's overall position in the EU, however, because many decisions require a majority, not unanimity; Le Pen's ministers may simply end up on the losing side of the vote. Moreover, Le Pen is unlikely to challenge von der Leyen's re-election.

For his part, Macron seems to have judged that a Le Pen victory in the snap election is worth the risk. Giving her party control over parliament - and thus a responsibility to demonstrate leadership, rather than merely sniping from the opposition seats - could well bleed it of support over the next three years. And if Le Pen fails to win a majority, the task of forming a new government will return to Macron, who could still form a minority government with tacit parliamentary backing. In this scenario, Macron would have many opportunities to rebuild his support in the coming years, because the French system affords the president far-reaching powers, including the authority to pass a budget by decree.

In sum, while the far right is celebrating for now, this was no illiberal sea change. Once again, Tusk has shown that right-wing populists can be beaten back.

From Project Syndicate

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