Power shifts as European elections come of age
It appears as if the Brexit saga has acted as a cautionary tale across the continent
Already the Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras has called an election following his party’s poor showing in Europe. Photograph: John Thys/Pool via Reuters
Forty years after the first direct elections in 1979, European elections have come of age. Transnational European politics are being layered on top of national politics and political Europe is deepening.
Media coverage naturally led with what was happening in each member state but the national storyline was interwoven with developments across Europe and there was lively social media interaction across the continent. Turnout of more than 50 per cent was a strong signal that voters regard these elections as significant, not as important as national elections, but important nonetheless.
There are four big trends evident in the elections. First, the duopoly of the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) Group was broken as both parties experienced major losses.
The two large party groupings that dominated the European Parliament since 1979 can no longer command a majority, which reflects the squeezing of the political centre from the right and left, a marked feature of contemporary European politics.
The ending of two-party dominance is to be welcomed as it will shift the political dynamic in the parliament.
Second, the Liberals made big gains largely because of the arrival of Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche. Their 112 seats puts them in a very powerful position.
Third, the Greens return to the parliament with gains of more than 20 seats. Their performance in Germany is particularly noteworthy as they relegated the Socialists to third position.
Fourth, there were modest gains for the far-right, mostly from Italy where Matteo Salvini’s Lega won more than 30 per cent of the vote, transforming the Lega into the largest party in Italy. The outcome of the election points to a parliament with a diversity of opinion but pro-EU parties will hold approximately 477 seats and there is no evidence that the far-right is about to overturn Europe’s political order.
The political effects of the elections will be felt in the member states and in Brussels. Already, the Greek prime minister has called an election following his party’s poor showing in the election. The governing coalitions in Germany, where the Social Democrats lost seats, and Italy, were the Five Star Movement came in third, may well have been destabilised and autumn elections in these countries cannot be ruled out. European elections can influence national political cycles in unpredictable ways.
While the votes are still being counted, attention is already turning to the impact of the elections on the choice of next commission president. It is make-or-break time for the so-called Spitzenkandidat system whereby the nomination for commission president comes from the lead candidates chosen by the party groupings ahead of the election. Last time, Jean-Claude Juncker’s appointment arose directly from the elections as he was lead candidate for the largest grouping, the EPP.
This time round, political forces are much more delicately balanced, both in the parliament and European Council. Manfred Weberclaims the top job as the leader of the EPP but Frans Timmermans of the S&D argues that he might have a better chance of securing a majority.
The Liberals and the Greens are the king or queen makers and different coalitions are possible to get to the magic number of 376, an overall majority in parliament.
The centre-right (EPP), centre-left (S&D) and the Liberals would have a large majority but there is also a smaller majority available to the EPP, S&D and Greens without the Liberals.
The issue must be settled between the parliament and the European Council that met on Tuesday evening for a preliminary discussion. The key considerations are party, geography and gender and, of course, the personal ambitions of many. There are a number of other prime positions in the mix such as the presidency of the parliament itself, the next European Council president, the presidency of the European Central Bank and the next high representative for foreign affairs. The battle is on to forge a package deal that can be agreed by all of the political forces involved.
President Macron is not a fan of the Spitzenkandidat process and one of his aides has talked of the need to kill the Weber candidacy. In preparation for the European Council meeting, Macron met with Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez in Paris on Monday evening to shape deliberations within the European Council.
However, Weber is backed by Berlin which puts Chancellor Merkel on the other side of this argument. The challenge for Weber is that he may simply not have the majority support in the parliament even with the backing of Berlin. His unwillingness to deal decisively with Fidesz, the party of Hungarian leader Victor Orban, has undoubtedly damaged him.
Many names are swirling around the corridors in Brussels but it is too early to tell how the preferences of the national leaders and parliamentarians will play out over the next month in preparation for the first meeting of the parliament in July.
There is talk of the very able EU competition chief, Margrethe Vestager, as the first woman leader of the commission or Michel Barnier as a compromise candidate for the EPP. It will take some time for the balance of forces to become clearer.
Will Macron succeed in stopping Weber or will Merkel have sufficient political clout left to protect the Spitzenkandidat process?
Whatever the outcome, the 2019 elections were good for Europe. The hype about a surge of the far-right was overstated. Apart from Italy, the far-right lost votes or just maintained their pre-election standing.
Although Salvini aimed to lead a large anti-European group in the parliament, it is only the fifth largest behind the Greens and will have little say on who becomes commission president. It appears as if the Brexit saga has acted as a cautionary tale across the continent.
Brigid Laffan is director of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute, Firenze, Italy