Prime ministers, presidents, and chancellors from across Europe are to dine in Brussels on Tuesday evening, and digest the verdict from their respective disenchanted voters.
Many will arrive as walking wounded, their credibility battered, their reputations bruised, their policies discredited.
The president of France, François Hollande, led his Socialist party to a historic defeat on Sunday at the hands of the Front National, a party rooted in racism and antisemitism.
David Cameron, a prime minister perhaps leading his country to breakup and then to exit from the European Union, arrives as the only Tory leader to take his party to third place in a national election.
Antonis Samaras, Greece’s conservative leader, comes to Brussels beaten by the young left-wing firebrand Alexis Tsipras and his anti-austerity Syriza movement.
Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the “selfie” prime minister of Denmark who has been tipped for a top EU job, saw her centre-left government badly hit by the nationalist anti-immigrant Danish People’s party.Two women and a little boy walk by a campaign poster of French far-right Front National (FN) party president Marine Le Pen, whose party won the European elections in France. Photograph: Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images
Presiding over the dinner will be Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European council, anxiously wondering about his legacy and who, given the mess, will take over his job later this year.
And at only his second EU summit, Matteo Renzi will be forgiven if his smile contrasts with the others’ frowns. The young Italian centre-left leader who seems to be morphing into the George Clooney of European politics charmed his way to an improbable result on Sunday. Never elected prime minister of Italy, he took 40% of the vote to claim a mandate the other incumbents can only envy.
It will be weeks before the dust settles on the political earthquake that has seen fundamental shifts in British, French, Greek and Danish politics, and wrought big changes in Scandinavia, Ireland, Spain and Italy.
Already attempts are under way to play down the impact of the vote and to belittle the new class of 2014 as noisy, rude, and extremist, but also fractious and unable to hold together to get their anti-European way.
But even if they struggle for cohesion, the incoming nationalists, neo-fascists, establishment baiters and hard leftists will make it trickier for the mainstream to push through its legislative agenda on everything from trade pacts with America to climate change to immigration policy to eurozone economic and fiscal integration.
Cameron’s free-market reform agenda may also fall victim to a parliament that will be more protectionist, more anti-American more pro-Russian, more supportive of bigger budgets and more spending.
Almost a third of the new parliament, albeit a motley crew ranging from Greek fascists to Swedish nationalists to Flemish separatists to new Spanish leftwingers, will be broadly or fervently anti-EU.
The establishment response is likely to be a Berlin-style grand coalition of mainstream Christian and social democrats, blithely ignoring the upstarts and pushing through their “more Europe” agenda.
The problem is that the two big blocs make up a mere 53% of the new chamber, down from 61%, highlighting the erosion of centrist political appeal and the domination of politics by the centre-right and the centre-left. At the last election in 2009, the two big Spanish parties took 80% between them. On Sunday that collapsed to just under 50%.
The other problem with grand coalitions is that when it comes to countering demagoguery and populism, they commonly become part of the problem rather than the solution. Deals and policies are stitched up behind the scenes, rubber-stamped by safe parliamentary majorities, leaving the only opposition to the anti-elitist movements hammering on the closed doors.
The elections supplied what used to be called a Kodak moment, freezing a picture of European politics and exposing how what started as a banking disaster five years ago, then developed into a financial, debt and currency emergency, has come to roost as a political crisis, testing the competence of and confidence in European leadership.
For Germany, the EU powerhouse, the two big causes for concern are the eurozone’s second and third economies, France and Italy. Both countries are under the centre-left, both are struggling with parallel issues of loss of competitiveness, structural rigidity, high youth unemployment, poor public finances, a seeming inability to reform.
Yet Renzi, the telegenic Italian prime minister, took on the Five-Star insurgents of Beppe Grillo with an avowedly and aggressive pro-European message. He routed them, while Hollande consolidated his reputation as France’s least popular president ever and, for the French elite and the centre, led the country to a moment of shame.
On a smaller scale, the pattern replicated itself in the Netherlands which has turned Eurosceptic in the past decade. The far-right Islam-baiter Geert Wilders did worse than expected, albeit not so badly on 13% and one seat down. But the anti-European hard-left Socialists defeated the co-governing Labour party. And the main winners were not the liberals of the prime minister, Mark Rutte, but his rival leftist liberals, D-66, who fought a strong pro-European campaign and prospered.
With his talk of curbs on immigration, limits on freedom of movement in the EU and benefits tourism, Cameron sought to halt the march of Ukip. He failed to stop Nigel Farage.
Sounding like Cameron last week, Nicolas Sarkozy, the former conservative French president, also sought to blunt the onslaught of the Front National by calling for immigration curbs, shelving the Schengen-free travel zone in Europe, and re-erecting national border controls. That failed, too.
The centre-left government in Copenhagen also campaigned on pledges of cutting welfare benefits for east European immigrants only to see the anti-immigration nationalists of the Danish People’s party triumph by almost doubling their vote.
In France, Britain, Denmark and Greece it may be the first time that a European election has transformed national politics, supplying ample anguished subject matter for discussion over the canapes and fine wines in Brussels on Tuesday evening.
There will also be polite but determined lobbying over who should head the EU executive this autumn.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the veteran EU insider and former Luxembourg prime minister who has been at the centre of EU politics since Maastricht, German unification, and the birth of the ill-fated single currency, appears to be the antithesis of the European zeitgeist.
But, to Cameron’s alarm, he is now the favourite to seal the deal as the parliament’s centre-right candidate. Juncker’s prospects will depend on whether German chancellor Angela Merkel opts to go for a consensus among the diners by selecting another candidate or throws her weight behind Juncker despite opposition from Britain, Hungary, and Holland.
The leaders will play for time, saying they have to wait to see how the parliamentary arithmetic adds up, with frantic rival majority-building efforts under way, before they can take a position.
On Tuesday evening Europe’s leaders will issue pieties about the need for growth and jobs, divided about how to get there and looking over their shoulders.