Key Insights from the EU Elections

On the 26th of May, the 2019 European Parliament elections came to a close. EU elections have been held every five years since 1979, with steadily decreasing turnout every election. This election reversed the trend, with an increase in turnout, but it seems to be more a reaction to the present state of the Union than to a change in trend. (Even in the UK, where Brexit fills the discussion, turnout increased by just 1.3%.) European Parliament elections are largely viewed as a sort of ceremonial election to send a message to national governments, and due to the voting system, minor parties that could not get elected domestically often win seats.

The elections marked the first since 1979 in which the centrist coalition lost the majority of seats. But this was driven less by the much-predicted rise of right-nationalist parties than by a surprise success on the part of Greens. Greens performed particularly well in Germany, where they took second place with 20% of the vote, and in Britain they outperformed thee Conservative Party– which is currently in power in the national government. Green Parties, which broadly reject the market-liberal approach of the centrists (as do the right-nationalists), are strongly committed to the EU as a project. While out of the mainstream (or perhaps because of it), Green Parties have managed to articulate a cleaner, more appealing vision for a pro-European political movement than the usual pro-European liberals. As such, their success should be seen more as a rebuke to the previously-ascendant coalition in the European Parliament than as a surge of Euroskepticism.

This is not to say that Euroskepticism does not exist among the Left. Several working-class strongholds of the Labour Party in Britain defected to the Brexit Party in the EU elections, contributing to 31% of the vote, a larger share than either British major party. (Labour has lost local government seats for the same reason.) Indeed, many voters who voted to remain in the EU in 2016 now back leaving, due to the way successive governments have behaved on the issue.

Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally (the rebranded National Front) technically won the largest share (23.6%) of the French vote, however this was only by a percentage point ahead of President Macron’s La Republique En Marche which won (22.4%). Salvini’s Northern League in Italy won 34% of the vote, which is a dramatic increase from the 6% it won in 2014 while still a regional party. That said, the nationalist right, taken together, only holds a quarter of the seats in the European Parliament, which is barely more than it held before this election. The nationalist parties that have been successful reflect domestic political trends more than a continental shift to the populist right.

In the new European Parliament, despite the centrists’ loss of a majority, they retain the largest number of seats, with 148 for the center-left S&D Alliance and 160 for the center-right EPP, of a total 751 seats. When the 68 seats won by the Greens and the 96 won by the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats are added to this, this puts the combined staunchly pro-European group in a clear majority of over 60%. However, despite this mandate for the EU, with the Greens holding a larger share of this coalition before, there may be more pressure against market-liberal policies. It will be interesting to see if and how that pressure mollifies some voters on the right who have become Euroskeptic due to discomfort with market liberalism. Ultimately there isn’t a grand political trend to be discerned from the 2019 European Elections, however, this is par for the course given the way people tend to vote in them. Still, this will be a critical year for the European Parliament, particularly if the UK goes forward with its rescheduled exit from the Union this October.

[EU Election poster photo by Donald Trung Quoc Don (Chữ Hán: 徵國單) – Wikimedia Commons]

NIF Staff