The European elections are over and the results are a spectacular surprise. The final results will be published in a few days, but while parties might gain or lose a few points, it won’t affect the overall seat allocation in the European Parliament (EP). As such, we can already take a closer look at these elections and see how they turned out and why.
Europe turned out to vote
Speaking of turnouts, the greatest news (for the EU institutions and civil society, certainly) of the evening was an increased turnout across the European Union, with only few countries slightly dipping down from their 2014 turnouts. The most welcome increase came from voters in Central and Southern Europe. While the Baltic countries only experienced a slight increase, Hungary, Czechia, Slovakia, Denmark, France and Germany increased by around 10%, Austria even increased by 15% and Poland, Romania and Spain increased their turnout by a whopping 20%. With an overall turnout of 50.82%, these European elections have overcome the twenty-year-long trend of ever-decreasing turnouts and returned back to a level last seen in the 1990s. Turnout in 1999 was slightly lower at 49.51, while 1994’s turnout was 56.67%.
One could speculate that Brexit was the defining factor in mobilising voters, but in most countries, analysis shows more national motives. In Austria, for example, where we have just experienced a major political meltdown, the majority of voters indicated that they voted to send a signal to their national politicians.
The reason why turnout has been decreasing over the last two decades was the rapid accession of new EU member states, most of which are still very young democracies and still learning about their new civic duties and processes. Adding low-turnout countries to a mix of high-turnout countries naturally causes a dip in numbers.
Last night’s turnout confirms this, as especially post-Soviet countries turned out in greater numbers than ever before at European elections, and in some cases, also in greater numbers than at national elections, fuelled by their own national political crises. This was the main contributing factor to the overall increased European turnout and a welcome one to be sure.
The European Parliament civil service teamed up with civil society organisations across Europe and invited any and all Europeans (particularly young Europeans) to join in the apolitical “This Time I’m Voting…” campaign and mobilise voters everywhere to increase turnout. Perhaps the campaign may be able to take some of the credit for increased turnout in the end.
A new political cleavage rises
For months, europhiles have warned of a surge in nationalism and populist parties. While they did perform admirably well in some countries, overall, the ENF (nationalists) and EFDD (populists) factions did not win a landslide victory. The ENF gained 12 extra seats, increasing their shares from 36 to 58. Although, Viktor Orban gained 13 seats that are currently counted as EPP (conservatives) seats, but will likely move over to the ENF in a few days, making the ENF the fourth strongest faction in the European Parliament. The EFDD also gained 12 seats, mostly due to the Brexit Party’s success in the UK. Meanwhile, the UK Conservatives lost the majority of seats, plummeting to a total of 3, diminishing the overall power of the ECR (eurosceptic conservatives), which went from 77 seats in 2014 down to 59 in 2019. GUE/NGL (far-left) also lost out from 52 to 39 seats. So while the eurosceptic bloc gained votes, they also stole votes from each other.
The big losers of the night were the the traditional EPP and S&D (socialists) factions, which lost their dominant positions in the EP for the first time in decades. The EPP dropped from 216 seats down to 180, not counting the imminent loss of another 13 Fidesz (Orban’s party) seats, putting the EPP at its lowest-ever level of 167 seats in total. Meanwhile, the S&D lost just as much, going from 185 to 146 seats. Although the S&D was predicted to lose even more seats and as such held on relatively well, with a very strong performance from the resurging Dutch socialist PvdA, which topped the polls in the Netherlands, likely due to the performance of the Dutch lead candidate Frans Timmermans.
The weak performance of the two main power blocs in the EU can be explained with their bad record of responding to both the financial and migration crises, as well as their inaction on climate change issues over the last five years. Some exit polls show that voters voted primarily because of their national political situations, but also because they cared about the issues of migration, the environment, the economy, the fear of loss of European freedoms and democratic standards in the face of populist movements and deeper European integration (or Brexit).
This also explains why the two big winners of this election have performed so well. The Greens/EFA (Green parties and Regional Independence Movements) made electoral history with their best ever result of 69 seats, up 17 from 2014’s 52 seats. At the same time, the ALDE (Liberals & Democrats and Macron’s LREM in France) almost doubled their seats from 69 up to 109. There is also still room for more movement between the factions, as Portugal’s social democrats have also expressed an interest in Macron’s Renaissance project prior to the elections. With such a strong outing, it is entirely possible that more parties from the EPP and S&D might want to shift their allegiance to the new ALDE and Renaissance faction that is likely to dominate much of the political discourse in Brussels for the next five years.
The EU’s next five years
Most importantly, no two factions in the EP now hold a majority in the chamber. From now on, all decisions will have to be approved at the very least by the EPP, S&D and Greens/EFA, although the latter rarely agrees with the former. This means, the liberals and greens are effectively the deciding voices in the European Parliament, allowing them stronger stances on issues important to them and their respective voters, most importantly: the environment and the economy, as well as deeper integration of the European Union.
Brexit will likely not affect this situation either. First of all, the legal service of the EP has found no basis for ousting the UK’s MEPs (Members of European Parliament) after Brexit, as voters in the UK were also EU citizens (and will still include EU citizens after Brexit) during the vote. MEPs represent European citizens, not nations and as such should be unaffected by the status of the UK in the EU.
But even if Brexit would mean a shift in parliamentary seats, the main factions to lose seats would be the EFDD, ALDE, S&D and Greens/EFA and the majorities in the European Parliament would remain unaffected, meaning that the new European Parliament will return to the old and proven method of European consensus and compromise politics, we have known before 2009.
The main question that still remains unanswered is who will be the next Commission President. As the EPP’s Manfred Weber is incredibly unpopular (as proven by these abysmal EPP electoral results), he is unlikely to be selected by the national heads of government. So the main duel will be between Michel Barnier and Margrethe Vestager. Barnier proved himself during the Brexit negotiations and he does represent the EPP, which, though weakened, still won the majority of seats in the European Parliament. At the same time, the liberals won the greatest amount of seats in the European Parliament and Vestager has also proven herself in her term as Commissioner for Competition. The socialists will likely also vow for some position. As such, compromise is the most likely scenario. Barnier will likely be our new Commission President, with Vestager as his first Vice-President. Then we may have Guy Verhofstadt or Frans Timmermans as President of the European Parliament, depending on whether or not Timmermans would accept another Vice-President position under Barnier. The Greens don’t have any heads of government, so are likely not to get any commissioners, but instead will gain a few vice-presidents of the European Parliament to satiate their appetite. Overall, it looks like we will see a more colourful and progressive European Union over the course of the next five years.