A new European order - Setting the political agenda for the next 5 years
The run-up to the 2019 European elections has been long and filled with projections, campaigning, debates and rallies - some more successful than others. After European citizens cast their votes between 23 and 26 May, it is now the time to take stock of the results and analyse their impact on the Parliament and the European Union as a whole.
1. Highest turnout registered (51%) since 1979 2. Eurosceptic parties made gains, but less than expected 3. It’s the first time that EPP and S&D will not be able to form a coalition of their own: a new majority will need to be formed 4. Liberals are the big winners 5. A Green wave hit Europe, but left Southern and Eastern Member States out 6. Tech will be a hot topic for the next legislature, and Pirates will be front and centre 7. This all means a bumpy road ahead for the selection of European Commission President
Overall, fragmentation (or more political representativeness?) is what we see emerging from the new set of MEPs about to take office. Coalitions will be forming and changing depending on the legislation under discussion, with no fixed formation.
1. Turnout hit 51% It’s the highest ever since the first elections in 1979 In a clear signal that European citizens want to engage with and shape politics at the European level we saw voter turnout reached an unprecedented 50.5%. This is the highest turnout rate since direct elections for MEPs commenced in 1979 and a significant increase from 42.6% in 2014. Voter registration ranged from a high of 89% in Belgium (where voting is compulsory), to a low of 23% in Slovakia. Competition Commissioner Vestager, also one of the lead candidates for the Alliance of Liberal and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), took note of such differences and underlined that “we still have work to do”.
2. Populist (non)surge The much discussed, expected and to some dreaded nationalist and populist surge did not materialise in a way which overwhelmed the pro-EU forces - far from it. Whilst some Member States saw nationalist and populist come 1st place in the polls, including two of the EU’s founding member states (France and Italy), it must be recognised that the parties which saw the biggest gains across the EU are the pro-EU forces - notably the Liberals (ALDE) and Greens(Greens/EFA). The success of these resolutely pro EU groups means that the pre-election suggestion of dominant nationalist parties looking to block European legislation in the Parliament is unlikely to occur, since they obtained less than 20% of the seats. As a consequence, after these elections the narrative of an EU besieged by nationalist forces at the gates of the European Parliament should come to an end. The reality is that whilst nationalist forces were electorally successful in some Member States - it was not an EU wide trend and the results speak for themselves: the pro-EU forces are dominant in the Parliament.
3. New balances between political groups What was clear from the results is that whilst European People's Party (EPP) and Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) will retain their status as the largest political families in the EU, they lost seats to Liberals, Greens and nationalists. Amongst the most populous Member States, these two traditional forces only topped the polls in Germany (EPP) and Spain (S&D). The EPP managed to maintain an upper hand over the S&D thanks to success in Central Eastern Europe - even in Romania and Bulgaria, where polls that predicted an S&D victory did not prove right.
It is the first time that the two main political families do not have enough seats to form a majority. Combined, they stand at 332 seats, whilst the bar to form a majority is at 376 MEPs.
Given this new reality, talks will commence amongst the political groups in an attempt to secure a majority. The traditional EPP-S&D axis is set to be challenged, as the S&D lead candidate, Frans Timmermans (NL), has put an offer on the table for a “progressive alliance” with Greens and Liberals even ahead of the elections.
Different combinations could prove to be the key to a majority; some examples below: • A broad coalition (EPP, S&D, ALDE, Greens/EFA): 503 • The first three political forces (EPP, S&D, ALDE): 437 • Liberals out (EPP, S&D, Greens/EFA): 401
These are only preliminary calculations, given the uncertainty surrounding Orban’s membership of the EPP and the longevity of the UK’s 73 MEPs. Given that 16 of the UK’s MEPs belong to ALDE, the UK’s departure from the EU would reduce the size and strength of the Liberal group.
Indeed if Orban and his 13 Fidesz MEPs decide to leave the centre-right grouping, the EPP would lose additional seats and go down to a final number of 166 - with the groups lead over the S&D narrowing to 13 MEPs.
The flip side of the coin is that if Fidesz remains within the EPP group, cooperation with S&D and with the Greens will become more challenging, as both have shown their reluctance to work with nationalist forces.
Groups have started gathering in the aftermath of the elections to negotiate their new formations and official names. A new nationalist group led by Salvini and Le Pen will reach 73 members belonging to the League (IT), the National Rally (FR), the AfD (DE), the Vlaams Belang (BE), the FPO (AT), SPD (CZ), the True Finns party (FI), the Danish People's Party (DK), the Ekre (EE); allegedly, it will be named European Alliance of Peoples and Nations (EAPN) and will succeed to the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group.
It seems that Farage’s Brexit party will try to seek an agreement with the 5 Stars Movement to keep the EFDD alive.
4. The big winner are the Liberals The Centrist-Liberal coalition merging the former ALDE group with French President Macron’s La Republique En Marche (LREM) and a new Romanian movement led by former PM and European Commissioner Dacian Cioloș USR) is set to come third, with 105 seats, with a gain of 40 seats from the last legislature. This puts them in the position of kingmakers: no matter how political forces are combined, ALDE cannot simply be ignored to reach a majority. This role assumes even more importance in the negotiations of a new inter-institutional balance considered their anti-Spitzenkandidat stance. Given this, it is clear to see that the big winner of these elections is ALDE-Renaissance.
5. Greens rising - but only in Western and Northern Member States The Greens/EFA will become the fourth most powerful group in the European Parliament, with 69 seats, an increase from 50 in the last legislature. Thus, they are now on a stronger position than Eurosceptic groups: ECR, ENF and the EFDD.
These are the best ever results for the Greens/EFA, since they entered the Parliament for the first time in 1984 with 11 elected MEPs. Real highlights for the Greens were coming 2nd placed in Germany.
Holding the group back is that no Green MEP was elected in Southern and Eastern European countries. The exception to this rule is Lithuania, which is sending 3 Green MEPs to Brussels.
6. MEPs to watch Axel Voss (EPP, DE) the rapporteur of the Copyright Directive was re-elected and could continue to play a leading role in determining the EU’s approach to digital policy over the next 5 years. Another German national with an eye for digital policy was elected to the Parliament - Katarina Barley, former Federal Minister for Justice and Consumer Protection. Given their different party affiliation and viewpoint on tech and regulation issues, it will be interesting to keep an eye on how they contribute in shaping the approach to digital policy over the new parliamentary legislature.
Two Commissioners who have been at the very forefront of the EU’s efforts to forge a Digital Single Market have been elected: Mariya Gabriel (EPP) and Andrus Ansip (ALDE). With two leading figures with such experience in tech policy now in the Parliament, we can expect the 9th legislature to exert itself in negotiations between the Council and The Commission.
Whilst the 2 former Commissioners have been resolute in their defence of European cultural and creative industries - most notably with the Copyright Directive - 5 newly elected Pirate MEPs will most likely challenge further attempts to make the internet a fairer place to conduct business: two from Germany — Patrick Breyer and — and three from the Czech Republic — Marcel Kolaja, Markétka Gregorová and Mikuláš Peksa.
Whilst it is tempting to write off 5 MEPs as a serious force, one should remember the significant impact the tenacious Jule Reda (EPP,DE) had on the Copyright Debate, leading the charge against the Directive and mobilising public opinion across the European Union against the Directive. Indeed, it was largely down to her efforts that the Directive received so much attention from citizens and the press. If these newly elected MEPs follow in Reda’s footsteps we can expect to read much about them in the coming years.
Who else will be there: Róża Thun (EPP, PL), Yana Toom (ALDE, EE), Pilar del Castillo (EPP, ES) Sophie in’t Veld (ALDE, NL), Eva Kaili (S&D, EL), Claude Moraes (S&D, UK), Geoffroy Didier (EPP, FR) are among the prominent MEPs who have been re-elected. French AI engineer Manuel Bompard (GUE, FR) and Estonian cyber diplomat Marina Kaljurand (S&D, EE) are newly elected and will doubtless be eager to make their mark.
7. Spitzenkandidat corner With the election results in and the conference of European Parliament’s group leaders on 27 May, the frantic race for the EU’s top jobs has officially started. After the meeting, a statement was produced which reinforced the European Parliament's commitment for the lead candidate process, and their preference for a candidate that “has made her/his program and personality known prior to the elections, and engaged in a European-wide campaign”. They also invited the European leaders, gathering for an informal dinner on Tuesday, 28 May, to mandate President Donald Tusk to begin talks with Parliament.
At the press conference after the informal European Council dinner, Tusk did not dismiss the Spitzenkandidat practice, but also remarked that “there can be no automaticity”. Thus, he pledged to start a dialogue with the European Parliament's Conference of Presidents, to carry out a sondage that makes sure that the candidate put forward by the European Council is confirmed by the European Parliament.
Whilst names were not discussed at the informal dinner, President Tusk is aiming to formalise nominations throughout June, by the European Council on 20-21 June. The European Parliament will then have the first chance to confirm the nomination of a Commission President at the plenary session starting on 15 July.
Whilst the majority of European Parliament groups are in favour of Spitzenkandidat process, so far they have been unable to unite behind a common candidate. This is markedly different from 2014 when the mainstream groups were quick to give their backing to Juncker. If the Parliament cannot agree upon a single candidate, the European Council will likely take advantage of such division and propose their own candidate - framing it as the ‘compromise’ solution. The likely candidate could be Michel Barnier.
In the meantime, speculation on lead and informal candidates continue. Weber remains the official candidate of the EPP, but is receiving criticism due to a perceived lack of charisma and real lack of governing experience. Frans Timmermans could gain traction if the S&D positioned itself as the key player of a parliamentary majority.
The 4 top-job posts opening up are European Commission President and Vice-President/High-Representative, European Parliament President, European Council President. The Treaties state that the roles are to be filled taking into account criteria of demography, geography and gender balance. The less overtly political, but nonetheless critical post as European Central Bank (ECB) President is also opening up. If the posts are negotiated as a package there could be a way to ensure equal representation for the successful European party blocs.
What is clear is that the EPP will not be able to keep up its multi-presidency dominance over the European institutions.
Germany and France: Leaders down, but not out Following the results in Germany and France, both Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Emmanuel Macron are politically weakened - but not mortally wounded.
In Germany, whilst Angela Merkel’s Christian Democract coalition won with 28.9% of the vote, this is a far cry from the high water mark of 37.85% in 2014.
Storming into 2nd place was the Greens with 20.5% equating to 21 MEPs. This is their best ever result and comes on the back off environmental concerns playing a key-role in the national debate. Merkel’s junior coalition party, the Social Democratic Party, came into 3rd place with 15.8% and 16 MEPs. In recent years much of the attention has been on the rapid rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) which entered the national parliament and scored highly in some regional elections. Yet, for all of these successes they only secured 11% of the vote and returned 11 MEPs. Overall, the key message from Germany is that pro-EU parties are overwhelmingly dominant as they secured an estimated 90% of the vote share.
In France, Emmanuel Macron's Renaissance coalition secured 22.41% of the vote and was narrowly defeated by Marine Le Pen’s National Rally which attained 23.31%. This has resulted in the Rally winning 22 MEPs, 1 more than Macron’s group. Le Pen did not even wait for official results on election night to challenge the President’s leadership and to demand the dissolution of the National Assembly.
Whilst the headline is that Le Pen defeated Macron, given that the French President has suffered low opinion polls amidst the public anger expressed through the determined Gilet Jaunes protests this result could be seen in a positive light.
What is an earthquake in the French political landscape where the ramifications will be keenly felt in Brussels is that the Greens won 3rd place (13.47%) overtaking the 2 former dominant French parties: Les Republicans (8.48%) and the Parti Socialiste coalition (6.19%).
This is a total collapse as in 2014 these 2 parties scored 20.8% and 13.98% respectively. The loss of French MEPs in the EPP and S&D group will certainly have consequences on the direction the European Parliament takes over the next 5 years.
UK: Traditional parties pulverised in the election that was never meant to be The UK’s election results saw Nigel Farage’s 6 week old Brexit Party come 1st place with 31.69% of the vote meaning that Farage will lead 29 MEPs to a Parliament they do not want to sit in. Just to put the Brexit party's success into scale, 29 is the same number of seats allocated to Merkel’s dominant CDU/CSU. The Brexit party - advocating a No-Deal Brexit - won in every UK region it fielded candidates except London and Scotland. This victory has emboldened Farage to claim the UK population are clamouring for a No-Deal Brexit.
Pro-EU parties enjoyed significant gains as well. The Liberal Democrats saw their tally of MEPs increase to 15, having won 18.53% of the vote - an increase of 13.4% from 2014. The Green Party polled 11.10% of the vote and will send 11 MEPs to Brussels. Polling shows that these parties received the votes of many Labour and Conservative voters angry with their party’s stance on Brexit. Nowhere is this better shown than in London - Labour’s electoral stronghold - where the Liberal Democrats won more votes in Labour in Islington, the seat of Jeremy Corbyn - leader of the Labour Party.
For the Conservative and Labour Party it was a torrid election. The Conservative party suffered their worst ever result in a national election, coming in 5th place with 8.68% of the vote - a decline of 14.8% from 2014 results - leaving them with 3 MEPs. Labour saw its vote share fall by 11.3% to 14.08%, meaning it has been left with 10 MEPs.
The headline is that the parties with a clear position on Brexit won the elections. Those that did not were punished by voters seeking leadership and clarity on the biggest issue facing the UK.
Given the UK elects 73 MEPs, the results have impacted on the composition of the party blocs. For example, the 15 Liberal Democrat MEPs (and 1 Alliance MEP from Northern Ireland) have pushed ALDE over the 100 MEP mark. Similarity, the 11 Green MEPs are a sizeable contingent of the 69 MEPs in the Greens/EFA group. Therefore, if the UK does leave the EU, the make up of the Parliament will change as the seats are allocated to other parties.
Italy: Flying the nationalist flag for others to follow Italy saw Salvini’s Liga secure a convincing victory with 34.44% of the vote, whilst its coalition partner - the 5 Star Movement - came in 3rd place behind the Democratic Party’s 22,69% with 17.07% of the vote. Salvini’s triumph will have ramifications not only in Brussels, but also, and especially, Italy. In last year's general election, the League won 17 percent and the 5Star Movement scored 32 percent. The latest results may encourage Salvini to ditch his coalition partner and call a general election with the hope of securing a majority. At the European level, Salvini is now placed as a leading force for the nationalist right and will become a key player in challenging the pro-EU majority in the Parliament.
Hungary and Poland: nationalist forces strengthen their grip Orban’s Fidesz solidified its grip on Hungary having won 52.33% of the vote resulting in 13 Fidesz MEPs. Democratic Coalition came in a distant 2nd place with 16.19%. This strong showing for nationalist parties was replicated in Poland where the Law and Justice Party garnered 45.38% of the vote. However, the stark contrast between the Hungarian and Polish results is that in Poland the 2nd placed group of parties - advocating a more pro-EU stance - secured 38.47%, showing that the opposition forces in Poland are in a much stronger position than in Hungary.
Spain, Portugal and Netherlands: Socialists stand their ground Spain and Portugal have been reconfirmed as the standard bearers of Socialism and Social Democracy in Europe. Spain’s Pedro Sanchez won with 32.84% of the vote equalling 20 MEPs. Portugal’s Partido Socialista, the party of incumbent Prime Minister Antonio Costa, won 33.38% resulting in 9 MEPs.
Socialist success was also seen in the Netherlands. In a highly fragmented set of political of results where 5 parties saw their vote share in the double digits, the Labour Party - political home to Frans Timmermans - came top with 18.90%, meaning that 6 Dutch MEPs will join the S&D. The Eurosceptic party, Forum for Democracy, which was expected to win, finished joint 4th with the Greens (10.90%). Another surprise was the big loss of Geert Wilders Eurosceptic party PVV which lost all of the seats.
Alongside with the above-cited, some other countries brought less good news for far-right parties. In Denmark, the Danish People's Party settled at 10,76% and will lose three of its four seats. The internal scandal involving the Freedom Party’s (FPÖ) leader Heinz-Christian Strache left the party at 17,2% - an improvement compared to 2014, but a defeat signalling the loss of one-third of its support compared to the last national election in 2017. In the aftermath of the elections, the Ibizagate made Chancellor Kurz lose a vote of no-confidence and call an early election in September.