The European Parliament is the only directly elected EU body which has supervisory and budgetary responsibilities. It is also considered as the centre for democratic debate on EU-level issues and action. The European Parliament elections were held from May 23 to 26, 2019. This is the first time in the history of the European Parliament that the elections had garnered such attention. The results put forward a fragmented parliament with the previous tradition of Grand Coalition of EPP and S&D broken. This has altered the dynamics in the European Parliament and presents a more complicated picture than ever. The paper would present in brief why this election was different from the previous ones. It will also analyse the result of the elections and highlight the major takeaways from these elections.
Key words: European Parliament, Centre-Right, Euroscepticism, Brexit
The European Parliament represents the main legislative body of the European Union (EU) with a total of 751 members from 28 member states. The members are elected through a series of elections held every five years. The European Parliament elections, which took place from May 23 to 26 2019, are considered to be the world’s second largest democratic events, after India. The European Parliament is the only legislative body in the world whose decisions have direct legal effect in multiple sovereign nations. The European Parliament is a directly elected EU legislature which has supervisory and budgetary responsibilities and plays a key role as the centre of democratic debate on EU-level issues and actions. The Parliament cooperates with the Council of the EU (comprising national leaders of the member states) and its work is based on the proposals presented by the European Commission. The important powers of European Parliament includes decision-making on - how public money is spent through the EU’s common budget, how the Single Market is regulated, and it also has a veto right for most international agreements, including enlargement, through the consent procedurei.1 The paper presents in brief why this election was different from the previous ones. It also analyses the result of the elections and highlight the major takeaways from these elections.
This is the first time in the history of the European Parliament that the elections have garnered so much attention. The continent-wide elections shaped up in optical terms at least to be something of a referendum on the whole EU project, in part because the ballot came amid Britain’s prolonged departure from the bloc. Also, with the UK taking part, there were concerns that British voters could also use the occasion to deliver a verdict on Brexit.2Another key issue is the rising fragmentation and populism both on the right and left, which will certainly affect the makeup of the new European Parliament. One of the major issues as to why there is a sudden focus on European Parliament election is the rise of Eurosceptic and far-right parties. According to some pre-poll analysis, this election could see these parties advocating return to a ‘Europe of the nations’, win substantial share of seats in the Parliament. Many of these parties are sceptical of free trade, are against any kind of migration, and favour rapprochement with Russia. This changing dynamic also put the Grand Coalition at risk, as Christian Democrats (EPP) and Social Democrats (S&D) have hitherto always had a majority in the Parliament. There was, therefore, the perception that 2019 could be the first year in the EU’s history that the Grand Coalition would no longer obtain a majority.
Key Takeaways from the Elections
The European Parliament is composed of eight major blocs – Group of the European People’s Party (EPP), Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) plus Renaissance, Confederal Group of the European United Let-Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL), Group of Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA), Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy Group (EFDD) and Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF)(Figure 1). The 2019 elections resulted in a fragmented Parliament with the Grand Coalition of EPP and S&D losing their combined majority. Individually these parties retained 179 (out of 217 in 2014 elections) and 153 seats (out of 186 in 2014 elections) respectively. The ALDE plus Renaissance became the third largest bloc in the Parliament with 105 seats. The Greens increased their vote share to 69 seats with strong gains in Germany, Ireland, and France. The far-right, Eurosceptic parties’ registered increased seat-share but not as much as their leaders had hoped for. The EFDD group gained seats largely because of the UK’s Brexit Party, and the ENF got the boost because of the increased vote share of the Lega and National Rally. These groups got 54 and 58 seats respectively.
Figure 1: Vote Share in the European Parliament, 2019-2024
Source: European Parliament, https://election-results.eu/european-results/2019-2024/
Following are the key takeaways from the European Parliament elections:
As there was renewed focus on these elections, the voters’ turnout was at a two-decade high. A record of 50.97% of EU citizens voted in these elections as compared to 42.61% in 2014 - the highest turnout in 20 years and the first time since the first direct elections in 1979 that turnout has increased. These elections were viewed as a test of the influence of the nationalist, populist and far-right parties that have gained foothold in various countries in recent years. These elections were portrayed as critical for the future of the bloc both by the pro-integration, pro-EU parties and those parties which consider EU as an elite-driven and bureaucratic process.
Figure 2: Voters Turnout
Source: European Parliament, https://election-results.eu/turnout/
The European Parliament, since the beginning of direct elections in 1979, has been run by centrist parties, dominated by the centre-right European People’s Party group (EPP), and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) on the centre left. Together in the Grand Coalition, these parties have held the majority of the parliamentary seats. However, 2019 elections presented a break in this tradition with the rising support for liberal parties, green parties and populist parties.3 These elections have resulted in the redrawing of the political map of the EU, as there is no clarity over any workable majority that could emerge in the Parliament. The vote tally of the Grand Coalition fell from 401 seats (51%) in 2014 to 332 seats (44%) in 2019.4
Figure 3: EPP and S&D Votes
Source: BBC, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-48417191,
One of the most crucial take away from these elections is the gains registered by the Green Party across Europe. They received nearly 20.5% of the vote in Germany; 16% in Finland; 18% in Ireland; 13.4% in France as well as high scores in Denmark, Sweden, Belgium, Luxembourg and Austria.5 The Greens’ tally stands at 70, up from 51 in 2014. These results, strongest ever for the Greens, indicate that Europeans are growing increasingly concerned about climate change and the environment.6 Moreover, these results can be viewed as a manifestation of the discontent which has been visible in the protests by youth across Europe against what they see as governmental apathy and inaction on combating climate change.
Similarly, the ALDE party made significant gains in the elections – it increased its seat share from 68 seats in 2014 to 105 in 2019. Of the total seats gained, 23 come from Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance List for the EU election, which is closely connected to his centrist LREM party. This is expected to give President Macron - the biggest supporter among European leaders of deeper integration between EU members - an opportunity to push through change and to counter the far right.
The rise of the far-right, populist, Eurosceptic and nationalist parties across Europe was one of the main reasons for the renewed focus on these elections. These parties have gained substantial foothold in the power structure of various European countries – like Italy (Lega), Poland (Law and Justice Party), Hungary (Fidesz) - and where they are not in power, they have been able to increase their vote share substantially – the Netherlands (Party for Freedom). These parties presented an aggressive strategy during the elections, portraying themselves as the alternative to the elitist mainstream parties and advocated return to a Europe of the nations.
The election results were viewed as successful by these far-right parties. These parties are split in two main blocs in the Parliament - Europe of Nations and Freedom Group (ENF) and Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFD) – together they were able to increase their seat share to 25% up from 20% in 20147. The major winners for these blocs were –Matteo Salvini’s Lega in Italy which won 34% votes, confirming its status as the most powerful political movement in the country. In France, Marine Le Pen’s party National Rally (scoring 24%) narrowly defeated Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance List (22.5%). The results marked a reversal of 2017 presidential elections, this time French voters opted for Le Pen’s anti-migrant rhetoric over Macron’s business-friendly and liberal policies.8Similarly, in United Kingdom, Nigel Farage’s newly created hardline Brexit Party won 32% votes in the elections at the expense of Conservative party and Labour party, which won 9% and 11% votes respectively.
While the Lega and National Rally form part of ENF, the Brexit Party is part of EFD. In total, ENF won 58 seats (7.72% votes) as compared to 36 in 2014 and EFD won 54 seats (7.19%) vis-à-vis 48 in 2014. But this was hardly the win that the leaders of Lega and National Rally were hoping for after the strong show of unity preceding the elections.
Figure 4: Vote Share of ENF and EFD
Source: BBC, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-48417191
Irrespective of the victories that these parties have gained in the EP elections, they remain splintered across the political groupings in the Parliament. A major far-right party Fidesz of Viktor Orban, which won a huge 52% vote in Hungary9, sits in a different political bloc (EPP) in Brussels than Le Pen and Salvini. Similarly, Poland’s Law and Justice Party which is part of Conservative and Reformist Group accounted for almost 45.56% votes, maximum in the bloc. Another source of concern for them is the split over issues of concerns for them, these parties differ on issues like Russian sanctions – where Salvini’s Lega is in favour of removal of sanctions which is an anathema for the Law and Justice Party of Poland; and migrant quotas where Lega wants a fair distribution between the countries and Fidesz has refused to follow the EU guidelines. Due to these underlying differences, even if they succeed in uniting on some issue, they are unlikely to have any major impact on the working of the Parliament, despite their strong showing in the elections.
The UK was not expected to participate in the European Parliamentary elections as it was supposed to have left the Union. As the withdrawal is yet to happen, the elections ended up being a referendum on the issue of Brexit. Nigel Farage’s recently created party, the Brexit Party, won 31% of the vote and 29 of the UK’s seats in the European Parliament. The Liberal Democrats, a pro-Remain party and supporters of a second referendum, came second with 20% of the vote. The Labour Party ranked third with 14%, and the Conservatives came last with 8% vote - UK’s two main parties falling behind two others that had clearer though different visions of the UK’s relationship to the EU.10 Nigel Farage has campaigned on UK leaving the EU on 31 October 2019 with or without a deal. However, whether the UK leaves and stays would depend on the national government where the Brexit Party has no say.
A no-deal Brexit would be bad for the EU but is likely to be worse for the UK. In this scenario, the UK will cease to be a member of the EU and all the trade and regulatory arrangements that it shared as part of the EU will end. The UK Parliament has so far said that it does not want a no-deal Brexit, but with the people voting for the Brexit Party, leaving the Union has become an attractive option.
The European Parliament is said to be Union’s only truly democratic institution since direct elections were introduced in 1979. It represents 512 million European citizens and its power is derived from the consent that it must give to the proposed legislation. The elections have broken the older tradition of Grand Coalition of EPP and S&D, what now can be expected is a more ad-hoc coalitions around case-by-case issues. When the new Parliament sits on 2 July 2019, it will be more diverse — with more representation from the far-right, liberals and Greens. This may set the scene for negotiations and cross-party talks when it comes to Europe’s top jobs.11The leaders are also likely to weigh-in their opinions on candidates for European Commission to replace Jean Claude Juncker, whose term ends on 31 October 2019; European Council President to replace Donald Tusk; EU High Representative, Federica Mogherini, and for the head of the European Central Bank replacing Mario Draghi.
From these elections, it can be concluded that European politics is evolving and recombining in new ways and directions. The long-term rise of the right-wing populists is part of this evolution but in these elections, it did not emerge as a dynamic one. The far-right remains fragmented and splintered across blocs. What these elections have highlighted is that pro-EU integration core has not depleted rather it has emerged among the Greens and Liberals, who are likely to be the kingmakers in the new European Parliament. The centre-right and centre-left are likely to depend on these parties to get their agenda passed.12 What is clear from these elections is that it follows the national trajectory of the decline of the big-parties in favour of the new or smaller ones. With the decline of the EPP-S&D majority and increasing rift in the Franco-German alliance, it can be concluded that the new Parliament will be a fragmented body, making European politics less predictable.
* The Authoress, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the Researcher and not of the Council.
iConsent Procedure – the European Parliament cannot formally suggest any amendments, but it can approve or disapprove the text as a whole.
1Why the European Parliament Elections Matter, Open Society Foundations, March 2019, https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/explainers/why-european-parliament-elections-matter, Accessed on 28 May 2019
2The Washington Post, 15 April 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/why-european-parliament-elections-suddenly-matter/2019/04/12/a74ec7b8-5d23-11e9-98d4-844088d135f2_story.html, Accessed on 28 May 2019
3The New York Times, 27 May 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/27/world/europe/eu-election-takeaways.html, Accessed on 28 May 2019
4The Economist, 26 May 2019, https://www.economist.com/charlemagnes-notebook/2019/05/26/populists-fall-short-of-expectations-in-the-european-elections, Accessed on 29 May 2019
5Politico, 29 May 2019, https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-election-results-2019-country-by-country/, Accessed on 30 May 2019
64 Takeaways From The European Parliament Election Results, NPR, 27 May, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/05/27/727293356/4-takeaways-from-the-european-parliament-election-results, Accessed on 29 May 2019
7The New York Times, 27 May 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/27/world/europe/eu-election-takeaways.html, Accessed on 29 May 2019
8Europe's Populist Storm Rattles the Windows of the E.U. But Fails to Move the Foundations, Time Magazine, 28 May 2019, http://time.com/5596855/europe-populist-marine-le-pen-matteo-salvini-nigel-farage/, Accessed on 30 May 2019
94 Takeaways From The European Parliament Election Results, NPR, 27 May, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/05/27/727293356/4-takeaways-from-the-european-parliament-election-results, Accessed on 30 May 2019
10The “Green wave” and 4 other takeaways from the European parliamentary elections, Vox, 28 May 2019, https://www.vox.com/2019/5/28/18642498/european-parliament-elections-2019-takeaways-greens-salvini-brexit-eu, Accessed on 30 May 2019
11Rashmee Roshan Lall, Europe just got less predictable, First Post, https://www.firstpost.com/world/europe-just-got-less-predictable-6734131.html, Accessed on 31 May 2019
12The “Green wave” and 4 other takeaways from the European parliamentary elections, Vox, 28 May 2019, https://www.vox.com/2019/5/28/18642498/european-parliament-elections-2019-takeaways-greens-salvini-brexit-eu, Accessed on 31 May 2019