December 2018

By Mathilde Defarges and Étienne Soula

In May 2019, Europeans will vote on who will represent them in the European Parliament until 2024. The experience of Brexit, the perceived U.S. administration’s deprioritizing of Transatlantic relations, and the rise of extremism and nationalism has brought a period of significant soul-searching across the EU. In this context, the 2019 EU elections will serve as a bellwether for the bloc’s political direction in the coming decade. The new EU Parliament’s make-up will be a key factor defining the general direction of the EU and may have a decisive impact on the conditions surrounding the exit of one of the bloc’s largest economies, the UK.

The only certainty of the 2019 elections is that the two main political groups that have guided much of the EU Parliament’s operations over the past 20 years—the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and the conservative European People’s Party group (EPP)—will no longer have enough seats to reach a majority and will thus require new allies. While the most talked-about newcomers are seen as being in the extremist and nationalist camps, it is unlikely that these movements will be a driving political force in the new European legislature, primarily due to their disparate agendas and uncompromising stances on matters of public policy. Other parties, such as the Center group (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) and the Greens group (The Greens European Free Alliance) are likely to create shifting coalitions that will have to take into account an unprecedented amount of interests and sensitivities.

In this context, it is important to recognize that the EU Parliament’s powers have been noticeably strengthened as a legislative body in recent years. The 2009 Treaty of Lisbon resulted in the EU Parliament being able to choose the head of the European Commission, which has become a subject of heated debate. In addition, any international agreement entered into by the EU, including the eventual Brexit deal, must be ratified by Members of the EU Parliament (MEPs). These strengthened roles may have a significant impact in the coming years, including as they relate to Brexit and other major policy issues.

Traditional parties weakened

Currently, among the 28 EU Member States (27 post Brexit), the more populous European countries occupy a much larger share of the 751 seats in the EU Parliament (705 post Brexit). For example, Germany alone has only 12 fewer seats than all four Visegrád countries combined (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia). This means that many observers will focus on the elections in countries such as France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. The departure of the UK, the bloc’s third most populous country, will have a significant impact on the composition of the EU Parliament. Of the 73 British MEPs heading home, 20 were Labour party members sitting with the S&D group in the EU Parliament, a heavy loss to one of the Parliament’s most established political parties.

Overall, the S&D group is projected to lose around 50 seats out of its current 187 seats, more than a quarter of its ranks. With Socialist party candidates decimated in France and Italy and taking heavy losses in Germany, and with the UK contingent heading home, the incoming S&D group will be comprised of about as many Spanish and Romanian MEPs as Germans or Italians. Building a coalition and attaining a critical mass within the group will thus require reaching out to more representative nationalities than is currently the case.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the European People’s Party (EPP) seems set to suffer more limited losses and retain more members in the upcoming legislature. However, the EPP faces an internal debate between the traditional Christian democrats and the so-called forces of “illiberal democracy” championed by the likes of Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Moreover, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent setbacks in local elections are sure to weaken the EPP’s current center of gravity. Should this result in a move in the direction of Central Europe’s so-called illiberal trend, there is a risk that some of the more moderate EPP MEPs will head for the exits. If that happens, according to the latest polls, the EPP could lose 58 out of 161 seats.

A rise of far right and nationalist trends

Not only are the two main EU political groups expected to lose dozens of seats, there is significant concern surrounding the rise of far-right movements in Europe, where Lega Nord in Italy and AfD in Germany are each expected to gain seats. As significant as this far-right turn may be, a recent report by the Jacques Delors Institute points to several obstacles standing in the way of Europe’s disunited nationalist forces. For example, Poland’s Law and Justice and Belgium’s New Flemish Alliance advocate reform, not abolition, of the EU. In addition, Western far-right parties have strong pro-Russian leanings, a red line for Central European and Baltic parties. Moreover, the Italian Lega Nord and the anti-migration coalition government in Austria saw their planned cooperation marred by disagreements on immigration policy. These diverging national interests and priorities of populist parties are reflected in their inability to join together in the same political group inside the European Parliament.

That being said, American Stephen Bannon, having been boot out from his White House perch by President Trump, is hard at work in Europe to form such a coalition. Initially lukewarm, several European far-right leaders have recently demonstrated enthusiasm at the prospect of collaborating with Trump’s ex-adviser. On December 8, Bannon joined France’s Rassemblement National (“National Rally”) party head Marine Le Pen and Belgium’s Vlaams Belang (“Flemish Interest”) head Tom Van Grieken in Brussels to advocate against the UN Global Compact for Migration, making all but explicit their intention to work together in the European elections. Still, it remains to be seen whether other far-right parties such as Germany’s AfD— which has kept its distance from Bannon who is seen as toxic by the German population—or those in Finland and Austria will join Bannon's movement.

In the European Parliament, the anticipated far-right swell in certain EU Member States is expected to be somewhat offset by the departure of the sizeable Eurosceptic and right-wing populist UK Independent Party (UKIP) contingent. All in all, at that stage, the Jacques Delors Institute anticipates that a patchwork of populist groupings will occupy between 20- 25% of the EU Parliament’s 705 seats (today 19.6% of the 751 seats) and that their inability to coalesce into a united force will limit them to playing solely the role of “spoiler.”

The indispensable center

The political actor most eager to position himself against the purported far-right swell is none other than French President Emmanuel Macron. For the past few months, President Macron has been traveling across the European continent trying to gather allies for the May 2019 EU elections. His legitimacy as the European leader able to tackle populism has been recently damaged by the so-called “Yellow Vests” protests in France. It is important to recognize that these recent protests are not the product of organized unions or political parties. Their structure-less and leaderless nature makes them potent, volatile, and difficult for the government to handle. According to observers, they are seen as the next stage in a broader populist challenge to Western democracies, bringing together a disparate, leaderless, and grassroots coalition calling for economic and social protections. Just yesterday, President Macron declared in an official address in response to the Yellow Vests movement that France is in an “economic and social state of urgency” and announced concrete measures in response, such as the rising of the minimum wage.

Before the Yellow Vests protests, President Macron’s En Marche movement was anticipated to gain 15 to 20 seats, far from the amount required to shape the European Parliament’s decisions. At the ALDE Congress in Madrid, Spain on November 9, 2018, En Marche formally announced that it will be working to build a new coalition with Liberals, as the ADLE group was hoping for. This grouping would hold around 10% of all available seats (today ALDE represents 9.1%), enough to build a majority coalition with the EPP and S&D.

Rise of the Greens’ influence

The Greens are another group looking to capitalize in the EU Parliament on their recent electoral successes in Germany and Belgium. Their projected gains in Germany would potentially make them the country’s second political force, ahead of both the AfD and the Socialists. This would mean that Germans would make up about half of the European “ecologist” group. And while Europe-wide projections anticipate that the Greens will only snatch around 6% of the European Parliament’s seats, their willingness to work with other pro-European forces means that they are more likely to be included in a governing coalition than the more uncompromising parties.

Major changes and challenges ahead

Whatever coalition emerges from the 2019 EU election promises to be the Parliament’s most diverse in years, with a record number of political sensitivities carried by a plurality of nationalities. This diversity could lead to changing alliances depending on the legislative agenda. Parties that are allies on immigration might turn to other forces on labor rights issues and so on and so forth on a host of other policy issues.

Furthermore, change is not confined only to the EU’s legislative body. While extremist and nationalist parties will likely wield limited influence in the EU Parliament, they will be more than capable of obstructing the European Council, where unanimity among all 27 Member States is required on such sensitive topics as foreign policy, taxation, and health coverage. A first sign of this rising influence may be found in the recent withdrawals of several European Member States from the UN Global Compact on Migration under pressure from the far-right.

All in all, the projected seat losses by the European Parliament’s two main parties signal the end of an era. These actors that have guided the institution’s debates for the last 20 years will need new allies to reach a majority. This fact could reinforce the need for the European Council and Commission to negotiate with the European Parliament, reinforcing the latter’s role.

At a time when the EU is dealing with the consequences of Brexit and pondering its place in a world increasingly shaped by a more inward-looking United States, a resurgent Russia, and an expansionist China, the European Union needs a new direction. If nothing else, the new balance of powers likely to emerge in the European Parliament after the 2019 promises to offer just that.