13 May 2019
Open Europe has published a new briefing, “The 2019 European Parliamentary elections and the future of the European project.”
The 2019 European Parliament elections will take place across the EU between May 23 and 26, against the backdrop of Brexit and a divided European political landscape. Although their practical consequences for the functioning of the EU are limited, these elections will be an important barometer of European public opinion on the state of the EU.
The elections are likely to reflect the increasing fragmentation and polarisation experienced across the liberal democracies of the West, including in the national politics of several EU member states.
The 2019 election is projected to see a consolidation of the Eurosceptic and anti-establishment surge witnessed in 2014, rather than a second surge. Six member states are projected to see a Eurosceptic party win the most votes, while six will see a Eurosceptic party finish second. Considerable national variations in Eurosceptic performance are also expected – for example, Eurosceptic parties projected to win 80% of the available seats in Hungary and 66% of the seats in Italy, but none at all in Ireland or Malta.
There will also be an element of a national-level protest vote, as in previous European elections. An opposition party is expected to win the most seats in at least eight member states, including the UK – where the governing party has not won a European election since 1984.
The political composition of the European Parliament and the future direction of the EU
The European Parliament currently consists of eight official political groups, but only so much can be drawn from their overall successes and failures. Each group is a broad church, some hold very similar positions on the question of EU integration, and the groups will likely be reshuffled in the aftermath of the election. In particular, the new, pan-European nationalist group established by Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini may lead to a greater capacity for organisation and co-operation between Eurosceptic parties.
The narrative that these elections are a binary and existential struggle between progressive liberals and populists is wide of the mark. Instead, it is better to divide the political parties that will sit in the European Parliament into three groups: pro-integrationists who want “more Europe”, mainstream parties with a “keep calm and carry on” approach, and Eurosceptics who want “less Europe.”
The Eurosceptic bloc remains internally divided, and their ability to block European decision-making through the Parliament will be limited. Indeed, for Eurosceptics, the European Council is a more effective vehicle for influencing EU decision-making than the European Parliament. National elections which determine the governments of member states arguably have more bearing on the direction of the EU than European Parliament elections.
Nevertheless, the fact that Eurosceptic parties will cement and, in some cases, improve their performance is a warning sign that all is not well with the European project.
The consequences of the European Parliament elections for the day-to-day functioning of the EU
The European Parliament’s role is important in the day-to-day legislative activities of the Union and in determining the personnel for some key institutional roles. However, it is not instrumental in setting the strategic direction of the Union or key constitutional issues, such as the future of Eurozone reform – these are largely a matter for national governments.
Nevertheless, the fragmented composition of the new Parliament may make it a difficult partner for the other EU institutions. In particular, the two largest political groups in the Parliament, the centre-left S&D and the centre-right EPP, are set to lose their combined majority for the first time. Currently, their combined majority is 34; after this election, they are projected to be around 60 seats short. They will have to rely on other groups to get legislation through.
In practice, the two-party ‘Grand Coalition’ of the EPP and S&D, which carried 74% of votes on legislation in the 2014-2019 Parliament, is likely to be replaced by a new three-party ‘Grand Coalition,’ which would include the liberal ALDE group. This risks exacerbating the polarisation between establishment and anti-establishment forces in the Parliament, and amplifying the message of the latter.
Ultimately, despite their success, Eurosceptics are only projected to win around a third to a quarter of the seats – which will not be enough to block legislation if the mainstream parties unite. Pro-Europeans will not be able to blame Eurosceptics if the Parliament’s legislative stagnation continues for another five years.
The Spitzenkandidat process, which allows the parties in the Parliament to select the next Commission President, remains contested. It is far from clear that the next President will ultimately be one of the Spitzenkandidaten, with key EU figures opposed to both the process and the proposed candidates. Whatever happens, the selection of President Jean-Claude Juncker’s successor will be a source of both political and inter-institutional controversy.
The UK’s participation will only have a moderate impact on the composition of the European Parliament. It will alter the balance of the political groups incrementally, rather than decisively. Meanwhile, UK MEPs might be able to vote on the next Commission President, but their participation will not necessarily alter the outcome. UK participation will, however, cause problems for the anticipated reallocation of some of the UK’s seats to other EU member states.
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