European Elections 2019: the centre holds but it diversifies

The composition of the new European Parliament has extensive implications for the EU itself, its member states, and the future of the common agenda, as four of the EU top positions will come out of the resulting negotiations.

Between last Thursday 23rd and Sunday 26th of May 400 million Europeans casted their ballots in a highly anticipated European Parliament elections. A lot has happened since the last 2014 EP elections, including the Brexit referendum, the refugee crisis and the election of Donald Trump in the U.S., all of which have positioned the European Union at a pivotal point in its history.

The composition of the 751-seats only directly-elected body of the EU has extensive implications for the EU itself, its member states, and the future of the common agenda, as four of the EU top positions will come out of the resulting negotiations in the coming weeks. This Parliament will not only choose the next President of the European Commission after Jean-Claude Juncker’s ending term, but also Donald Tusk’s successor as President of the European Council and the next leader of the European Central Bank after Mario Draghi.

The time has come for new coalition-building and strategic alliances based on meeting concrete objectives rather than meeting common ideologies

As the dust settles, the EU coming out of this election is a completely different one that the one built by the traditional ‘grand coalition’ between the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialist & Democrats (S&D) and the time has come for new coalition-building and strategic alliances based on meeting concrete objectives rather than meeting common ideologies. We will likely witness a diversification of voices and faces as well as a new spotlight placed on previously typically fringe subjects and new ideas within EU policy.

Results

A key factor weighting in these elections is the mobilization of voters across Europe which has translated into an unprecedented surge in voter turnout up to 50.97% placing highest in EP elections participation since 1994, with a 10+ percentage points increase in up to 7 countries including Poland (< 22 pp), Spain (< 21 pp), Romania (< 20 pp), Germany (< 13pp) and Denmark (< 10pp). Such an increase could indicate rising levels of EU popularity among voters, but this remains unclear given that most campaigns have effectively run mostly on domestic issues. What seems increasingly possible in the current political climate is a gradual Europeanization of national public spheres if national and European concerns continue to merge in domestic arenas -likely fueled by the Brexit chaos and the Eurozone, environmental and migration crises-. Additionally, such an increase in turnout has propelled smaller parties such as the Liberal Democrats and European Greens to the fore effectively countering the much-heralded rise of the far-right.

The center-right EPP and center-left S&D go from 221 to 178 seats and from 191 to 153 seats respectively, effectively losing a centrist majority (54% to 43%) they held for over four decades since the first parliamentary elections in 1979.

In a blow to the traditional dominant two-party coalition, a more fragmented Parliament sees the two largest blocs, the center-right EPP and center-left S&D go from 221 to 178 seats and from 191 to 153 seats respectively, effectively losing a centrist majority (54% to 43%) they held for over four decades since the first parliamentary elections in 1979. As the EPP comes down as the big looser on these elections, the S&D holds certain ground thanks to the sweeping success of the Spanish Socialists led by acting Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Josep Borrell, who have secured 20 seats with 32.8% of the vote, becoming the largest constituent of the S&D family. Alongside the second largest social democrat group, the 19 Italian socialists, Southern European S&D members are likely to use its influence to drive party priorities towards those subjects that are preferential for Southern European states such as more open and progressive perspectives on migration, a reform of the EMU and increasingly social policy initiatives.

On the up side, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats jumps from 67 to 105 and the European Greens from 50 to 69, effectively sliding into a kingmaker position for the upcoming negotiations in the absence of a clear majority. On the one hand, the Liberals have secured a comfortable place and their presidential candidate for the European Commission, the Danish MEP Magrethe Vestager has already placed her bid for the Presidency. On the other hand, the European Greens have managed to make modest yet crucial gains in important states in with what has already been labelled the ‘Green Wave’, coming in second in Germany and third in France and other countries by mobilizing young voters concerned with the environment and the need for alternative solutions for a generation stricken by the global economic crisis.

In the Eurosceptic bloc, the European Conservatives and Reformers party hold 63 seats, with the ruling Polish party Law and Justice (PiS) sweeping a 46.01% of the vote and   with another 58 seats held by the anti-immigration coalition Europe of Nations and Freedom of Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and Matteo Salvini. The newly re-constituted Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy, chaired by Nigel Farage (Brexit Party), has secured 54 seats in three countries (Germany, Italy and the UK) short of the seven-country requirement to form a group. In light of the pending UK exit of the EU by October 31st, the remaining 25 MEP from Alternative for Germany and the Five Star Movement are in talks with Salvini’s coalition on a possible merger into ENF.

Many concerns around these elections derived from the expected success of the far-right parties which have been gaining support on domestic arenas in the last national elections. As of Sunday night, The League (which was previously known as the regional Northern League -Lega Norte- but has undergone considerable restructuring after expanding its influence also to southern Italian regions), Salvini’s populist far-right party received a staggering 34% of the vote in Italy. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally managed to beat Macron’s coalition by a narrow 1% margin while Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party won 30% of the UK vote thwarting the Conservatives and Labour’s performance and doubling down on Brexit claims. In Hungary, Fidesz secured 52% of the vote for Viktor Orbán’s nationalists and in Austria the conservatives won the Sunday election but their Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz was ousted on Monday after losing a scandal driven no-confidence vote.

Prospects of a united nationalist far-right front could be clouded by the very diversity of positions within its ranks.

While far-right parties might have captured enough seats to harden their anti-EU stance and create some trouble during the legislature, voters across Europe have greatly sided with the pro-EU parties. Eurosceptics will be unlikely to enact their own agenda and reshape the future of Europe on their own, yet nationalist forces led by Matteo Salvini have announced a new rightwing populist group, the European Alliance of Peoples and Nations, which, if successful, will draw from ENF, EFDD, and ECR MEPs and will consolidate far-right gains into a much broader strategy: weakening the EU from within likely by obstructing legislation on issues regarding further EU integration, external action (especially regarding Russia and NATO), human rights and civil liberties issues, obstructing free trade agreements and most certainly restricting border controls to curb migration.

However, prospects of a united nationalist far-right front could be clouded by the very diversity of positions within its ranks. While they share the goal of weakening the EU, they differ on issues such as Russia and migration, where Salvini defends the relocation of refugees in the EU but Orbán pursues a more hardliner stance on closed borders. Pro-EU forces must keep a watchful eye on possible rightwing alliances and coordinate to keep an increasingly unstable Parliament from fragmenting.

The Run for the EU Top Job

The Lisbon Treaty provisions (Art. 17.7) require the Council to select a candidate for the Presidency of the Commission ‘taking into account’ the results of the EP elections through the Spitzenkadidat system. In the absence of a clear majority winner, as was the case of Jean-Claude Juncker (EPP) in the 2014 elections, the negotiations for the Commission Presidency seem to be gearing up along a two-front battle spearheaded on the one side by the EPP German candidate, Manfred Weber, supported by Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU coalition -which finds itself on thin ice after scoring their worst results in history on Sunday-, with the Conservatives arguing that Weber holds first claim to the Commission presidency given that the EPP took 178 seats; and on the other side by the S&D Dutch candidate Frans Timmermans, current First Vice-President of the European Commission, who has received the endorsement of President Macron.

The election of a conservative or progressive candidate could mean the return to a conservative-led more rigid and increasingly divided EU or a step into an EU of pluralist coalitions which more accurately represent the new political reality in Europe.

The French President met with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez on Monday to discuss a possible progressist alliance that would thwart the German conservative candidate from the Presidency. By Tuesday, Sánchez and Macron held meetings with the Prime Ministers of the Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal, officially launching an intense round of contacts aiming to build bridges with other party members and take advantage of a strengthened Spanish Socialists and S&D position within the Parliament in order to secure a senior EU position likely destined for Mr. Josep Borell.

The image in the run for the Commission Presidency mirrors the current turf war between Germany and France since the ascension of President Macron to the Elysée. While Chancellor Merkel held the undefeated center of gravity of European power over the past decade successfully navigating the economic crisis to Germany advantage and setting the limits on EMU reform issues, Emmanuel Macron seeks to sweep some of that power unto French lines with a vision of a more representative EU, one that tackles the so-called North-South divide with the necessary reforms. Against this backdrop, the election of a conservative or progressive candidate could mean the return to a conservative-led more rigid and increasingly divided EU or a step into an EU of pluralist coalitions which more accurately represent the new political reality in Europe.

Liberals and Greens will attempt to use their combined power to break the EPP’s monopoly over the control of EU institutions.

On Tuesday, the leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), Guy Verhofstadt, stated that “the new balance of power in the European Parliament calls for a Commission President candidate that can build a robust majority way beyond partisan lines” which indicates that the Liberals are open to considerate any candidate capable of garnering enough support from the political families at the Parliament. With their own candidate MEP Vestager having declared her bid for the Presidency and the strengthened voice of the Greens, which will undoubtedly use their elected mandate to push the environmental issues on the mainstream agenda, no candidate can be ruled out just yet, but surely Socialists, Liberals and Greens will attempt to use their combined power to break the EPP’s monopoly over the control of EU institutions.

Article from Claudia Rives Casanova, professor of European Politics in Master´s Degree in International Affairs and Diplomacy UOC-UNITAR