Dalibor Rohac

The EU election spells trouble for Ukraine

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and France's president Emmanuel Macron (Getty)

If one story dominates the cacophony of results of the European election from across the 27 countries of the Union, it is the defeat of incumbents in the EU’s largest member states: France and Germany. While their underperformance was expected, its aftershocks risk leaving Europe weak and ineffectual in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine. 

It is hard to see how Macron or Scholz will become bolder in their Ukrainian positions in the coming months

In France, president Emmanuel Macron responded to the poor performance of his party, Renaissance, by calling a snap election for 30 June – less than two weeks before Nato’s summit in Washington. 

The logic of his decision is simple: it is better to confront the National Rally (RN) of Jordan Bardella now than in 2027. Because of a higher turnout and a different voting system disadvantaging controversial and extremist candidates, Macron is hoping for one of two scenarios.

Under the first, he will demonstrate that the triumph of the nationalists was a one off, not a pattern that can be replicated in a national election. Under the second, nationalists become victims of their ill-timed success. Having to lead a government or being part of a governing coalition under Macron’s presidency makes it harder for them to run as bomb throwers and denounce Macron’s legacy by the time he leaves office. 

Yet, that plan is in tension with Macron’s to act as Europe’s leader in times of peril. At best, Renaissance will secure a slimmer majority than the one it currently holds. At worst, RN will lead the next French cabinet. Somewhere in between are scenarios that involve horse-trading and making compromises between forces that want Ukraine to win and nationalists who were long cosying up to Russia. Even if France’s constitution is deferential to the president on matters of foreign and defence policy, a thin or non-existent governing majority is bound to weaken Macron’s hand internationally. 

The results of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (13.9 per cent, or 14 seats in Germany’s 96-member delegation) might not look catastrophic by the standards of the most recent election when the SPD gained just 16 seats and also came third, but the results remain far behind the historic norm. In 2014, in contrast, the party gained over 27 per cent in the European election, receiving whooping 27 seats in the legislature. What is more damning is the fact that Olaf Scholz’s party is now trailing the Alternative for Germany, which was deemed too extreme by the leadership of France’s RN.

Jointly with the electoral meltdown of Greens, Scholz’s coalition partner, the result all-but-cements the chancellor’s status as a lame duck until the federal election in the fall of 2025. By then, a new Christian Democrat-led government might provide a much-needed break, especially given Friedrich Merz’s lip service to Atlanticism and to the Ukrainian cause, but the prospect is distant and uncertain. A snap election, British- or French-style, could clear the air but it is also unlikely given Germany’s political culture. Instead, Germany’s cabinet for the next 16 months will be a dead man walking, with no initiative of its own, much less with an ambition to adjust Germany’s defences to the new era in which hard power matters. 

Russia is outpacing the West’s production of artillery shell by around three times. Do not expect Scholz or Macron to be able to throw significant resources at the problem. The supplemental bill passed by the US Congress helps but it might also be the last one of its kind. Kudos to Macron for moving ahead with Mirage fighter jets, to be delivered alongside F-16s from the Netherlands, Belgium, and elsewhere, but it is hard to see how he or Scholz will become bolder in their Ukrainian positions in the coming months. 

Even worse, throw in the likely curveballs from a possible Trump presidency. Most importantly, there is the prospect of a deal with Putin struck over the heads of Europeans – and especially the Ukrainians. Germany’s ‘Peace Chancellor’ might even welcome such a partition. Macron may be opposed in principle but will likely be unable to do anything about it – especially with a RN-dominated national assembly and cabinet.

The European election may seem a non-event, leaving the European Parliament and the future Commission in the hands of the same centrist pan-European coalition, even if the ‘far-right’ has made modest gains. But that conclusion is an instance of fallacy of composition. The seeming stability in the aggregate hides a lot of consequential political churn at the national level, not least a dramatic weakening of the two main engines of essentially all European policymaking: Berlin and Paris. Europeans, and Ukrainians in particular, might not like the coming consequences.

Watch more analysis of the EU elections with Andrew Neil and Freddy Gray on Spectator TV: