It’s the moment we’ve all (not) been waiting for: the 2019 European Parliament elections. As if Europe didn’t have enough problems at the moment, citizens of the rebranded EU-27 are set to go to the polls in May in what many observers consider the most consequential EP election since its founding in 1979.
Not only will the elections usher in a new Commission, the result is also expected to upend the cozy “grand coalition” power sharing between the center-right and center-left that has been the body’s modus operandi for most of its existence. The reason? Populists across Europe, from the right to the left, are expected to strengthen at the expense of established parties.
In other words, the EP could end up looking a lot more like Europe’s national parliaments with unknown consequences for the EU. “The forthcoming European elections could be a step towards a fundamental reorientation of the European integration project,” Nicolai von Ondarza and Felix Schenuit of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) concluded in a recent analysis.
The operative word, of course, is “could.” Much will depend on what issues dominate the campaign, i.e. what’s on voters’ minds. Will pan-European subjects, such as migration and common defense, continue to resonate, or will local affairs dominate?
Though poll data exists for all 27 countries, analysts caution that it’s too early to make precise forecasts; the campaign has yet to begin and most voters have only a vague notion of what’s coming, if they’re aware of the elections at all.
Whatever the outcome, the elections fall at a delicate moment for the EU. In addition to a new Commission, a new president of the European Council will take office this fall as will a new leader of the European Central Bank.
Though the elections are supposed to be about Europe, they usually revolve around local concerns, national moods and personalities. Indeed, far from a true European election, which would require transnational lists, the current structure more resembles 27 national elections, all of which have their own dynamic.
About the only certainty is that Brexit (assuming it goes through) will leave the EP somewhat smaller with 705 seats compared to 751 currently. Even if the polls are fuzzy and best consumed with a grain of salt, they’re still worth perusing to better understand the dynamics.
So far, they suggest that the center-right European People’s Party will once again be the largest group, albeit with a somewhat smaller share than the 29.2 percent they won in 2014. Current projections put them in the range of about 26 percent (186 seats), according to Politico’s poll of polls. The center-left S&D (Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats) ranks second, or about 18.5 percent (130 seats), down from 25 percent in 2014. The S&D’s expected slide is due in part to the absence of the UK’s Labour party this time around, as well as socialist parties’ fading fortunes across Europe.
The more compelling questions are how the parties below the two largest groups will fare and what alliances then emerge.
In some respects, the current EP appears stuck in 2014. Some of the parties there no longer exist in their original form (including Germany’s populist Alternative für Deutschland and the France’s Front National), while others have been severely marginalized (the Social Democrats across several countries).
In addition to the EPP and S&D, there are currently five other groups in the EP: the liberal Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE); the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), which is Euroskeptic; Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy Party (EFDD), a right-wing populist group; Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF), another far-right populist group; the Greens/European Free Alliance; and the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL).
Here again, the departure of the UK parties will have considerable impact. Both the Conservative Party, which belongs to the ECR and the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which belongs to the EFDD, will leave big holes in their groups, as they represent the largest contingent in each. With the Brits gone, the largest party in the ECR is likely to be Poland’s Law and Justice party (PiS), which has led to speculation that the group, which is pro-Europe but wants more national controls, will take on a more eastern European focus.
Meanwhile, the EFDD, which in addition to UKIP includes Italy’s Five Star Movement, will likely cease to exist because without the British contingent the group won’t meet the 25-member threshold necessary to form a formal faction. The question then will be where the Five Star Movement, which is expected to increase its share of the European vote after finishing first in this year’s Italian general election, will end up. Party leaders have signaled they want to start a new EP group but they could also join an existing one or remain independent. That may be the most likely outcome, considering that party, with its eclectic program and views, doesn’t fit well into any of the existing groups.
The biggest winners come election day may well end up being the far-right populists of the ENF, which has strengthened considerably in recent years. The group includes Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, until recently the Front National, as well as Austria’s Freedom Party, Italy’s Lega and the Dutch Party for Freedom, controlled by Geert Wilders. If, as some speculate Germany’s far-right AfD joins, it would become a potent populist force in the EP. The parties are currently projected to garner as much as 13 percent of the vote collectively. If they were to cooperate with the ECR, the bloc would control about 20 percent of the EP.
Yet that’s a big if. In the past, the groups have proved extremely volatile and incapable of cooperating effectively, limiting their ability to shape policy. Given the nature of the parties, that dynamic would appear unlikely to change anytime soon.
That’s good news for centrist parties, which appear certain to retain control of the EP, albeit with less of a majority than they’ve enjoyed in the past. The wildcard is Emmanuel Macron and his La République En Marche!
movement, which is plans to join forces with ALDE in the European campaign. The parties are currently polling at around 13 percent, but with the domestic pressures Macron faces at home, it’s far from clear his presence on the campaign trail in the coming months, especially in France, will be a positive.
For the moment, the EPP seems likely to sail to victory in May, positioning it to nominate its Spitzenkandidat Manfred Weber as the next Commission president. Macron’s ability to rally votes with his European vision represent the other centrist parties’ best chance to prevent that outcome.
It’s also worth remembering that six months is a lifetime in politics and if recent experience has taught us anything, it’s this: anything can happen.