Over the last several decades, a broad alliance of big parties has called the shots in the EU. Politicians from the mainstream center-right and center-left parties have held a comfortable majority in the EU’s principal institutions, including the European Parliament (EP), European Council, and European Commission. However, this era could come to an end with the next EP elections in May 2019, following waning support for mainstream parties, rising populists on both the radical right and left, and emerging new political players.
THE TRANSFORMATION OF PARTY POLITICS IS COMING TO BRUSSELS
Rather than through institutional reform, change in the EP’s functioning may come through a deeper structural transformation of European politics. Party politics is undergoing a revolution at the national level, and that revolution will reach Brussels and Strasbourg in 2019.
- Many voters have been abandoning traditional mainstream parties over the past decade.2Center-left and center-right parties seem to have run out of ideas after six decades of dominance. The parties were established based on identities of faith and class that have largely lost relevance in postindustrial societies. Few Europeans identify themselves as Christian, conservative, or socialist like their parents and grandparents did.
- In the 1950s and 1960s, industrial workers voted for union representatives, business people for business representatives, and liberal people for each other. People stayed in the same place most of their lives and often knew their local or regional parliamentarians personally. Their affiliations were largely based on social class and geographical location.
These identities are much weaker today, as jobs have changed, societies are more fluid, and people are more mobile. The decline of media coverage of political developments in many countries and the rise of social media have made the links between the representative and the represented even weaker, which also diminishes the trust between them.
The number of disillusioned voters has increased, with many people frustrated about the powerlessness of national governments in a globalized world. Since 2008, Europeans have experienced a major financial and economic crisis that divided EU members and a migration crisis that further damaged voters’ confidence in political elites. Consequently, a much larger number of voters are putting their faith in anti-establishment parties that promise change.
However, as the center parties have started to lose their traditional base, the populists have not been the only winners. President Emmanuel Macron’s victory in France is one example. And the October 2018 elections in Bavaria and Hesse are also cases in point; the far-right Alternative for Germany party did well, but so did the Green and other nonpopulist parties.
Paradoxically, the rise of nationalist parties has created the first real opening for turning the coming EP election campaign into a truly transnational debate about the future of Europe.
- The leader of the Italian League party, Matteo Salvini, told a rally in 2018, “The European elections next year will be a referendum between the Europe of the elites, of banks, of finance, of immigration and precarious work; and the Europe of people and labour.” Salvini is now even flirting with the idea of presenting himself as a top candidate for the European Commission’s presidency.
- Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán also highlighted the importance of these elections: “If we are unable to reach a satisfactory result in negotiations . . . on the issues of migration and the budget, then let us wait for the European people to express their will in the 2019 elections to the European Parliament. Then what must be, shall be.”
The 2019 election campaign will likely become a debate on Europe’s priorities. The populist radical right will focus almost exclusively on migration, because this is how they can best mobilize their voters. Their opponents need to counter the politics of fear by building electoral platforms based on liberal principles, pointing out the big challenges surrounding technology and climate change, and showing that migration is just one issue among many.
THE 2019 EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT: SHIFTING COALITIONS AND A TEMPORARY GRAND COALITION ON KEY DECISIONS
It is too early to predict the makeup of the new EP and the effects on other EU institutions, but future political dynamics will likely be dictated by two factors: the end of the duopoly of the Christian and Social Democrats and the enhanced influence of the populist radical right. The European People’s Party will have fewer MEPs but could remain the biggest single party group.
If the trend of recent national elections continues, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats will lose many seats. For the first time, these two parties may not be able to establish a majority, which could greatly enhance the clout of other party groups, especially the Liberals and Greens. Macron’s La République En Marche could also be an influential new player, either as the centerpiece of a new alliance or by linking up with the Liberals.
As a result, the EP could look more like the Dutch or Danish parliaments, with more parties and coalition options. Under such a scenario, the EP legislative process might become less efficient, but the overall effect on EU-level democracy could be positive. The opening up of the political process to more, diverse participants could result in a more flexible system of shifting coalitions. Majorities would have to be built across party lines and include some nonestablishment parties. And if MEPs have more vigorous debates, they could elicit more public and media interest.
However, a strong showing of populist radical right parties could change the dynamics. But just how much influence would they have? Claims by Salvini and other nationalist politicians that they will take over the EU in just a few months lack plausibility. The old establishment still has support and power. While there will be more populist MEPs, they will remain a significant minority.
- Historically divided across several party groups, the radical right will aim to unite forces in the new parliament. Salvini has called for the creation of a “League of Leagues.”
- This is unlikely to happen, however, because most of these parties find each other’s company hard to bear—though some of them could form a larger party group, which would significantly enhance their clout.
On most legislation, the EP needs an absolute majority to amend or reject the position of the Council of Ministers. By themselves, the populists will not achieve such a majority, but they could influence the forming of one. This enhanced influence could also convince more anti-EU MEPs to engage in substantive work of the parliament. So far, most populist MEPs have used their seats largely to fund their domestic political activities or as a platform for anti-EU rhetoric. If they were to start using them to block legislation and important measures, member governments would likely seek to bypass parliament by doing deals among themselves.
On vital issues such as the election of the next president of the European Commission or adoption of the EU budget, a much stronger populist right could join together with anti-EU MEPs on the left to block these decisions. In response, the mainstream liberal parties would then have to join together to counter the populists’ power. However, such a “Super Grand Coalition” of pro-EU forces would not be permanent—only forming in exceptional cases when the functioning of the EU is at risk.
To what extent the division between pro- and anti-EU forces will dominate the work of the future parliament will depend on the relative success of the populist radical right. The influx of a large number of EU-phobic members would make the tone of debates harsher and more confrontational. But that could also encourage mainstream MEPs to speak out more strongly in defense of European values and the benefits of European integration.
The dominant dividing line of the new parliament could become a contest between politicians who want to find common EU-level solutions to current challenges and those who favor safeguarding and reaffirming national sovereignty. The parliament could turn into a major battleground between competing visions for the future of Europe.
The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: carnegieeurope.eu