July heatwave luckily distracted public attention in Europe from disruption in another area: democracy. Few hot and bothered Europeans noticed that the political line they had been fed for at least three years had just been dropped. The media, busy with other investigations, did not try hard to alert them.
Hundreds of millions of European voters had been duped by the simplistic narrative that EU politics, and the EU parliamentary election this May, were a standoff between liberals and populists (1). On 2 July, with the new parliament elected, a European Council meeting recommended that Ursula von der Leyen, the German defence minister and a member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), become president of the European Commission. It is said President Emmanuel Macron had proposed her appointment; his proposal was taken up by German chancellor Angela Merkel, but also by Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán.
Yet ever since Macron’s own election, he had sworn that he would never yield to nationalists and populists, whom he described as promoting ‘sad passions’ and ‘ideas that have often lit fires in which Europe could have perished’. He added that they ‘lie to their peoples, promising them hatred’ (2), and defied Orbán and Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini, saying, ‘If they see me as their principal opponent, they are right.’
After the European Parliament confirmed the Council’s choice on 16 July, the alliances suggested by the campaign slogans — progressives vs nationalists — gave way to a different political configuration. Some socialist MEPs voted against Von der Leyen, especially French and Germans; and some for, particularly Spanish and Portuguese. But these last were joined by Polish nationalists and Orbán’s followers, whom French nationalist Marine Le Pen had been courting a few days earlier to form a common bloc in the European Parliament.
In the end, Von der Leyen was elected president with a majority of only nine votes, by a coalition including 13 Hungarian MEPs with allegiance to Orbán and 14 Italian populists from the Five Star Movement (M5S), then allies of Salvini.
These voting patterns are far removed from the story that well-behaved European children are told daily. Yet it’s likely that, even as temperatures in Europe cool, most journalists will still be using the artificial categories Macron has concocted for their benefit.