Consensus over the EU’s future will be more difficult with a more pluralistic EU.
The European Parliament (EP) 2019 elections are incredibly important for the future of the EU, as they will form the next five years of the EU legislative agenda alongside electing the next EU Commission President. The European Parliament Elections take place every five years and are an important litmus test for the three key EU institutions, namely the European Parliament (EP) which comprises the legislative branch of the EU. The EP has important legislative powers, decides the annual EU Budget and oversees the work of the executive branch of government (the EU Commission) alongside upholding the key EU Treaties.
Each EU member state has a fixed amount of members (MEP’s) of the EP. Currently, there are 751 MEP’s in the European Parliament. The seat allocation is proportional to a countries population size. Larger countries such as Germany have 96 seats allocated, with smaller countries such as Malta and Luxembourg only having an allocation of 6 seats.
Rather than sitting according to their individual countries, the MEP’s in the EP sit according to their political faction in the EP. Traditionally, there have been two main ‘europhile’ (pro-EU) political factions in the EP, corresponding to the center-right European People’s Party EPP, alongside the center-left The Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D). After successive recent EP elections across the 21st century, there is now a much wider grouping of political parties in the EP, with greater representation.
The three main political factions include the largest party grouping, the EPP alongside the S&D grouping and the centrist grouping Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. However, in recent times, EP elections have coincided with increased levels of ‘Euroscepticism’ (opposition to the EU) and this has culminated in new party groupings, such as the right-wing nationalist Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy Group (EFDD), alongside the Europe of Nations and Freedom Group (ENF) which threaten the core of the EU project. Many of these ‘Eurosceptic’ political parties seek to directly leave the EU based on the belief that the EU project undermines their national sovereignty and border controls.
Elections to the European Parliament have traditionally been lacking a ‘transnational’ character and were characterized by the precedence of national concerns amongst voting decisions. Although the elections are by nature characterized by 28 different national contexts, we argue that the most recent EP elections reveal five important trends that go far beyond these national borders.
1. Declining support for the traditional left and right.
Almost unequivocally, traditional center-left, and center-right right parties have had to concede significant electoral losses at the ballot box and lost their long-held majority. Most significantly, Labour and the Conservatives were marginalized in the United Kingdom, just as were the Socialists and Conservatives were in France, while Social Democrats and Christian Democrats also received some of their worst electoral results in national elections in Germany. These electoral declines and widespread anti-incumbency effects will be reflected in the composition of the new European Parliament. Traditional power-sharing between the center-left where The Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats factions and center-right Socialists and Democrats alongside the European People’s Party factions will now no longer hold a majority anymore. Electoral volatility and party fragmentation are now the order of the day, with the wider EU project under threat.
2. Higher turnout.
In the lead up to this year’s European Parliament elections, many described them as-as key elections for the future of Europe. This message seems to have resonated with some of the voters as almost all European countries saw an increase in voter turnout and as a whole, the elections have seen the best turnout in twenty years, reaching 50.5% this year after a historical low of 42.6% in the last elections in 2014. The refugee crisis, Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, growing antagonism between the US and the European Union, as well as the pressing issue of climate change, are only some of the factors that appear to have politicized the European electorate to come out both in favor, and in rejection of the European Union.
3. Rising support for the populist radical right.
As the embodiment of EU-scepticism, the populist radical right parties were expected to continue their rise and dominate the European Parliament in the future. Across Europe, these anti-political establishment parties have increased their vote share and saw victories in several countries, notably in France, Italy and the United Kingdom. It is also important to note that two of the EU’s biggest countries in France and Germany saw substantial radical right gains and will further strengthen these parties at the national level.
Strong rejection of the EU as such has paid off for some parties, especially in countries where immigration is still considered to be a dominant issue. However, although they have improved their results compared to the previous EP elections, their gains are lower than was predicted in most projections. Some parties experienced losses due to internal issues; the Austrian Freedom Party, for example, has suffered from its recent scandals, other more structural reasons may also include the apparent contradiction of attempting to get elected into an institution that these parties would like to see abolished.
4. Rising support for Greens.
Even bigger gains than the populist right parties have been experienced by the Green parties. Led by the German Green Party, who were able to double their vote share, the Green parties also experienced higher vote shares in France, the United Kingdom, and Finland, among others. This group seems to have benefited particularly from the salience of concerns with climate change and environmental protection. In some countries, these issues have recently replaced immigration as the most important concern amongst voters and therefore given rise to the growing popularity of Green parties across the continent. In addition, Green parties have also presented themselves as the most vocal defendants of the ideas and values of Europe and the European Union as the expression of these.
5. Rising support for Liberals.
Even more successful was the Liberal party family that will form the third biggest faction in the new European Parliament. However, it remains debatable whether this forms a Europe-wide trend as the group mainly benefits from the result of gains from two big elections. In France, President Emmanuel Macron’s Le Marche competed for the first time in EP elections, and boosted the Liberal ranks with 22.5% of the vote (though they came in second to the far-right National Rally). Meanwhile, the UK’s Liberal Democrats also came in second with 18.5%. The gains of Liberals may, therefore, be more credited to these national circumstances (i.e. French anti-incumbency effects stemming from the Yellow Vest movement and the ongoing Brexit process) rather than to an overarching European sentiment. Nonetheless, similar to Green parties elsewhere in Europe, the Liberal Democrats were also able to achieve a strong result because of their strong commitment to and support for the European Union.
6. Implications for the future of the EU?
Much has been made recently about the impact of the populist radical right parties in leading to a long-term electoral decline of the EU project amongst political commentators. We argue that due to political in-fighting, the radical right has always had great difficulties in collaborating together and achieving ideological unity.
The EU is currently at a crossroads and faces numerous challenges. Two explanations in the political science literature seek to explain the growing decline of the EU project amongst citizens. The first provided by renowned scholars Liesbeth Hooghe and Gary Marks argues in favor of the “EU overreach” hypothesis, with the EU becoming more complex in its multi-level governance and distant to ordinary voters in EU member states. A second and often competing hypothesis outlined by Peter Mair and Stefano Bartolini speaks about the lack of confidence that voters have in ‘mainstream’ national politicians and how this has manifested in increased levels of ‘Euroscepticism.’
Building on these two hypotheses, we argue that the very future of the EU project is more likely to be eroded in the long-term from pro-EU forces inside the EU Commission (the EU’s de facto cabinet government proposing legislation and implementing EP decisions) and the EU Parliament, who are currently in-fighting between two competing visions, namely; (a) the vision of a bigger and more ‘technocratic’ EU versus (b) a vision of a more scaled down EU. This will be highly significant for the post-2019 EU political landscape.
Dr James Downes is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Lecturer in Comparative Politics at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. His profile can be found here:
© James Downes and Felix Wiebrecht. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).
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