The EU Election Outcome: the Rise of Eastern-style Christian Democracy8 min read

The European election results seem messy. A colourful mosaic, with no clear pattern at first sight. But in all the disarray, Europe’s narrow Christian-democratic victory shows an outline, an ideological curtain dividing the continent into two halves.  Why did Christianity-inspired politicians win by a landslide across the former East bloc? And are they the same as Western-style Christian democrats?

Dutch newspaper Trouw described the EU outcome as follows: “There are times when an analyst should conclude: this cannot be analysed, only an incomprehensible silence is appropriate here. The 2019 European elections may perhaps fall into that category.” It’s true, to some extent.

More than ever, the Europeans voted at cross purposes. More than ever, the European Parliament is extremely fragmented. For the first time since the European Parliament started to matter (a brief history of that Parliament was earlier outlined here), the Christian democrat and centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the centre-left Social-Democrats (S&D) have lost their majority. Coalitions have to be built with Liberals (ALDE) and Greens; Eurosceptic opposition parties have become harder to ignore.

EU election results.

Christian Europe: An Ambiguous Victory

Across the fragmented Union, it’s clear that Christian-leaning parties have witnessed a bitter-sweet victory. Yes, the EPP remained the biggest group in parliament, but it went from 221 seats to 179. Similarly, the hard-line religious European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) did remain the strongest Eurosceptic alliance in Brussels, but lost seats to Salvini’s nationalist alliance (ENF) and Farage’s populist group (EFDD).

This can be attributed to the fact that Western Europe’s Christianity-inspired parties seem to have lost their ground among voters. After years of political instability in Germany due to migration policies, volatile coalition participation, and growing left-right tension within the conservative camp, the Christian-democrats are changing positions in the German political hierarchy. While Angela Merkel’s CDU used to be Berlin’s centre of power, it was forced to join a rat race with the Greens in the EU election campaign. In France, the EPP-allied Republicans, up until a decade ago the sole right-wing party in a two-party system, ended up with one leg in the graveyard of political history as the EU elections drew its progressive wing into the arms of Macron, and its conservative side into Le Pen’s camp. Western Europe’s ECR-allied parties are doing even worse. The Conservatives in the UK were humiliated by Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. It resulted in a historical loss of seats for the Tories. Being traditionally one of the two major parties in Britain, as well as the monopoly of the British right, the Conservatives ended fifth. More hard-line ECR-parties, like the Dutch nationalist populists of Forum for Democracy did gain seats, but couldn’t meet their own expectations and were overshadowed by left-wing parties.

If the West had its own way, both the EPP and ECR would have stepped aside for liberals and greens to enter the stage of Europe’s decision-making. It was, however, the East that saved the Christians this year.

From the Baltics to the Balkans: the EU’s East Voted Christian

Whether you were in Latvia waiting for the 2019 election results or following the polls closely in Bulgaria, the outcome was pretty similar across the Eastern side of the EU. With the exception of the largely atheist countries Estonia and Czechia, Christian parties won by a landslide in every ex-communist country. As a result, 73 out of the 179 newly elected EPP seats, or more than 40% of the alliance, are currently coming from ex-communist member states. It is an astonishing proportion, if you realise that only 26% of the Members of European Parliament (MEPs) are from the former communist region. The new ECR setup, after the historical defeat of the UK’s ECR-allied Conservatives, has become even more Eastern-centred: a majority of 39 out of 61 ECR-seats were gained from the post-communist East.

The former communist states, plus neighbouring Austria, Greece and Cyprus, now form a European bible belt. 

And even beyond the former communist world, Eastern-located Christian parties did well. As did the Austrian People’s Party (the ÖVP), an EPP-allied party, which under the rule of chancellor Sebastian Kurz underwent a successful metamorphose, claiming to build a “bridge between East and West”. Its conservative, or so-called ‘Eastern’ stance towards migration turned out fruitful during the migration crisis. A recent scandal revealing a far-right minister from Kurz’ coalition government trying to sell Austrian news media to Russian oligarchs brought down the government but didn’t damage the Christian-democrats’ popularity. On the contrary, they gained seats, while the far-right coalition partners paid the price.

The success story of Christian politics in the Eastern EU came in different forms. The EPP, being at the core of the decades-old pro-European elite, won in already pro-EU member states like Latvia and Romania, while the Eurosceptic Polish government party Law and Justice (belonging to the ECR) remained the biggest party in Poland. Whether EU citizens voted pro- or anti-EU, it is staggering to see on both camps Christian discourses to dominate Central and Eastern Europe’s political landscape. The EU’s East is progressively turning into a European bible belt, stretching from the Baltic Sea and the Austrian Alps, to the Greek-Turkish border. Why is that?

Christianity is the elite’s security, and the opposition’s hope

It would be a mistake to believe that only among governing elites of post-Communist Europe, Christian parties are doing well. In Romania, for instance, the EPP-allied opposition party PNL managed to become the biggest party after huge corruption scandals kept on haunting the left-wing government for the past years.

In Poland, the Christian dynamics are even more interesting. Whereas the governing ECR-party Law and Justice remained the biggest Polish party in Brussels, they had to deal with a broad alliance of Polish opposition parties that gathered under one EPP-allied umbrella called the ‘European Coalition’. The Polish EU-elections forced Poles to choose between Eurosceptic Catholics and Europhile Christian-democrats. But the vote was to be Christian either way.

The end of communism, the end of a genuine Left

The success story of Eastern Christian democracy should be traced to recent history, says Bulgarian scholar and Lossi 36 writer Bozho Kolov, who’s done research on the position of church and state in the Balkans at the University of Tartu, Estonia. “The collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe has created a climate in which practically no strong Left can exist,” Kolov argues. “When left-wing parties do manage to gain popularity in Eastern and Central Europe, they do so by not completely distancing themselves from conservative discourses.” Hence, even if conservatives are not always leading the governments in Central and Eastern Europe, their ideology is strongly present.

Although the East’s support for the EPP will be useful for the crumbling power of Christian-democrats in Brussels, Kolov warns that they shouldn’t expect much Western-style Christian-democracy from the former East bloc. “We’re not witnessing the rise of Western Christian democracy really,” he explains. “Christianity is simply used to strengthen nationalist discourse.”

One of the most obvious examples is the troubling relationship between Pope Francis’ liberalising agenda in the Catholic Church versus the hard-line conservative discourse of Polish Catholic politicians. “And really, aside from Poland, where the overwhelming majority of the population is religious, Eastern European Christian-democracy isn’t so Christian anyways,” Kolov adds. “Eastern European leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Bulgaria’s Boyko Borissov have a relation with Christianity of course. But only because they can’t use a socialist discourse, or any other solid ideology.” Hard-line statements towards migration are selling particularly well these days – and a strong ideological message, such as Orbán’s “protection of Christian Europe”, could help spreading that message further.

So How Christian is the East’s Christianity?

What remains of ‘Christianity’ in EPP-allied parties across ex-communist Europe is nothing more than conservative-nationalism, fear of migration from Muslim countries, and vaguely pronounced family values. Far beyond the EPP or ECR, EU’s Eastern belt is moving towards the conservative Right. “Western Christian democrats, like those in Germany or the Netherlands, are much more progressive than even many left-wing parties in the East,” Kolov concludes disappointedly. “And any Eastern European with liberal views is already in Western Europe or is marginalised in the East.”

But the fact that ‘Eastern’-style Christian-democracy is also gaining ground in countries that don’t share the communist experience, like Austria and Greece, may reveal that its rise is linked to a pan-European longing for traditional conservatism – an ideology that promises to close borders and limit the direct effects of globalism.

For the Christian-democrat EPP in Brussels, the EU election results must have felt initially sweet, but will likely have a sour aftertaste. The fact that their Eastern allied parties have saved the political group from losing their decades-old position as biggest cluster in the EU cannot be seen as an unambiguous victory. The EPP’s elite, led by presidential candidate Manfred Weber, was until May 2019 still predominantly Western European and liberal-leaning. Today, Weber’s club will have to make space for Eastern Europe’s conservative and nationalist colleagues. One may wonder whether we can call that a victory at all for Europe’s centre-right.

As for Europe’s leftist and liberal parties, the sudden demand for traditional Christian conservatism will force them to make some crucial strategic and ideological decisions in the upcoming years. Would it be better to copy-cat conservative stances, as Denmark’s social-democrats seem to be doing successfully? Or should they put efforts in building more appealing alternatives?

Jules Ortjens is a student of Political Science who is pursuing his Master’s degree in EU-Russia Studies in Tartu (Estonia) and Moscow. Currently, he is working for Dutch newspaper Trouw in the national parliament in the Hague. Jules writes primarily about European politics and how it is interpreted in different countries.