As the dust settles from last month’s European elections and the new Parliament begins its work, it is important to stand back from immediate political battles and assess the longer-term implications for European democracy.

The main election outcomes have now been comprehensively assessed. The EPP and S&D lost seats to far-rights populists, the Liberals and the Greens. For the first time, the two biggest party blocs will not together command a majority. Rightist populist parties made gains overall, but not as much as many feared. Turnout increased to 50.5%, the highest since 1994.

Richard Youngs
Youngs is an expert on the foreign policy of the European Union, in particular on questions of democracy support.
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With very different directions of change across different European countries, the results do not lend themselves to any single reading and were not entirely decisive. In some countries the farright gained, in others it lost ground. In some the left rose, in others it fell. In some the mainstream parties collapsed, while in others they retained their predominance. For some observers, the headline is that far-right populists made gains; for others, it is the apparent cresting of the populist wave.

Naturally, most commentary has focused on who is up and who is down; on the shifting balances between and within party blocs; and especially on what the results mean for the divvying up of EU leadership posts. But what do the elections mean in a deeper sense for the quality of European democracy? What do the changes they usher in mean for democracy in a more structural sense?

This is ultimately a more important question than immediate shifts in parliamentary arithmetic or who gets which top job – yet it is, of course, not an issue that lends itself to much media attention. Indeed, the question of the new Parliament’s democratic impact is complex and difficult to determine. It could be either negative or positive – and either significant or negligible. The overall impact on democratic quality is likely to be conditional. That is, it will depend on how a number of factors evolve over time.

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This policy contribution is published by the Centre for European Policy Studies as part of the Towards a Citizens’ Union project of the European Policy Institutes Network (EPIN), co-funded by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union.

This article is also part of the Reshaping European Democracy project, an initiative of Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program and Carnegie Europe.