28 May 2019

These European elections spell the end of the EU’s duopoly

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As long as we can remember, EU politics has been dominated by the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), big blocs of MEPs representing the centre-right and centre-left.

As with most countries around Europe, the two major parties had some ideological differences, but were largely committed to a status quo, business-as-usual approach.

The man or woman in charge of the European Commission might change after elections, but it was merely a question of whether the the EPP or S&D candidate got the top job.

How things have chanegd. After an eventful four days of voting, the so-called “Grand Coalition” of the two traditional strong parties has taken a battering. The EPP is currently projected to win around 182 seats, down from 221. The S&D is on course for 147 seats, down from 191 and with more losses in sight once the UK and its Labour MEPs have departed (though when that is remains a moot point).

All across the continent usually dependable parties find themselves under pressure. The Social Democrats only scored 15 per cent in Germany, in France the socialist Envie d’Europe only just got over the 6 per cent threshold, while in Austria the left could not capitalise on the recent scandal over right-wing politician Hans-Christian Strache and eventually fared worse than in 2014.

It was a similar story for the centre-right: Forza Italia currently has a mere 8 per cent, the same as France’s Republicans, while Spain’s once-dominant Partido Popular are on 20 per cent. Even though Germany’s Christian Democrats are in first place, their vote share of 28 per cent is much lower than they are used to.

Exceptions to this decline of the establishment parties are rare: Sebastian Kurz’ People’s Party came in at a historic 35 per cent, the Greek New Democracy scored 33 per cent and led Syriza’s Alexis Tsipras to call early elections. In Spain the Socialist Pedro Sanchez increased his vote tally from last month’s general elections to a strong 32 per cent. Spitzenkandidat Frans Timmermans did surprisingly well in the Netherlands. And hey, even Silvio Berlusconi has made his gazillionth comeback and will sit in Strasbourg soon.

Those few bright spots for the establishment aside, these elections were about new, insurgent voices maknig themselves heard. The “Green Wave” proved once more that Europeans, and especially younger voters, care about climate change more than they ever have – at least for the moment.

In Germany, the Greens did surprisingly well with almost 22 per cent, not far off first place. That said, the “Green Wave” is so far a northwestern European phenomenon: Greens did best in France, Finland, Luxembourg and the UK. But they did not get a single seat in southern or eastern Europe and only two in central Europe courtesy of the Austrian Greens, who already had two MEPs.

Centrist forces around Emmanuel Macron – they like to call themselves “liberal” – also saw major gains, despite Macron himself only coming second to his nemesis Marine Le Pen.

If they joined forces in the European Parliament, En Marche and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) would have 110 seats, compared to the 68 seats the ALDE won in 2014.

That’s why the bloc have demanded Margrethe Vestager, their preferred candidate for Commission President, be considered a serious contender. However the ALDE’s claim to lead the EU’s executive looks a bit less compelling when one notes that none of its leaders – Macron, Vestager, Guy Verhofstadt and Marke Rutte – saw their national party come first in these elections.

The big discussion, meanwhile, has been about the expected rise of the “populist” right. The overall consensus among the traditional media and establishment is that yesterday’s election shows that an anticipated surge has failed to materialise. It is true that Eurosceptic parties did not see the increase that was expected – but they were not far off: For instance, Politico now projects that there will be 235 Eurosceptic MEPs in the next Parliament. They predicted slightly over 250 before, only a minimal difference.

Instead, four of the five biggest parties in the next Parliament will all be from the populist right. The Brexit Party will lead the charge (as long as the UK remains a member state) with 29 seats, tied with the German CDU. They are followed by Italy’s Lega at 28, the Polish Law and Justice at 23 and the National Rally of France with 23.

The Brexit Party, founded only a few months ago, was comfortably first in the UK. Lega only scored 6 per cent in 2014 and are now on a massive 34 per cent. Poland’s PiS beat an alliance of centrist and centre-left forces all by itself. And although Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement Nationale did worse than in 2014, she still beat Emmanuel Macron, who has long been excitedly hailed as Europe’s savior.

Other movements on the right that supposedly didn’t do well actually did quite well if taken in the right context.

Yes, Geert Wilders from the Netherlands lost all his seats. But his vote was largely taken up by the “hip” populist Thierry Baudet, whose party enters the European Parliament for the first time at 11 per cent.

Yes, Spain’s Vox did (much) worse than expected a few weeks ago with only 6 per cent. But then again, they as well are entering Parliament for their first time, having only been established in 2013. The same goes for the German AfD, which probably expected more than 11 MEPs (they had previously suggested they could get as many as 20). Still, they increased their tally from 7.1 per cent in 2014 to 10.8 today. The Austrian Freedom Party, which everyone thought would hit rock bottom after the Strache scandal, still scored over 17 per cent, just three points less than in 2014.

None of this is necessarily good news (actually, it most certainly isn’t). But by arguing that populist/nationalist forces did not do well the establishment, be it politicians or media, looks like it is in denial. Whether one likes it or not, the long-term trend clearly shows that Eurosceptic forces are on the rise.

And so we are looking – as was expected – at a much more fragmented European Parliament, in which it will be much more difficult to find consensus over the next years. We now face months of debates on who will fill the top posts in all kinds of institutions. Who will replace Jean-Claude Juncker? Manfred Weber from the EPP, Frans Timmermans from the S&D, Margrethe Vestager from ALDE, or someone else completely? EU leaders will meet today to begin those discussions.

There is also the question of who becomes the new President of the European Parliament. Who will be the new Commissioners from each country? Who will replace Donald Tusk at the head of the European Council or Mario Draghi at the Central Bank? How big will the Eurosceptic group around Matteo Salvini eventually be?

Will Viktor Orbán, who dominated in Hungary again with over 50 per cent of the vote, stay in the EPP or join the right-wing? Who will win the early elections in Greece and Denmark? Will Britain actually leave, and with whom as Prime Minister?

All these questions of varying predictability will have a role to play over the next few months. They will play a decisive role in the future of the European Union. What is clear, however, after this set of European Parliament elections is that the duopoly of the establishment parties is over. The Greens, Macron’s ‘liberals’ and the Eurosceptics will all have much  more to say about the EU’s future.

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Kai Weiss is a Research and Outreach Officer at the Austrian Economics Center and a board member at the Hayek Institute.