This article is part of the World Economic Forum's Geostrategy platform
European parliamentary elections are complicated and different. Different because the European parliament is not the main decision-making body of the EU and has no control over the budget.
Despite the myth of Brussels as a remote super-state, much sovereignty still lies in the hands of national governments. That’s why voters usually take European elections fairly casually. At the same time, campaigning is mostly about national topics and election results are often verdicts over national performance rather than work in Brussels, but not always. That makes EU elections complicated to read.
Nonetheless, these are the important trends and lessons from this year’s polls that took place between 23 and 26 May, 2019.
Lesson 1 — Europe matters
Voters have woken up to the importance of Europe. A turn-out of 50.5% has stopped the negative trend that began after 1994 when participation was 56.67 %. It had declined steadily since then, and hit the bottom in 2014 with 42.54%. Even in 2019, figures are hugely different over the continent. While 89% of Belgians went to the polling booths, only 23% of Slovaks did. Most countries are in the 40 to 60% bracket with a generally higher participation in the old, Western member states (Denmark: 66%, Spain: 64%, Germany: 62%). Participation in Eastern Europe was nowhere above 50% (Romania: 49%, Poland and Hungary: 43%). Rather high participation in countries such as France (51%) and Italy (56%) did not stop the ascent of right-wing populist parties there.
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Lesson 2 — Europeans want change
This is the most important message: voters want change, but they are divided over the direction. The final figures are not yet out but both the traditional big centrist groups in the European Parliament, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP/178 seats, minus 38) and the centre-left Socialists & Democrats (S&D/147 seats, minus 38) lost votes.
Winners are the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) plus Emmanuel Macron’s “En Marche”(101 seats, plus 32), the Greens/European Free Alliance (70 seats, plus 20) and the right-wing populist Salvini’s “European Alliance of People and Nations” (71 seats/plus 35). These gains are strongly influenced by different national developments. The success of the Greens is mainly a result of huge gains for the Green party in Germany. Liberals gained mainly through the inclusion of Macron’s movement “La Republique En Marche” and right-wing populists through the Italian “Lega Nord” and its popular leader Matteo Salvini. The French right-wing populist Marine Le Pen actually lost votes compared to 2014.
376 seats would be needed for a majority, but that is nowhere in sight. Instead, the new European Parliament will be dominated by new and changing coalitions, which will make old-style back-door deals more difficult and that is a good sign. As a result, the EPP’s lead candidate (or Spitzenkandidat) for the post of President of the European Commission, the German Manfred Weber is rather unlikely to follow Jean-Claude Juncker on that post. Christian-Democrats, the party of Chancellor Angela Merkel lost 8% in Germany. Macron+ALDE and the Greens will have their say in the race for the European top-job and can even become king-makers.
Lesson 3 — Right-wing populists are neither unstoppable nor history
Right-wing populists will form the fourth-largest block in the new European parliament. This is a far cry from Matteo Salvini’s dream to become the strongest block, although his “Lega Nord” contributed strongly with 33% to that goal. For many other countries, right-wing populist results are a mixed bag. Marine Le Pen’s “Rassemblement National” (23,3%) finished just slightly better than President Macron’s “La Republique en Marche” (22.4%) in France, which is rather a defeat for Macron than a victory for Le Pen. In Germany, the ascent of the AfD (11%) was stopped as well as in the Netherlands (4.1%) and Austria (17,3%). However, populists remain strong in the countries where they already form the government: Hungary (56%) and Poland (42.4%).
Lesson 4 — East is East, and West is West
This also means that Eastern and Western Europe are more divided than ever and that is surely a reason to worry. While most of Western Europe voted for some kind of change, staunch support for right-wing populists in the East shows that Hungary and Poland now have a fundamentally different idea of Europe than the rest of the EU. This will slow down the process of European integration in many fields that are pertinent to the changing global landscape such as European security cooperation and policy towards China as well as in the crucial questions of how to deal with refugees and the Eurozone.
Lesson 5 — Britain is really out and remains truly European
The handsome win of Nigel Farage’s Brexit party (31.6%) against the remainers of the Liberal Democrats (20.3%) shows that Brexiteers can still mobilise their electorate better than Remainers (except, of course for Scotland that always strongly opposed Brexit). This result, especially in a European poll shows that there is no turning the clock back. What is interesting, however, is that the UK remains well within the European mainstream when it comes to losses of the centre. These were even bigger for the Conservatives (9.1%) and Labour (14.1%) than the European average.
2019 EP elections have been a boost for democracy in Europe. Voters have given a clear and yet differentiated verdict that tells mainstream parties that they want more transparency and more of a say.
If the clear winners of these elections, Liberals and Greens manage to push for more accountable decision making and mainstream parties learn the right lessons from their losses, Europe should be able to overcome its current crisis and come out stronger.
If not, centrifugal forces will grow. Right-wing populists are far from defeated. They remain a force that has the potential to win elections in major countries such as France and Italy, Hungary and Poland, and that gives them significant influence even when not in government. Europe is in a better position now than 2014, but not yet out-off the woods.
Europe’s divided vote for change — 5 lessons from the EU parliamentary elections, Britta Petersen, Observer Research Foundation