The European citizens have spoken – but one day after the European elections, it is not yet entirely obvious what they have said. By now, the vote count has finished in almost all countries, and an overview of the provisional results can be found on this website of the European Parliament. However, the exact balance of power between the political groups in the Parliament will become clear only over the next few days; many national parties have made it into the Parliament for the first time and are only now starting to talk with the group to which they feel the highest political affinity. Some others were already in Parliament before the election, but don’t feel comfortable in their old group anymore and are therefore likely to change over to another one.
And finally, there are two associations, the right-wing populist EFD and the far-right EAF, which would like to constitute themselves as parliamentary groups, but don’t yet meet the necessary conditions provided in the rules of procedure of the Parliament (at least 25 members from at least seven different countries). Therefore, these groupings are bound to go in search of potential new members during the coming days.
Thus, any statement on the future composition of the European Parliament can currently be made only with reservations (for an overview see here). Nevertheless, some contours are already becoming visible.
First: EPP loses, but remains the strongest group
The European People’s Party (EPP) is the biggest loser of this election: The Christian democrats plummeted from previously 274 to just 210 mandates. The party that dominated all European institutions in recent years is now the strongest political force only in 13 of the 28 EU member states. Their losses are particularly severe in the larger countries: in Germany, France, Italy and Spain alone, the EPP loses no less than 46 members. The most probable reason for this is the discontent that the Euro crisis and the often too improvised crisis management of the European leaders have caused.
And yet, the European People’s Party is also the main winner of the election: after many pre-election polls had predicted a head-to-head race with the socialist S&D group, the EPP clearly managed to hold on to its position as the strongest group in the Parliament. Although the socialists made significant gains in Germany, the UK, and especially Italy, they apparently did not manage to distinguish themselves as a clear alternative, and the losses in Spain, Greece and various smaller countries resulted in the S&D ultimately having to even give up some seats. If it fails to pick up some of the parliamentary “newbies”, the group will decrease from 195 to 191 seats.
This clear advantage of the EPP mainly helps one person: the Christian democratic top candidate Jean-Claude Juncker (CSV/EPP), who can now reaffirm his claim to the office of President of the European Commission. On election night his socialist opponent Martin Schulz (SPD/PES) was quick to underline that for the election of the Commission President it is not necessarily relevant to have the strongest group, but to obtain an absolute majority of deputies. However, the chances of a majority without the EPP are not very good after these European elections.
Second: The expected shift to the left (almost) fails to materialise
It is known that most decisions in the European Parliament – whether legislative or on personnel matters such as the election of the Commission – are taken by an informal “grand coalition” of the two largest groups: EPP and S&D. In some cases, however, other majorities were formed during the last legislature, namely either a “centre-right alliance” of the EPP, the liberal ALDE and the conservative ECR or a “centre-left alliance” of S&D, ALDE, the Greens-EFA and the left-wing GUE/NGL. So far, however, this centre-left alliance has lacked a proper majority; since the four parties together controlled only 372 seats of a total of 766, they always depended on the support of individual non-attached deputies or of dissenters from other groups.
Before the elections, many polls indicated that this situation would be reversed in the new Parliament as it seemed, the centre-left would obtain a narrow, but outright majority. Indeed, the GUE/NGL increased strongly in the European elections; its successes particularly in the crisis-hit countries Spain, Greece and Italy made it grow from 35 to 53 mandates. And in spite of significant losses in France, also the Greens hold pretty well, at 50 instead from 58 seats. At the same time, however, the ALDE experienced dramatic defeats in Germany and Great Britain, plummeting from a total of 83 to 66 seats. Overall, thus, the centre-left camp controls now 360 out of 751 seats – and would thus still depend on additional non-attached members in order to form a majority.
Third: Radicalisation on the right wing
A third tendency of these elections has already been widely discussed in the media: the rise of eurosceptic and right-wing parties. Looking at the entire right wing, this rise is not too impressive. While the parties on the right of the EPP held 99 seats until now, in the future they will be at 131. More important, however, is the radicalisation that has taken place within this right-wing spectrum. Whereas the conservative ECR group loses some seats (44 instead of 57), the populist and eurosceptic EFD increased slightly (from 31 to 33), mainly due to the success of UKIP in Great Britain.
The largest gains, however, were made by the extreme right party EAF, which previously had only 11 MEPs and therefore could not form its own parliamentary group. Now, the victory of the French FN made them bounce up to 38 seats and boosted them as the new reference point on the right edge of the Parliament. As mentioned, however, both the EFD and the EAF still need to win over some more members in order to constitute themselves as parliamentary groups. For this, they will probably court especially the various right-wing parties such as the German AfD or the Polish KNP that have entered the Parliament for the first time. Overall, these new right-wing parties control 16 seats in the new Parliament.
In the actual European legislation, however, the impact of this shift to the right is likely to be very limited. Already in the past, the average EFD and EAF members took part in committee and plenary meetings significantly less frequently than the other parliamentarians, and the internal consistency and party discipline among the right-wing populists is low. And since the EPP is also not likely to have a great inclination to cooperate with radical nationalists and anti-Europeans, the right-wing parties will probably not play a significant role in the majority formation in Parliament
Fourth: Many new non-attached members
But not only the left-wing GUE/NGL and the right-wing EAF recorded an impressive growth in these European elections; also the number of “other non-attached MEPs” increases from 22 to 50. In this grouping you will find the parties of the most extreme right (such as the Hungarian Jobbik or the German NPD) as well as a number of single-issue parties (the Dutch PvdD or the Swedish FI), protest movements (the Italian M5S or the Bulgarian BBZ) as well as some parties that have no clear fit in the European party system, such as the Spanish UPyD, the German FW or the Greek Potami.
Some of these parties are quite likely to join one of the existing parliamentary groups within the next few weeks. Overall, however, it is probable that in the new Parliament there will be a much larger and more varied group of non-attached members than in the old one – which is mostly due to the success of the Italian M5S, but also to the German Federal Constitutional Court, which a few months ago abolished the national electoral threshold for European elections in a highly controversial ruling and thereby paved the way to the European Parliament for no less than seven extremely small parties from Germany.
Fifth: The weakened centre closes ranks
All in all, thus, the centrifugal forces dominated these European elections: while left-wing, right-wing and protest parties gained seats, the parties of the centre suffered partly slight, partly significant losses. But if the voters expect this to cause major changes in European politics, they are likely to be disappointed. In the end, it is most probable that the election results will only cause the two largest groups EPP and S&D to move even closer together and to take even more decisions in an informal “grand coalition”, as both alternative alliances – the above-mentioned coalitions of the centre-left and the centre-right – will no longer have an outright majority in the new Parliament.
For the next European elections in 2019 this is no good prospect. As we know, democracy works only on the basis of political alternation; only if the major parties act as alternative options that represent recognisably different programmes, can citizens use elections in order to make a real choice. Although these differences do exist between the major European parties, Martin Schulz and Jean-Claude Juncker already experienced great difficulties in making them clear during the campaign. If their political groups are now moving even closer together, this could reinforce the impression of many citizens that “those people in Brussels” are all the same anyway – and that the only way to give air to one’s anger is to elect radical anti-system parties.
Sixth: After all, the turnout
To close on a more positive note, for the first time ever, the turnout in a European election was slightly higher than in the last one. After 43.0% in 2009, it now stabilised at 43.1% – which is still no reason for enthusiasm, but nevertheless raises the hope for a trend reversal.
Particularly strong increases in turnout took place (among other countries) in Greece and in Germany, for which there are probably two main reasons. For one, in recent years these two countries have been in the focus of the euro crisis; Greece as the economically most affected country, Germany as the main lender and as the dominating power in the European Council. Therefore, there was intense public debate over European politics in both countries, which led to citizens becoming more aware of what was at stake in the election.
Seventh: The „Spitzenkandidaten“
Moreover, Germany and Greece are the countries of origin of Martin Schulz and Alexis Tsipras, the top candidates of the European Socialists and of the European Left respectively. In fact, according to post-election surveys, not less than 76% of the German SPD voters indicated that Schulz was a “major reason” for their chosen decision. Thus, the strategy of personalising the European elections by appointing “Spitzenkandidaten” for the Commission Presidency appears to be working and can help to bring otherwise uninterested citizens to the polls – although so far this is only true for the countries of origin of the top candidates (In Luxembourg and Belgium, home countries of Jean-Claude Juncker and the ALDE candidate Guy Verhofstadt, voting is compulsory anyway, so that the turnout is regularly at about 90%).
Thus, the great challenge for the future will be to Europeanise this “Spitzenkandidaten” process further. The fact that in many countries the pan-European TV debate between the candidates was broadcast only on special-interest channels, was certainly not helpful. The fact that many leaders, especially the powerful Angela Merkel (CDU/EPP), repeatedly called into question the connection between the European elections and the appointment of the next Commission president, even less so. But this contest is not over yet. In the coming weeks, the European Parliament must defend Jean-Claude Juncker against all the dark horses that the European Council might come up with. By really making the winner of this European election the next Commission President, the MEPs will have sent out a clear signal to European citizens that at the next European elections in 2019 it will again be worth going to the polls.
NB: The figures cited above are those calculated by the author based on the official EP results and additional information collected. For more information, visit the article on the author’s homepage.