A bumpy road ahead: What these election results mean for Europe

It is not just in Britain that these EU elections took on immense significance

May 27, 2019
Counting gets underway is Weisbaden, Germany. Photo: Andreas Arnold/DPA/PA Images
Counting gets underway is Weisbaden, Germany. Photo: Andreas Arnold/DPA/PA Images

In the UK the European Parliament elections were about Brexit and as a consequence took on immense importance. But in the rest of the EU this election was widely perceived as the most important EU election in the last 20 years: in the end, some 50.5 per cent of eligible voters chose to cast their vote to elect the 751 MEPs—significantly up on the usual turnout. The results show a more fragmented and polarised EU. Here are some immediate conclusions, though it has yet to be seen how this result will impact EU decision-making over time.

While both the centre-right and centre-left parliamentary groupings lost seats, the EU elections did not result in the far-right nationalist surge many expected. The notable exceptions are France, where Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (a rebranded Front National) came first with 23.3 per cent of the vote and Italy where Matteo Salvini’s Lega secured 34.5 per cent. It was not a great night for the traditional centre-right, the European People’s Party (EPP) and the centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) parliamentary groupings. The gains did not simply go to the far right. Both lost seats with the Greens and the Liberals making significant gains. But the populists also benefited and the nationalist presence looks here to stay.

Brexit was only an issue for voters in the UK and Ireland, with the Brexit Party in the UK securing over 29 of the UK's 73 seats. But as the battle for Brexit continues to rage in Westminster, most EU countries have decided to switch off. Even those in the EU who had previously endorsed Brexit as a model to follow have changed their tune. Le Pen’s far-right le Rassemblement National dropped any mention of a Frexit in its campaign.

Higher turnout in 21 member states shows that EU and national elections are becoming intertwined. By midday on polling day, 14.39 per cent of Polish voters, 19.26 per cent of French and around 22 per cent of Slovakian voters had turned up, which is higher than at the same time in 2014 (7.31 per cent, 15.7 per cent and 18 per cent respectively).

It is too early to say what motivated voters but it could reflect the growing recognition that the EU is not in fact a distant institution based in Brussels, but instead directly impacts on people’s lives. A surge for the Greens could signal that for some voters, challenges—climate being the most obvious choice—require countries to work together.

But fragmentation will make coalition-building harder to achieve. No parliamentary grouping has won a majority. This could make it harder for the EPP, which secured 179 seats, to propose their chosen candidate as the head of the European Commission. The Liberals and Greens could also put forward choices for important EU portfolios such as trade, single market and competition. It could also make the approval of a new EU budget—which cannot be adopted without a successful vote in the EU Parliament—much harder to secure.

Over the long-term, a more fragmented EP could make EU reform more difficult. A key role of the European Parliament beyond that of approving the new European Commission and the EU’s budget is to debate and improve EU law proposals. But a more divided EP could make any coalition-building more difficult: if MEPS are unable to reform the EU in the way they would like, they could simply choose to block or delay EU policy altogether—before national governments get a chance to vote on it in the Council.

As a result, EU governments could try to exert greater influence but even then, they may not be able to push forward reform. While the European Parliament has gained greater law-making power over the years, EU governments still play the leading role. But they too could also become more divided. There are important elections taking place in Austria, Italy, Greece, Poland and Portugal as well as Germany over the coming years—with anti-EU voices expected to do well in most, if not all EU countries. A more Eurosceptic Council could make any EU reform—be that a new eurozone architecture, deepening of the single market or climate change action—almost impossible.

It is too early to say exactly what this will mean for the EU going forward. Polarisation could lead to a healthier system and more representative plenary debates, but a more divided Europe could become an easy pawn for big global players like Russia, China and even the US vying for greater influence on the international stage. EU countries should brace ourselves: it is likely to be a bumpy road ahead.