From May 23 to 26, 2019, voters across the European Union will head to the polls to elect a new European Parliament. With party politics undergoing a revolution at the national level and uncertainty over the future of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU, the European elections come at a pivotal time. How will these elections change the EU’s political and institutional dynamics? It’s up to the EU’s 400 million voters (not counting Britain) to decide.
Will the Center Hold?
The elections will likely end the long era of big party dominance of the parliament’s business and of its committees. Mainstream center-right and center-left parties have traditionally retained a comfortable majority in the EU’s main institutions, including the European Parliament. Now, however, the populists are on course to make big electoral gains that could disrupt the Christian Democrat/Social Democrat tandem that have run the chamber for over 40 years.
Rising socio-economic inequalities and the divisive 2015 migration crisis have had a damaging effect on the public’s trust in political leadership. Consequently, disaffected voters are increasingly casting their votes in favor of anti-establishment candidates who promise radical change. If the recent national trends continue, both the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the center-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) are expected to lose many seats.
According to the latest data from Europe Elects (and assuming UK participation), the EPP will come in at 180 seats—a net loss of 41. It will, however, remain the parliament’s largest political group. The S&D is predicted to lose almost as heavily, with a drop of 30 to only 161 seats.
For the first time, the EPP and the S&D then may fail to jointly command a majority, which could empower other groups, especially the liberal ALDE, which is projected to become the third largest grouping. The Europe Elects model projects 104 seats for ALDE, should French President Emmanuel Macron’s projected 23 MEPs from La République En Marche join the group.
The question then arises as to whether the centrist parties will manage to agree on the most important topics. In the new parliament it will likely become more difficult to garner enough votes to pass legislation. While this may decrease the parliament’s legislative efficiency, the pro-EU political groups will still command a clear majority due to the Liberals and the Greens/EFA, who are set to win 51 seats. However, with the right-wing populists surging, all centrist parties will have to pull together to guarantee the regular functioning of the Parliament.
No Business as Usual
A number of reasons make us assume that the European Parliament will be less governable after the elections.
First, it is very difficult to predict the composition of the right-wing political groups after May. At a news conference on April 8, Italy’s Interior Minister and Lega leader, Matteo Salvini, announced his plan to form a new right-wing alliance called the European Alliance for People and Nations (EAPN), which would draw members from existing right-wing groups, among them the far-right Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) alliance. Traditionally divided, the populist right will aim to join forces to challenge the power of the governing bloc.
It is too early to say how much influence the new grouping could have, but a strong performance of right-wing populist parties could shake up the dynamics inside the European Parliament. Assuming that all ENF members—which is currently projected to win 62 seats—join the new group, EAPN may be in contention to beat out ALDE and become the third largest parliamentary group, at 85 seats. The right-wing populists would thus be far from commanding a majority, but the resulting polarization may cause uncertainty for policy-making and risks paralyzing the EU.
The creation of EAPN will also lead to the breakup of the right-wing populist Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group, which was already likely to collapse following the departure of the British MEPs, and the shrinking of the conservative ECR group (64 seats projected). This would leave large parties like Italy’s Five Star Movement (M5S) and Poland’s PiS in search of new allies, and potentially able to tip the balance of the new parliament. With 49 seats (projected), the left-wing GUE/NGL group will likely repeat its performance of 2014.
These numbers assume that the UK will not leave the EU before May 23. UK participation will prevent the planned reduction from 751 to 705 MEPs—and an eventual UK departure would weaken the social democrats, possibly bringing them down to their worst result in EU history.
Indeed, an average of polls compiled by Europe Elects shows that the UK Labour Party is likely to win a landslide should the UK participate, picking up around 30 seats. Labour would then represent the largest national delegation in the S&D group. This would help close the center-left’s gap with the EPP, which would not gain a single seat from British participation, since the UK has no EPP party.
This swing could even be enough to tip the balance of power in favor of a progressive alliance between the S&D, ALDE, the Greens and parts of the radical left (the GUE-NGL group is more likely to make small losses than gains in May), sending the EPP into opposition for the first time. The UK participating in the European elections would have a disruptive impact, on Brussels as well as Westminster.