On the day the Bastille was stormed in 1789, King Louis XVI wrote in his diary, "Rien." Few European leaders will have typed "nothing" into their iPads after the European Parliament elections over the weekend, but there is a real danger that, in response to the revolutionary cry of unhappy voters, they will in effect do nothing.
A disastrous "the same only more so" response to the election, which gave parliamentary seats to a wide range of fringe nationalist, anti-European Union, anti-immigrant populist parties, would be to make Jean-Claude Juncker the president of the European Commission. Juncker is the lead candidate of the largest party grouping in the new European Parliament. The former prime minister of Luxembourg was also the chairman of the Eurogroup of finance ministers through the worst of the euro crisis. Although he has considerable skills as a politician and deal maker, he personifies everything protest voters from left to right distrust about remote European elites. He is, so to speak, the Louis XVI of the EU.
Equally dangerous is what now seems likely to happen inside the European Parliament — a kind of unspoken grand coalition of the mainstream party groupings (center-right, center-left, liberal and, at least on some issues, greens), to keep all the anti-parties at bay. If the xenophobic, nationalist parties paper over their differences to form a recognized group within the parliament, that will give them funding (from European taxpayers' pockets) and a stronger position in parliamentary procedure, but still not enough votes to overpower such a centrist grand coalition.
Surely that is a good thing? Yes, in the short term. But only if that grand coalition then supports decisive reform of the EU. It should start, symbolically, by refusing to ever again make the absurd regular commute from its spacious quarters in Brussels to its second seat in Strasbourg, at an estimated cost of $250 million a year. That building, the EU's version of Versailles, could be used for other purposes. If a centrist coalition fails to deliver reform, it will only strengthen the anti-EU vote next time.
The one silver lining in this continent-sized cloud is that, for the first time since direct elections to the parliament began in 1979, overall voter turnout has apparently not declined. What pro-Europeans preached for so long has finally come to pass: European citizens are engaging in an EU-wide democratic process. But, irony of ironies, they have done so to vote against the EU.
So what were Europeans telling their leaders in the elections? The general message was perfectly summed up by the cartoonist Chappatte, who drew a group of protesters holding up a placard saying simply "Unhappy" — with one of their number shouting through a megaphone into the ballot box. There are 28 member states and 28 varieties of unhappy.
Some of the successful protest parties are on the far right — in Hungary, for example. Most, like Britain's victorious UK Independence Party, draw voters from right and left, feeding on sentiments such as "we want our country back" and "too many foreigners, too few jobs." But in Greece, the big protest vote went to the left-wing, anti-austerity Syriza.
Simon Hix, an expert on the European Parliament, has identified three main schools of unhappiness: Northern Europeans outside the Eurozone (Brits, Danes), Northern Europeans inside the Eurozone (the kind of Germans who secured several seats for the anti-euro Alternative for Germany party) and Southern Europeans inside the Eurozone (Greeks, Portuguese). That leaves the Eastern Europeans, many of whom are unhappy in their own ways. The fact that the unhappy come at the problem from such different angles makes the problem harder to address. The Syriza voter's dream for Eurozone policy is the Alternative for Germany voter's nightmare.
Yet there is one thing they all have in common: fear for the life chances of their children. Until about 10 years ago, the general assumption was that things would be better for the next generation. Europe was part of a larger story of progress. But a Eurobarometer poll this year found more than half of those asked said the lives of people who are children in the EU today would be "more difficult" than their own. There is already a generation of European university graduates who feel they have been robbed of the better future they were led to expect.
In such a dramatic moment for the whole European project, it is worth going back to its beginnings, the 1948 Congress of Europe, when the veteran advocate of Pan-Europa, Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, admonished his fellow founders, "Let us never forget, my friends, that European Union is a means and no end." That is as true today: The EU is not an end in itself but a means to delivering better — more prosperous, free, secure — lives for its people.
So what we need now is a radical focus on delivery. Enough of endless institutional debates. The question is not "More Europe or less Europe?" It is "More of what and less of what?" For example, we need more of the single market in energy, telecom, the Internet and services, but we may need less Brussels-led policy in fisheries and culture.
Every step that produces a single job for an unemployed European should be taken. Every centimeter of red tape that puts someone out of work must be torn up. This is no time for Junckers. The moment demands a European Commission of all the talents, led by someone of proven ability like Pascal Lamy or Christine Lagarde, entirely dedicated to the task of convincing the legions of the unhappy that there is a better future for their children, and that it lies with Europe.
That is what should happen. But will it? I have a dreadful feeling that future historians may write of the May 2014 elections: "This was the wake-up call at which Europe failed to wake up."
Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European studies at Oxford University, a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and a contributing writer to Opinion. His latest book is Facts Are Subversive: Political Writing From a Decade Without a Name.