The decline in voting ceased for the first time since the establishment of the EP elections
The elections held on 23-26 May in the 28 member states of the European Union (given that United Kingdom has not yet left the European community) are considered an useful public opinion barometer because the turnout of 51% is the highest recorded in the last two decades. Thus, the worrisome increase of absenteeism was ended. It has lasted from the first elections, held in 1979, when the turnout amounted to 63%, reaching the historical low of 43% in 2014. Although the turnout at the European Parliament elections was high and contributed to strengthening the European Parliament legitimacy in relation to the European Council, we shouldn’t slip into an undue euphoria: the percentage of voters at the European Parliament elections is still significantly lower than that registered in most European states in the national parliamentary elections. In some cases, the secret of voters’ extensive participation in the race for the European Parliament was that they also had to vote as part of their national elections, such as parliamentary and local elections in Spain, or the referendum on justice in Romania.
Eurosceptics will not be able to replace the current European status quo, but they are lurking in the shadow
The main answer expected from the voters at these European Parliament elections was whether or not they still support the European integration project. Their support to Eurosceptic and populist parties will clarify this. As a result of calming the migration crisis and timid recovery of the European economy after the 2008 financial crisis, as well as Brexit’s poor experience for the United Kingdom, population’s support to the EU re-win important points, so that Eurosceptic parties’ results in the elections increased moderately, not being able to question the current status quo.
However, sovereigns and right-wing radicals, with their critical voices against the Establishment from the Brussels, won about 170 seats. The 13 seats won by Viktor Orban’s ‘Fidesz’ party from Hungary (formally still in the European People’s Party, although suspended and possibly to be excluded) can be added in case of specific issues. In some cases, left-wing radicals of the GUE/NGL group, the number of which decreased from 52 to 38, could join around 170 right-wing euroskeptics and populists. Although there are chances that Eurosceptics will constitute a blocking minority in the new European Parliament at some points, the representatives of the Establishment are quite calm due to the lack of unity among their opponents: those around 170 sovereigns and right-wing radicals are divided into three different groups: ECR (Conservatives and reformists, especially Poland’s PiS and British conservatives); ENF (right-wing radicals, mainly Matteo Salvini’s League and the National Assembly of Marine Le Pen); EFDD (mainly Nigel Farage’s ‘Brexit’ party and the Five Star Movement in Italy) are hardly reconcilable, despite the increased efforts made by Italian Deputy Prime Minister Salvini.
In addition, the share of this bloc in the Parliament will decrease after British MEPs from the Brexit and Conservative Party will give up their 33 mandates, following the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union, no later than 31 October 2019.
The collapse of traditional parties and accentuated political fragmentation are serious reasons of concern
However, it is not the time to celebrate, as did the Secretary General of the European Commission, Martin Selmayr, who stated that the populist wave ‘was stopped’. The moderate wins of the populists are followed by the collapse of traditional parties in the Western Europe, and by a pronounced political fragmentation in the European Parliament, which eurosceptics will try to speculate on: without an exemplary coordination between mainstream political forces, those who want less European Union have real chances to disrupt the Parliament’s work.
The European People’s Party (EPP) and Socialists and Democrats (S&D), the two titans that monopolised the European Parliament so far, saw a dramatic decrease in their influence, from 217 and 189 mandates in 2014 to 179 and 153 at present, only 44.2% of total 751 (and it may decrease further if ‘Fidesz’ from Hungary and PSD from Romania will be excluded from the two large political families).
EPP and S&D will have to negotiate the set up of a majority with the new party established on the ruins of Guy Verhofstadt’s old ALDE, which achieved mainly poor results, but was saved by the engagement of newcomers such as the Renaissance party of the French President Emmanuel Macron and the USR-Plus Alliance from Romania (105 seats, compared to 68 in 2014), and/or the Greens, the by far winners of these European Parliament elections (69 seats, compared to 52 in 2014, with meritorious 2nd place in Germany, 3rd in France and 4th in United Kingdom).
The negotiations to fill the main positions in the European bodies, which began on 28 May at a meeting of the European Council, are expected to be long and painful in the context of the political fragmentation at the EP level. In particular, the important position of the President of the European Commission creates great rivalries. The important members of ALDE and the President Macron showed that they did not feel obliged to the appointment system of so-called Spitzenkandidat (‘top of list’). A political group competed with this proposal during the election campaign. In their opposition, ALDE and Macron invoke the absence of this mechanism in the European treaties, as well its lack of legitimacy without voting on transnational lists. On the basis of these lists, citizens from a member state can elect candidates from other member states. In reality, the leaders of the new European liberal pole perceive the ‘top of the list’ system as a mechanism to perpetuate the domination of populists and socialists over European politics.
The negotiations about the position of President of the European Commission will be complicated, and one of the reasons is also the person proposed as the ‘top of the list’ by the EPP, a political party with the most seats: Manfred Weber, German, supporter of economic austerity, very critical to member states in the Eastern Europe. He was never the head of an extended administration, self-proclaimed ‘man of the Parliament, not of the Council’. Weber has all qualities to displease a number of actors in the European Parliament and Council, with an essential role of appointment to the top position of the Commission. A strong negative unequivocally expressed signal, as opposed to the veiled allusions before the elections, came from Portuguese Socialist Prime Minister Antonio Costa. After a telephone conversation with his socialist and liberal counterparts from Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium, he declared that Weber would not be appointed as President of the European Commission ‘under any circumstances’. Therefore, surprises may appear, besides ‘top of the list’ Weber (EPP) and Frans Timmermans (S&D), political analysts and betting houses also give good opportunities to other candidates such as French Michel Barnier, chief negotiator of Brexit, a ‘large-caliber’ EPP member – Emmanuel Macron will accept him easier. Then, there is Danish Margrethe Vestager, ALDE member, Commissioner for competition of Juncker Commission, who became a star after she began to courageously fight with USA IT giants or European titans such as Fiat, Alstom and Siemens.
The worrying trends are particularly visible in large and influential EU states
Things are not complicated only at the European level, where, however, the situation is tempered by the less spectacular results of smaller and less influential states. The results of European Parliament elections are an alarm bell, especially in the big European states, where traditional parties registered deplorable results, giving much of political arena to newer and more unpredictable actors, both eurosceptics and pro-Europeans.
In Germany, CDU (center-right) fell to 28.9% of votes and SPD (center-left) to 15.7%, losing the second place (at the expense of the Greens – 20.5%) for the first time after 1945. The far right and left won about 7% of votes each. The resignation of SPD leader Andrea Nahles, one week after the European Parliament elections, puts pressure on the Great Coalition between CDU and SPD and could lead to the fall of Angela Merkel’s Government and early parliamentary elections.
In France, both Republicans (center-right) and Socialists (center-left) were consigned to the dustbin of history after obtaining only 8.48% and 6.19% votes respectively, leaving the first three places to the Marine Le Pen’s National Assembly (23.34%), Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party (22.42%), and the Greens (13.48%). Although the victory of Le Pen’s far right is not a surprise, her party obtained even better results in 2014 elections – 24.86%, the result is an important one at the symbolic level: defeated at home, Emmanuel Macron is obliged to scale back his ambitions to reform the entire European Union.
Italy shocked the most, after the impressive victory of Matteo Salvini’s League at the European Parliament elections, with 34.3% votes, five times more than in 2014. The regress of traditional parties, the Democratic Party (center-left, 22.7%, half of 2014 result), and ‘Forza Italia’ (center-right, 8.8%, half compared to 2014 result) is as significant as other leading positions are also held by eurosceptic parties – the ‘Five Stars Movement’ (17.0%) and ‘Fratelli d’Italia’ (6.4%). Given that Salvini is in power in Rome – the only leader of the radical right holding this position in Europe – he becomes the indisputable head of European eurosceptics. Moreover, after the future Italian national elections, he threatens to establish the first EU member state government, largely dominated (possibly fully formed of) by the far right forces.
The European Parliament elections of 23-26 May did not change significantly the balance of power at the level of the European Parliament and do not threaten definitively the unity and further integration in the EU. However, the details characterising the election results revealed that the threats to European stability did not disappear. On the contrary, these threats continue to develop latently. The outbreak of new crises, such as the economic and migration ones, can have the most serious consequences on the increasingly fragile balance of powers in the European Union. European states outside the EU should realise that they will be able to count less and less on the Brussels’ attention and support.
Liviu Mihail Iancu is senior editor at EuroPunkt.ro, a Romanian online platform providing information, analyses and interviews on the European Union. He was awarded the prize for the best columnist on European affairs by the European Comission Representation Office in Romania in 2015.