This article is part of the Reshaping European Democracy project, an initiative of Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program and Carnegie Europe.
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.
If the existing power balance changes, a complex constellation of forces could develop with more ad hoc coalitions across traditional party divides. While this might detract from the parliament’s legislative efficiency, a more open decisionmaking process might have a positive effect on public interest in democracy at the EU level. However, if the populist parties gain enough power to block crucial decisions, all the other parties will have to pull together to keep the EU functioning. If they don’t, member governments will start bypassing parliament by doing intergovernmental deals.
A Unique but Flawed Experiment in Transnational Representative Democracy
The EP is the world’s only transnational parliament that is directly elected. It has powers over important decisions such as how public money is spent through the EU’s common budget and how the single market is regulated. However, parliamentary democracy at the EU level has long suffered from a structural deficit. While national governments have given the EP power over far-reaching legislative and budget decisions, the national political elites have been unwilling to create a pan-European democratic space. European parliamentarians are elected from national lists, according to each country’s election laws, and national political parties have kept an iron grip on the electoral process. Thus, EP elections have more resembled twenty-eight national elections than transnational contests.
In the EP, national parties group themselves into party families. The political composition has corresponded roughly to the left-right ideological spectrum found in most member states until recently. The center-right European People’s Party (EPP, 219 MEPs) includes all the Christian Democrat and conservative parties (except the UK Conservatives, which pulled out in 2009). The center-left is covered by the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D, 189 MEPs), while the smaller mainstream parties are grouped under the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR, 71 MEPs), the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE, 68 MEPs), the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL, 52 MEPs), and the European Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens, 51 MEPs).
Apart from the ECR, which contains several anti-EU parties, these groups are united by their overall support for European integration (although the EPP includes Hungary’s Fidesz, which has turned anti-EU in recent years). The far-right parties are divided among several party groups: the ECR, Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD, 45 MEPs), and Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF, 35 MEPs).
Beyond the left/right dimension, the EP is divided into promoters and skeptics of European integration. Some parliamentarians (usually on the right) are pro-European because they consider the EU an important force for liberalizing the European economy. Others (mostly on the left) see it as an essential shield to protect European social standards against the negative consequences of globalization. And then there are both left-wing and right-wing groups that are critical of the EU’s supranational powers or nostalgic for the protective role of the sovereign nation-state. The austerity policies that resulted from fiscal discipline measures taken at the EU level during the last financial crisis have reinforced this tendency.
When it comes to substantive decisions, the EP has never had consolidated coalitions with high levels of party discipline. Rather, MEPs join ad hoc alliances on different issues according to party and national and personal preferences. But on running the parliament’s business and the sharing of influential roles, the Christian and Social Democrats have always called the shots.
As more and more anti-EU MEPs have been elected over the past fifteen years, the pro-European mainstream has closed ranks. Nathalie Brack, author of an in-depth study on populists in parliament, explains how the big parties have reduced the maneuvering space of individuals and small groups of parliamentarians and channeled power to the large party groups.
These party groups wield substantial power in EU decisionmaking and lawmaking, but have hardly any visibility or presence in the member states. The lack of transnational parties at the EU level is not a bug in the system but rather a feature of it. National political elites have little incentive to give up some of their power, and this is largely the root of the EP’s weaknesses in legitimacy. For most national parties, the question of who will sit in the next national government will always come first. They consider EP races as second-order elections, so they commit far less time and money to them than to national ones. As a result, voters’ choices are determined primarily by feelings about their current national governments rather than by the performances of the EU or individual MEPs.
Many EU parliamentarians play prominent roles in the legislative process and often have greater influence than most of their counterparts in national parliaments. But the legislative process has become complex, technocratic, and opaque, particularly because of the reliance on nonpublic negotiations through trilogues.1 Consequently, the EP attracts little attention among the media in member states. Political careers are made at the national level. Decisions about who appears on the party lists are motivated primarily by domestic considerations.
Two key elements for genuine parliamentary democracy at the EU level are missing: first, it is almost impossible for voters to assess the performance of individual MEPs, and, second, there has been no change in regime, as the center-right/center-left Grand Coalition has long dominated the EP. The absence of these elements makes it difficult to explain to the public why EP elections matter. Voter turnout has therefore declined from 62 percent in the first elections in 1979 to 42.6 percent in 2014.
Transnational Lists and the Spitzenkandidaten Have Not Revived Interest
There have been various attempts to make the European elections more relevant. The most prominent proposal, first presented in 2011, aimed to introduce transnational lists, whereby a number of seats would be reserved for a special electoral district covering all of the EU. The idea was to break the national parties’ grip on the composition of the parliament, but it ran into fierce opposition and repeatedly failed to obtain majority support.
Somewhat more successful was the parliament’s initiative to link its elections with the decision on who should be the next president of the European Commission. Prior to the 2014 elections, all the major party groups agreed to designate Spitzenkandidaten (“top candidates” in German), with the understanding that the candidate of the most successful party group in the elections would then become the commission’s president. Given the key role of the commission in shaping what the EU does, electing its president would give the voter a real say on the union’s future.
The heads of state and government accepted (most of them reluctantly) the EP’s proposal, and, in 2014, Jean-Claude Juncker, the candidate of the European People’s Party, which won the most seats, became the commission’s president. But this new procedure did not mobilize voters as hoped. Turnout remained low, and the few public debates between the Spitzenkandidaten did not tangibly affect the election in any country.
Most party groups are committed to repeating this process in 2019 and are currently selecting their lead candidates. However, this time, parliament might be more fragmented, making it difficult to assemble a majority for a lead candidate. And the European Council, which under the Lisbon Treaty has the right to nominate the candidate, has already rejected the idea of an automatic endorsement.
Moreover, as in 2014, the Spitzenkandidaten process will probably not resonate much with the public. National parties still run the campaigns and are unlikely to give sufficient space to the lead European candidates to generate public interest. It would take a major outreach effort to highlight the candidates’ programs and communicate the transnational European dimension of the vote—which is not in the parties’ primary interest as long as they are focused on promoting national politicians and the regional media’s coverage has limited impact.
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.2 Center-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.
1 Trilogues are tripartite negotiations between the European Commission, European Council, and European Parliament on legislative proposals.
2 For a more in-depth study of the reasons behind this pattern, see Robin E. Best, “How Party System Fragmentation Has Altered Political Opposition in Established Democracies,” Government and Opposition 48, no. 3 (2013): 314–42.