By Alexander Lipke & Moritz Osterhuber
On Friday the British Guardian headlined that “the European Elections have left things clear as mud”. We at BridgeEurope shed light on the most important post-election developments in the lead-up to the European Council Summit on 27 June 2019 that Donald Tusk declared to be the formal deadline for a compromise on the Union’s future leadership constellations.
Source: European Parliament
Turnout & the Troubles for European democracy
Europeans voted in greater numbers than in almost half a century, pushing the overall turnout of the 2019 European Elections to 50.5%. Increases were felt particularly in Spain, France, Poland, Germany and Romania. Leaders of the parliamentary groups interpreted the higher turnout as proof for a vibrant transnational European democracy and as demand for far-reaching change. The upswing in participation is also likely to enhance the clout of the Parliament in its dealings with the Council and the Commission as it attaches a higher political cost to manoeuvres that marginalise or bypass the elected representatives.
Not all is as rosy, however. The Editorial Board of the New York Times fittingly wrote on Wednesday that there are “reasons for hope and concern”. For starters, the hope-infusing higher rates cannot belie the underwhelming absolute turnout in some Member States. In fact, the rise in participation may gloss over a larger underlying trend of disaffection from European politics that will not be reversed overnight. Take Slovakia for instance, a country that joined in 2004. Here, registered turnout on Sunday only reached 20%. Nevertheless, the Spitzenkandidaten procedure lends faces to European policies and may precipitate a gradual Europeanisation of the campaigns on the right and the left. The signs are there. The EPP’s Manfred Weber launched his campaign in Greece, while the S&D’s Frans Timmermans went to Madrid for the presentation of his programme, giving us an indication of what may lay ahead with the dawn of European debates and transnational lists.
The European Parliament’s New Political Landscape: Party Group Diversification
A dynamic that is causing headaches primarily for the figureheads of the S&D and EPP is the voters’ apparent disenchantment with traditional centrist politics that has become apparent at the ballot boxes last weekend. The two biggest party groups lost more than 35 seats respectively compared to their 2014 results. For the first time the S&D and EPP fall short of a parliamentary majority that could comfortably support a candidate from their ranks for Commission President. This decline in seats is due to the major losses that the traditionally centrist parties in many of Europe’s larger countries had to endure. At the same time there has been a rise in support for green parties in several Member States. Strong performances in the UK (11.8%) and Finland (16% ), and an unheard-of 20.9% in Germany earned the European Greens 69 seats (9.2%) in the European Parliament, turning them into the fourth-largest party group. Perhaps most indicative for this development are election results in Germany. Here the parties from the centrist governing coalition, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social-Democratic Party (SPD) lost 7.4 and 11.4 percent respectively, while the Greens gained a staggering 9.8%. In France traditional Social-Democratic or Conservative parties are even worse off, barely hanging on to political significance with a total vote-share of 6.3 and 8.5 percent respectively.
There are some outliers to this trend. In the Netherlands, the Social Democratic Party around Frans Timmermans was able to secure an election win with a share of roughly 8 percent, while in Spain, Pedro Sánchez’ Socialist party won with roughly a third of all votes. Since the European Elections are made up of 28 individual national elections, and most outcomes are still predominantly based on national policy implications, it is of course difficult to draw final European-wide conclusions. Nonetheless, the losses of the S&D and EPP, and the simultaneous gains of liberal, green and right-wing parties, do certainly show that we may be experiencing a gradual hollowing out of established centrist policy positions and are moving towards an increased diversification of the European party system.
A win for the Populist Right?
In the run-up to the elections it was feared that this trend may particularly play into the hands of the eurosceptic parties to the right of the political spectrum. Fittingly, the perhaps most frequent comment on the streets of Brussels after the first announcement of the election results was that “it could have been worse”. The consensus was that those parties’ results lived up neither to the hopes of supporters nor to the fears of EU enthusiasts. Still, the fact that Member States can unilaterally choose who they nominate as Commissioner and that sizeable Eurosceptic party groups get important rapporteur positions in parliamentary committees means that Eurosceptics can pose a noticeable impediment to European initiatives. While the often quoted right upsurge didn’t materialise, the 2019 elections did consolidate the European populist right in the European Parliament. The symbolic victory of the French Rassemblement National, Salvini’s successful one-man-show in Italy and the landslide win of the only recently founded Brexit party in the United Kingdom underscore how right-wingers are well entrenched in European politics. At the same time however the Danish People’s party, Finland's nationalists and especially Geert Wilders’s iconic PVV experienced significant losses or have been wiped out altogether, preventing a landslide victory of the political right in Europe.
How strong of an impact these parties will have on the EU’s everyday political process now largely depends on their capacity to organise themselves within the European Parliament and speak with one political voice. The new anti-EU party group (European Alliance of People and Nations) that Matteo Salvini plans to form under the leadership of his League Nord will likely include the other big winners of the European election on the far-right. Even so, it is projected to reach only about 70 seats in total. A significant number, yes; a force large enough to destroy the EU from within? Probably not. Victor Orbán has already made clear that his Fidesz Party will not sit in one party group with Salvinin, despite all the sympathy shown during the election campaign. It remains to be seen how easy the European far-right groups in the EP will eventually find it to create a coherent policy agenda to actually have an impact on the EU’s politics. One thing is clear, though: Despite the overall boost of right-wing parties in the EP, Steve Bannon’s dream of an EU-wide right alternative did not materialize in 2019.
The Key Takeaways
First, European democracy is alive and well - at least according to the European Parliament, which is eager to cement the Spitzenkandidaten procedure, to increase its oversight capacities over the Commission and to enhance its clout in legislative procedures. Encouraged by the rise in turnout it is prepared to stand its ground in the EU’s power struggles. Second, the Greens feel the tailwinds. Against the backdrop of a strong election result they demand a bold environmental agenda for the incoming Commission and perhaps even a seat at the executive table. Their frontrunner Ska Keller however quickly highlighted that it is all about content for the new stronger Greens. Other parties got the hint that environmental responsibility and progressive politics are en vogue as many of them took hits among young voters. Third, with five high-level positions up for grabs in 2019, the EU enters a new era with a reconstituted leadership that will rely more than ever on forging a catch-all pro-European compromise from the EPP all the way to the left. Fourth, Euro-sceptics won relative majorities in four of the six biggest countries of the EU (Poland, France, Italy and the UK). They increased their share of the seats by roughly five percentage points but remain fragmented, despite Matteo Salvini’s impassioned appeals for unity within his newly formed Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF). Differences on austerity and migration are likely to expose major ruptures. Finally, while European democracy bounced back impressively, turnout remains disappointing in many countries, alluding to the fact that a European public remains elusive, and that the Parliament’s firm stance on the Spitzenkandidaten may be more needed than ever.