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.

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