Apathy rivals populism as an agent of European change

Political fragmentation and low turnout set to shape next European Parliament

Four in 10 French voters say they have no interest in May’s European elections, a recent poll reports. The apathy vote is up more than a sixth since March despite heightened debate about “Europe” across the continent.

The French are far from untypical. Political fragmentation, along with low turnout will probably have as much to do with the shape of the next European Parliament, as any notional populist surge.

Take the United Kingdom, where no party is on course win more than a quarter of the votes, if, as is more than likely now, the country remains in the EU until May 23rd and perforce participates in the voting.

According to the latest YouGov poll, Labour is the clear leader with 24 per cent support, while the Conservatives are in a second place with just 16 per cent, less than half what they achieved at the 2017 UK general election. Nigel Farage's Brexit Party is predicted to poll 15 per cent and his former party – the UK Independence Party (Ukip) – 14 per cent.


For the European People's Party (EPP), the centre-right grouping to which Fine Gael is affiliated and which is the dominant force in the European Parliament, the eclipse of the Tories, whether temporary or through the UK's permanent departure, will have no impact to counter its downward slide. The Tories left them years ago at David Cameron's instigation for the Eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group.

Biggest losers

The EPP, which currently holds the parliament presidency and is the dominant force in committees, is expected to take a big hit. It numbers 217 now but in the reduced parliament – down from 750 to 703 seats (assuming the UK leaves within a few months) – the party will see its poll share fall a fifth to 23 per cent and its seats down from 217 to 188, according to the latest polling for the parliament.

Its main losses will be in France, Italy and Germany.

That is also where the biggest losers of the election – the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), to which Labour is affiliated– will be hit hardest, losing seven, 16, and 12 seats respectively. They are expected to see their representation down a quarter to 19 per cent from 25 per cent.

In France, according to Politico's polls, the Socialist Party that won 13 seats in the last European election would drop to five seats in the next parliament. That's a serious comedown for the party that has produced pioneers of the European project such as François Mitterrand and Jacques Delors.

Among supporters of the European project, Fianna Fáil's Liberal (ALDE) is expected to retain its 11 per cent representation in the parliament as are the Greens (6 per cent) and the hard left (GueNGL) to which Sinn Féin is affiliated, although the latter contains some strong Eurosceptical elements.

Building a parliamentary majority of 353 to pass legislation will be considerably more difficult, not least because of the consolidation of the hard conservative and Eurosceptic right, including not a few outright fascists.

The right is grouped mainly in three parties: the ECR, the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) and the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) – which includes Italy's Matteo Salvini (League) and France's National Rally, formerly the Front National of Marine Le Pen, as well as Austria's Freedom Party and the Netherlands' Party for Freedom.

Bolstered Eurosceptics

There are also allies among the non-party MEPs and the cuckoos in the EPP nest, Hungary's Fidesz party of Viktor Orban. The latter is expected to retain its 13 seats.

Eurosceptics would be bolstered by 35 French MEPs – 21 from the National Rally, eight from the far-left France Unbowed (Gue) and six from the nationalist Debout la France.

Salvini gathered a handful of European far-right parties in Milan two weeks ago in a bid to forge an unlikely alliance of nationalists for the elections.

But although Germany’s Alternative fur Deutschland was represented, as were the Finns Party and the Danish People’s Party, Fidesz and the NR stayed away – the right finds uniting very difficult and Salvini’s claim that they will be the largest bloc in the new parliament is unlikely to be fulfilled. The three parties are not expected to exceed 140 seats.

Over the last several decades, a broad alliance of big parties has called the shots in the EU. Politicians from the mainstream centre-right and centre-left parties have held a comfortable majority in the EU’s principal institutions, including the European Parliament. Almost certainly not any more. Eurosceptic populists will win more MEPs, just as their representation in the council and inevitably then the commission also increases.

"If the populist parties gain enough power to block crucial decisions, all the other parties will have to pull together to keep the EU functioning," Stefan Lehne Heather Grabbe warned in Carnegie Europe

“If they don’t, member governments will start bypassing parliament by doing intergovernmental deals.”

The dominant dividing line of the new parliament could become a contest between politicians who want to find common EU-level solutions to current challenges and those who favour safeguarding and reaffirming national sovereignty: “The parliament could turn into a major battleground between competing visions for the future of Europe.”