GP Insights # 54, 2 June 2019
The elections to the EU Parliament held between 23-26 May 2019 have thrown up new trends that would come to dominate European politics. Voters from across the European Union voted for the parties they want to represent them in the European Parliament, the only one whose members are directly elected by the EU citizens.
The message from the election has been three. First, the voters have indicated a need for change by neither voting the centre-left and the centre-right to power for the first time since 1979. Second, support has instead been to the EU Green parties (“Greens”) and liberals. And third, far-right populist and nationalist parties led by the likes of Italy’s Matteo Salvini and France’s Marine Le Pen have consolidated their position in the European Parliament.
What is the background?
Voters directly elect the European Parliament in the European Union. The Parliament, along with the Council of Ministers from the member states, is tasked to make laws and approve budgets. It is responsible for maintaining EU’s external relation with the other countries, including approving the joining of new members. Its members represent the interests of different countries and different regions within the EU. Every five years, EU countries go to the polls to elect members of the European Parliament. Each country is allocated a set number of seats, roughly depending on the size of its population. The smallest, Malta, has six members while the largest, Germany has 96.
What does it mean?
The following trends could be identified from the election results.
First, the centre-right European People’s Party and the centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats have mostly ruled the European Parliament since 1979. However, this election has effectively ended their 40-year majority. The reason could be seen as an anti-incumbency sentiment sending a strong signal that an institutional change is needed in the establishment.
The need for change that dictated the outcome of the result also highlights the fact that the current election was less about EU and more about the national narratives playing out at the international level. The votes from the 28 countries reflected what each country’s voter wants in their respective national political debates that have amplified on a continental scale.
Secondly, the ‘Green wave’ shouldn't have come as a surprise. The alternative narrative was slowly gaining ground as the centrist parties were losing their popularity. The Greens came in second place in Germany with a whopping 20 per cent of the vote, beating the traditional centre-left Social Democratic Party. The Greens had their best-ever results in Finland, picking up more than 16 per cent of the vote. In France, the Greens came in a third place, with 13 per cent of the vote. In the UK, the pro-EU Greens snagged about 12 per cent of the vote, gaining approximately seven seats and coming in fourth place, in front of the governing Conservative Party. In total, the Greens will take about 70 seats in the 751-member European Parliament, up from 51 in the last election, in 2014. Leaving aside the overriding concern of environment and climate change, what the Greens have managed to do is convey their vision of sustainable socio-economic equality and immigration issues in the aftermath of the Euro crisis.
However, a more significant trend is yet to be understood as to what is unifying the Greens across the continent into a mainstream political force?
Thirdly, the number of votes to the far right has increased by five, and they will hold about 25 per cent of seats in the European Parliament. However, it is not an all-European trend because they have performed better in some EU countries compared to others. However, these parties are here to stay.
Lastly, the maximum impact could be felt in the UK. The UK wasn’t supposed to be participating in the European parliamentary elections; had the Brexit plan worked it would have been out of the EU by now. As a result of the European parliamentary elections, the votes have turned into a referendum on the Brexit debate that’s dividing the country. Nigel Farage, the former head of the UK Independence Party, and his newly formed Brexit Party was placed first in the elections, winning more than 31 per cent of the vote and 29 of the UK’s seats in the European Parliament.