Europeans voted against the status quo. And for Europe

It is easy to get carried away by the first declarations of victory and the early headlines. As the initial results of the European Parliament elections trickled in on Sunday, it looked like this would be another triumph to savour for Eurosceptic populist parties, who came first in France, Britain, Italy, Hungary, Poland and the Czechia.

Yet look a little closer, and the picture is a lot more nuanced – and brighter – for the European Union. In every other country, pro-EU parties came first. Populists performed badly in many countries including Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Denmark. Despite claiming first place in France, Marine Le Pen’s far right National Rally lost ground compared to 2014, winning 23.3% compared to 24.9% in 2014.

Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, who leads the far-right Lega party, won 34.3% of the Italian vote. He had attempted to cobble together a populist alliance in the Parliament, but with around 58 seats, it accounts for just 8% of the 751 MEPs. While populist parties may be hard to define, the incongruent far-right, nationalist and Eurosceptic forces, including the UK’s Brexit Party, are set to win around one quarter of the seats – only slightly more than in 2014. Their promised tsunami failed to sweep away the EU. Indeed, they are unlikely to form a coherent group, with many of their parties at loggerheads with one another.

Further good news for the EU came with the figures for turnout after four decades of declining participation: at 50.5%, turnout has risen for the first time since direct elections were introduced in 1979, and it is the highest in two decades.

Yes, there was a vote against the establishment centre-left and centre-right parties. But it was not funnelled towards the anti-EU forces. Rather, it was a mainly swung towards the Liberals and the Greens. Indeed, it would be more accurate to say the main swings in allegiance came within the broad, pro-European centre.

The Liberals were boosted by French President Emmanuel Macron’s party, En Marche, and saw their political group surge by 42 to claim 102 seats. The Greens saw their numbers boosted by 19 seats, to 69, on the back of strong showings in Germany, the UK and France (Greens won 33% of the under-30 votes in Germany, compared to 13% for the CDU/CSU and 10% for the SPD).

Amongst the establishment blocs, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) lost 41 seats to end up with just 180, while the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) lost 46, and now only have 145 MEPs. However, even when describing their losses, it is worth underlining how both the EPP and the S&D remain the top two groups. The change is that they no longer have a majority of seats between them.

The new arithmetic marks the end of an era in which a grand coalition between the two main centrist groups dominated the EU. It heralds a more fractured Parliament, making law-making more complicated. If they want to continue setting the EU agenda and deciding the top posts, the EPP and S&D will need to work with the Liberals or Greens. Or both, in a four-party coalition.

It could lead to more fractious and volatile politics within the bloc, which has to decide within the next few weeks on a new president of the European Commission, a president of the European Central Bank, and a president of the European Council.

It may change the overall direction of the next Commission, an issue that will be at the top of the EU summit agenda in Brussels on May 28. Until the weekend German conservative MEP Manfred Weber was in pole position to succeed Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, as the EPP’s official nominee – or Spitzenkandidat – for the post. He is less certain now.

An early indicator of change could be seen in the visit to Paris on Monday by Spain’s Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez: he met with Mr Macron, who is keen to see the EU loosen the grip of the EPP and S&D on the top jobs.

Mr Macron is hostile to the very concept of a Spitzenkandidat, saying it is anti-democratic to foist such nominees on the rest of the EU, especially since most are unknowns to the general public. His argument will be buoyed by the setbacks to the EPP and S&D, the two groups most enthusiastic about the process. Indeed, in the aftermath of the election, there was increasing talk of alternative candidates, like the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, and current EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, who is a Danish liberal.

But in broader terms, this could mark the beginning of something new. Clearly, voters want to get away from the EU’s party tribalism, which has led to stale politics. The sense of change is particularly apposite for the EPP, which has dominated the EU for too long, not only through its lock on top posts but because it has run out of ideas. After the German elections in 2017, the Große Koalition in Berlin came under heavy strain. It is likewise in Brussels.

That means there will have to be a new entente. Already, party leaders are poring over the numbers for each political group to concoct new alliances. The big three of the EPP, S&D, and Liberals would still have a solid majority, but there are concerns that it might perpetuate the cosy bubbles of the past. A broad left or rainbow coalition of the S&D, Greens, Liberals and the far-left might would fall shy of a majority. A mega or jumbo coalition of the EPP, S&D, Liberals, Greens would be the most legitimate, but it might be hardest to negotiate.

A more likely scenario is that we will see a new system of shifting alliances. Party groups will work together according to the issue at hand. This is what the S&D’s Spitzenkandidat Frans Timmermans has hinted at: a content-led approach to policy. It is also a position that Mrs Vestager is open to, and it ties in with Mr Macron’s method.

There is, of course, a risk of legislative deadlock with this approach. It would require businesses to secure a diverse support base amongst MEPs. Interest groups will need to anticipate policy trends and not be reactive to them.

Whatever route the Parliament follows, it is likely to take a long time. There will be some shadow boxing amongst the newly elected MEPs – and between the Parliament and the Council – as new configurations are tested. But it will be refreshing and exciting to see how the changes work out. And ultimately, it will be good for democracy.

Author: David Harley

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