Wednesday 29 May 2019

European Elections 2019 - Greens, Liberals and Nationalists stay afloat in churning electoral waters

After the last five years, it's not surprising that the old centrist parties of left and right faced a slip in support - to the extent that the big two of the EPP and S&D can no longer command a majority on their own - but their votes held up a bit more than might be expected.  The nationalists and far right had a very mixed night, advancing in Italy and Germany while falling back in Denmark and the Netherlands.  The big winners were the Greens and the liberals, winning an extra 57 seats between them and giving them a strong position in the upcoming coalition horsetrading.

The Results

The results are still to be fully confirmed, and some of the national parties may still switch between the European blocs (Orban's Fidesz party is currently suspended by the EPP and may decide to switch to the ECR), but at the time of writing the results are:

European People's Party 178 seats (-35)
Socialists & Democrats 153 (-34)
Alliance of Liberals and Democrats - 105 (+30)
Greens / EFA - 69 (+17)
European Conservatives and Reformists - 63 (-13)
Europe of Nations and Freedom - 58 (+22)
Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy - 54 (+13)
European United Left / Nordic Green Left - 38 (-14)
Non-Attached Members - 8
New Members (yet to join one of the blocs) - 25

Turnout across the EU was up for the first time after years of continuous decline from 43% to 51%, giving a huge boost to the legitimacy of the Parliament, but the Spitzenkandidat process seems to have made less of an impact than in its first outing in 2014 - except perhaps in the Netherlands, where Timmermans led a revival in S&D fortunes.

What's the Story?

The election brought such differing results that no Europe-wide narrative could really be drawn from them.  The Greens, Liberals and nationalists had good nights in certain areas, though the nationalist right will be disappointed that it hasn't done as well as expected.  The Greens made great progress in Germany, France, Finland and Ireland, while the far right scored successes in Italy and Britain (making modest gains in Germany and Spain, where they underperformed their previous national support, and standing still in France).  The Liberals did well in France, Britain, Czech Republic, Romania and the Nordic countries.  Meanwhile, the centre-left managed to hold on or revive itself in Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal.

Proportional representation means that there is always going to be a certain kaleidoscopic quality to the results, but the electoral churn this year is particularly perplexing.  It seems that the liberal/far right populist divide has polarised pro- and anti-European feeling, leading to mirroring support for those movements in certain countries, and that the Greens are stepping in as an alternative to the old centre-left in countries where the established left is struggling to revive itself.  Both developments will have a big impact on politics at a European level, as MEPs more self-consciously pitch themselves to these audiences, and nationally, as Green issues are taken ever more seriously and certain countries are absorbed in culture wars (particularly France, Italy and the UK).

Tilting left: where now for the Parliament?

Overall the Parliament has started to tilt ever-so-slightly leftwards.  Now the big two have lost their majority, the Liberals and the Greens are increasingly important in forming a stable coalition.  Coalitions aren't as important as at the national level as they can be formed more easily on issue-to-issue votes, but there needs to be a sufficient level of stability and cohesion to elect a college of commissioners and help pick the top EU jobs.

The Parliament website has a useful tool for calculating potential majorities.  The main ones are:

EPP + S&D + ALDE - 436 seats
EPP + S&D + Greens - 400 seats
EPP + S&D + ALDE + Greens - 505 seats
EPP + ALDE + ECR + ENF - 404 seats

The last of these potential coalitions, EPP + ALDE + ECR + ENF, is highly unlikely as ENF houses France's National Rally party and would be considered unacceptable as a coalition partner.  However, it illustrates how difficult it is constructing a coalition on the right as the ENF and EFDD are not only difficult partners politically, but they have very low levels of voting cohesion (this also applies to the far-left EUL/NGL bloc).

The weakness of both the EPP and S&D, coupled with the shift towards the Liberals and Greens, means that the political balance has started to shift leftwards, which may impact on the shape of future Eurozone and other economic legislation.  It would also add weight to arguments on civil liberties.  The four-bloc pro-EU coalition has a very large majority, showing that on issue-to-issue votes, ad hoc coalitions necessary to get amendments and legislation through can afford to err more on the left of an argument. The ability of the EPP to maintain its own cohesion on votes and the economic positioning of the Liberals will be key in determining how far the leftward shift can actually go.  The left is, after all, very divided and will need to have a clearer idea of where it wants to go to make an impact.

Sunday 26 May 2019

#EU09vsEU19 - What's changed in EU politics and social media?

EuroPasionaria has made a welcome return to EU blogging, and has asked old EU bloggers: what's changed? How has EU politics and communication changed online and how does it live up to the idealistic outlook of EU bloggers from a decade ago? La Oreja de Europa, Mathew Lowry and Polscieu have already posted their views under the hashtag #EU09vs19, and it's got me thinking about what has changed over the last decade.

I was mainly active from 2009-2014, actively reading up on and following the last two European elections, but as work commitments increased, I had less time to blog and haven't returned since the last election.  My interest in EU politics hasn't fallen away, however - after I moved back to the UK, I volunteered for some local campaigning in the Remain campaign, and Brexit has pretty much dominated the political concerns around me ever since (particularly as someone who grew up on the Irish border).

So what's changed?  And how do things compare to the aims of Eurobloggers?

EU politics, then and now

Back in 2009, EU affairs were rarely discussed in the national media - and even when they were discussed, it was with little detail and from a(n understandably) fairly narrow national perspective.  EU bloggers were largely people with some academic, work or life experience of the EU, who wanted to open up the EU institutions, politics and issues for wider debate.  It was a lot of fun and it was exciting to be part of an evolving debate and the small successes that the community had in gaining access to the EU Bubble and debating the issues (hey, reading government and parliamentary documents was big in 2009 - there was no Netflix and we had to make our own entertainment!).

The 2009 European elections saw a lot of anti-Barroso sentiment online, but a lacklustre campaign saw little change in the parliamentary arithmetic and he returned to lead the Commission.  The Eurocrisis, however, saw European issues merge with national issues in a major way not only in Ireland, Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal, but also in other Member States faced severe economic circumstances and the big question: how much economic and social solidarity should there be in the EU?  "Europe" loomed larger in the national media, and encouraged more people to join the debate on social media, though often sticking to national silos.

At the 2014 elections, the Europarties tried to bring the debate to life by picking Spitzenkandidaten for the Commission presidency. It did little to stimulate much of a debate outside some circles, and by then the Euroblogosphere community had shrunk (I myself stopped blogging around this time).  Blogging can be time-intensive, so it's not surprising that people dropped out, but it was sad to see that new people weren't joining at quite the same rate.  Discussions moved on to other social media platforms (primarily Twitter), and the interested citizen-activist community of bloggers that lived in the curious middle ground between the media and academia was hollowed out.

What's different in 2019?  Things seem to be the same, only more so.  Brexit, the growth of anti-EU populism, the refugee crisis, and unfinished Eurozone reforms mean that European issues are even more at the forefront of national politics than ever before.  People are more energised on European issues and the debates are much more mainstream.  So many more take to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc., to make their views known.  But the debate is now on the level of the fundamental direction of Europe and its nations in a way that doesn't fully air the key questions or truly hold people and institutions to account.  The Eurosceptic European conservatives and reformists may now have a Spitzenkandidat, but it's hard to claim there's much of a policy debate taking place.

Reasons to be Pessimistic, and causes for optimism

So the kind of long-form, institution-focused blogging that made up the early Euroblogosphere has diminished and, to a certain extent, been dissolved into a broader short-form social media conversation that's much more open.  It's a great thing that much more people are involved and active in the debate.

The fault-line of a pro-EU coalition versus anti-EU populism means, however, that such debates have not yet shifted in the direction we may have wished for.  The Spitzenkandidaten are not under much scrutiny and campaigns are largely Europeanised national campaigns rather than campaigns on European issues, such as the Euro, with national characteristics and flavour.  Rather than building a community that bridges the gaps between citizens, institutions and national media, citizens and national media have begun to engage more with "Europe".  While the increase in support of EU membership and (potential) mobilisation in defence of the basic ideals of the EU and its institutions is welcome, I worry that without the creativity of conservatives, liberals, social democrats and Greens putting forward new ideas in a way that captures the public imagination and fashions real change, the rallying cry in defence of Europe could fade away without generating anything constructive of its own (as the institutions themselves rarely figure in these debates).  That said, with so many new people joining the debate in new ways and taking another look at the world and continent around them, I think we can be optimistic that new and better debates and ideas will emerge.

Personally, I blogged because I was interested in the subject, liked writing, and was proud to be part of such an active and thoughtful community.  It's something that I've learned a lot from and that gave me the opportunity to meet may fantastic people - and I still believe there's a certain value in engaging with people in a long-form format that (hopefully) stretches your thinking.  With European issues so mainstream and with little time to invest in writing amount more niche European issues, I don't feel as great as need to write about the EU as I once did, but I hope to blog more again in the future from time-to-time.