The European Parliament Elections and Beyond
Next month, EU citizens will again cast their ballots to elect their representatives to the European Parliament. This year’s elections have so far received special attention due to the far-from-normal political circumstances. Over the last few years, rising Euroskepticism has grown and it is clear a lot is at stake in May. It is difficult to precisely predict the outcome, but it is clear that there are some tendencies that can significantly affect the results.
In 2014, the European People's Party group (EPP) proved to be the strongest faction in the European Parliament. But, faced with a reduced gap between them, the EPP and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) decided to divide up the political posts in the European Commission, forming a sort of “grand coalition.” Other factions in the outgoing parliament are the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) in the center; the European United Left/Nordic Green Left and the Greens/European Free Alliance on the left; and on the right the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) group, and the Europe of Nations and Freedom group. With only a few members not belonging to any political group, the current distribution of seats is fragmented and slightly right-leaning, representing a broad spectrum of views and interests.
But a lot has happened in Europe since 2014, with the most tangible change being the outburst of Euroskepticism. This was first triggered by the aftermath of the 2009 debt crisis and then fueled by the mismanagement of the migration influx to the EU in 2015–2016. A populist tide resulted in disruptive events. First, the Brexit referendum was an unprecedented act, undermining the purpose of the EU. Second, disputes with Poland and Hungary about the rule of law and the founding principles of the EU resulted in open conflict and desperate attempts to find effective disciplinary measures to protect European integrity. Last but not least, the disagreement over Italy’s budget for 2019 again fueled a narrative of sovereignty and criticism of EU interference in the domestic affairs of member states.
The consolidation of a Euroskeptic bloc might be a far-fetched scenario, but not a completely unrealistic one.
At the same time, though, the EU has been doing well. It has successfully overcome a recession. Unemployment has fallen in the euro area as well as in the union as a whole. In 2017, the EU economy expanded at its fastest rate in a decade, with eurozone GDP rising 2.4 percent, faster than that of the United States. The economic situation has stabilized and most of the member states have recovered from debt anxiety.
This slight optimism is reflected in public opinion polls. According to the Parlemeter 2018 survey, there is a growing appreciation of the EU: “62% of respondents […] believe that their country’s membership to the EU is a good thing. A majority of respondents in all 28 Member States also considers that their country has benefited from its EU membership. This opinion grew since the last survey in April 2018 by one percentage point and now registers at 68%, the highest result ever measured since 1983.”
Yet, this confidence in the EU is held by a “silent majority,” i.e. those who take it for granted. Euroskepticism, even if a minority belief, consequently elbows its way through and enters the mainstream. Radical challengers have a high mobilization potential, as they are able to catalyze the still existent anger or fear in certain social groups across Europe.
Voting choices for European Parliament elections tend to be made through the lens of the domestic situation and often reflect political competition at the national level. Particularly relevant this year is the decline of traditional social-democratic parties across Europe while alternative left-wing movements are emerging, even if without massive success so far. This apparent weariness of voters toward the center-left parties has at times resulted in liberal and green ones gaining in popularity. On the other hand, protest voters are also abandoning centrist and center-right parties too, predominantly tending to place their hopes in Euroskeptical actors further to the right, as has been seen in Italy, Hungary, Poland, France, Sweden, and Germany.
Taking these tendencies into consideration, all prognoses foresee the EPP retaining a leading but weakened position in the European Parliament, with the S&D as a possible junior partner. This time, though, a third pillar might be needed to build another effective grand coalition, presumably in the form of the liberal ALDE, which according to the polls should enjoy a better result than five years ago. Therefore, either with a continuation of an EPP/S&D coalition or with one that adds ALDE, there will not be any groundbreaking changes in the structure of the European Commission. However, the composition of the next parliament will very likely not resemble closely that of the current one.
The general expectation is that the newer Euroskeptic parties and movements will enjoy unprecedented support across Europe. In particular, the EFN will likely feel empowered thanks to the recent popularity of its national member parties. However, the two other right-wing groups in the European Parliament, the EEFD and the ECR, are likely to erode once Brexit is completed and they lose their U.K. members. Therefore, in the long run, the consolidation of a Euroskeptic bloc might be a far-fetched scenario, but not a completely unrealistic one. Even though they are very diverse and divided, a pragmatic take on single-cause alliances or building a long-term coalition might at some point prevail.
Absent the mobilization of the large numbers of moderate, generally pro-EU voters, the chances of fringe parties to enter the European Parliament grow.
At the same time, disappointment with the big established parties does not always result in voters turning to the Euroskeptic ones. There has been a rise in the popularity of green and regional parties that offer alternatives and a more local approach, such as the Scottish National Party, the Greens in Germany, or the different regional parties in Spain. There have also been bold attempts to innovate with pan-European, transnational parties and movements, like Volt, that fully embrace the European spirit and further federalization. It is unlikely that any of them will grow into a major European force, but their potential to confront the Euroskeptical tide should not be overlooked nonetheless.
Several factors will be decisive to the result of the elections and the composition of the next European Parliament.
As agreed in June 2018, after Brexit the parliament’s size will fall to from 750 members to 705. Other member states will be allocated 27 of the United Kingdom’s 73 seats, reflecting their demographic size more accurately. The loss of U.K. members will drain the right-wing ECR and EFDD as well as the left-wing S&D.
Developments at the national level strongly affect the European vote as it often reflects the domestic situation and depends on political competition of national parties. What happens in the biggest member states, which have the highest number of seats in the European Parliament, will be particularly crucial. How will recent developments in France, in particular, the emergence of the Gillets Jaunes protest movement affect the popularity of President Emanuel Macron and his party? Will the failure of Germany’s Social Democrats continue to boost the Greens? How will the emergence of a new left-liberal formation in Poland affect the European vote?
At the same time, should the triumphant march of the anti-EU movements continue, and be reinforced by the attempt of Italy’s Mateo Salvini to build a transnational coalition among them, the Euroskeptic faction in the European Parliament could expand significantly.
Possible foreign interference might also be a factor. In 2018, the European commissioner for justice and consumer policy, Vera Jourova, warned against possible Russian meddling in European elections. Russian influence is already visible in some member states. Also, Steve Bannon's “Movement” initiative, which aims to support “populist nationalists” across Europe can be interpreted as an external attempt to impact the result of the vote, given its foreign funding. As of today, his endeavors have failed, confronted with the election laws of targeted countries.
And, of course, turnout will be crucial. Electoral results do not reflect the general mood in societies but rather the preference of those who are mobilized enough to cast their vote. Turnout for the European Parliament elections has not only been steadily deteriorating since the 1970s (from 62 percent in 1979 to 42.6 percent in 2014) but also varies dramatically among member states (from 90 percent in Belgium to 25.5 percent in Croatia in 2014). Absent the mobilization of the large numbers of moderate, generally pro-EU voters, the chances of fringe parties to enter the European Parliament grow.
This year’s European Parliament elections will be decisive for the European project, due to unprecedented political tendencies observed in many member states. All signs suggest a further erosion of support for the big mainstream parties and their electorate leaking to smaller or less established ones. Nevertheless, the leadership in the EU is not expected to change drastically.
The most significant difference will be in the more nuanced composition of the parliament, as a result of the enduring popularity of Euroskeptic populist actors in numerous countries. Fringe parties might also capitalize on a typical lower voter turnout. The growing popularity of green and regional parties will most probably be not enough to overcome this tendency. The various Euroskeptic factions uniting into a new pan-European parliamentary group is quite unrealistic but theoretically possible.
Therefore, the next European Parliament is likely to be fragmented, polarized, and more to the right, with more vocal Euroskeptical forces and pro-EU forces on the defensive. However, electoral success for the Euroskeptic side will not impair the parliament’s effective functioning or seriously affect EU policies through legislative processes, even if they try obstructive tactics as they have in some member states. Nevertheless, it is to be expected that politically charged issues such as migration, anti-globalism, strengthening nation-states, or economic protectionism may be put higher on the agenda, which in turn could impact the general atmosphere in the EU and foreign relations with key partners and allies, including the United States.
Dr. Maria Skóra is Senior Project Manager at Das Progressive Zentrum in Berlin. She was Visiting Fellow at the American-German Situation Room, co-hosted by The German Marshall Fund of the United States and the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies in Washington in 2019.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.