Politics & Society
Brussels & Berlin | May 2019
Quarterly Newsletter on the European Parliament and German Bundestag
The European Parliament plays an important role in translating the interests and will of the bloc’s 500 million citizens into real policy. It is one of three institutions involved in creating EU legislation and the only one whose members are elected through direct universal suffrage. The European Parliament consists of representatives from the 27 EU Member States, and Parliament plays an important role in lawmaking, oversight of other institutions, and setting the EU budget.
Over the past six decades, the European Parliament has developed from a small supervisory body with specific, limited authority to one of the largest and most influential legislatures in the world. Amid Brexit, a shift to the right, and with the EU’s largest ever population, Europeans head to the polls May 23-26 to vote for their representatives in Parliament in the most important election in the institution’s history.
In February, the European Parliament released its first election projections, which Politico described as an “alarming—if not entirely shocking—wake-up call to the mainstream, pro-EU politicians who have controlled power in Brussels for decades.” Ahead of the elections in the forthcoming days, it is important to understand these elections and how profoundly they stand to affect global affairs.
Parties in Parliament
Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are directly elected for five-year terms. Parliament currently has 751 MEPs, and parliamentary seats are allocated according to each Member State’s population size. Following Brexit, Parliament will shrink to 705 seats. Within the Parliament, MEPs are grouped by political affiliation, not by nationality. Since party names and doctrines vary from country to country, MEPs operate within eight political groups, and national parties align within those groups.
Of the eight main parties in Parliament, the European People’s Party (EPP) is by far the largest with 217 seats. The EPP is regarded as the party of the EU’s founding fathers. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker hails from the EPP, and it is likely that the EPP will produce the Commission’s next president.
The second largest party in the European Parliament is the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), which has 186 seats. The other two large groups currently in Parliament are the European Conservative and Reformists Group (ECR) with 75 seats and Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) with 68 seats. The remaining groups include the Greens-European Free Alliance (Greens) with 52 seats, the European United Left – Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) with 46 seats, Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) with 41 seats, and other parties that together have 52 seats. On the conservative side, what unites the ENF is its positive stance towards Russia. For the ECR, strong stances on law and order produce party cohesion.
Each election is conducted domestically, according to home country rules. For example, voting is compulsory in five EU countries (Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, and Luxembourg), where voting occurs on one day. In the Czech Republic, however, voting occurs over a two-day span. Belgium had the highest turnout in the 2014 elections with over 89% of citizens voting. Slovakia, on the other hand, saw the lowest turnout at 13%. What transpires at the domestic level directly affects the broader European political landscape.
Domestic Elections and Parties to Watch
Not unlike the political landscape in the U.S., the rise of the right has brought about a period of reckoning within more moderate, establishment parties and political groups. In Europe, populist parties are variegated and, while distinct to their home countries, have begun to cross national boundaries in ways that would have been nearly impossible a generation ago. A few principal players in the Euroskeptic sphere are Hungary’s Fidesz party, France’s National Rally, and Italy’s 5Star movement.
Throughout Hungary and beyond, Viktor Orbàn’s Fidesz party has faced backlash for its strong anti-immigration stance, repression of civil liberties, and general shift towards authoritarianism. In February, President Juncker said that Fidesz “no longer has a place” in the EPP. A new parliamentary makeup will likely see Fidesz join a conservative coalition, codifying its rightward shift at the domestic level.
Since Marine Le Pen’s election loss to Emmanuel Macron, she has facilitated a major rebranding of France’s right-wing Front National, now known as the National Rally. Like other Euroskeptic parties, National Rally is staunchly right-wing and seeks to build allies across the political spectrum.
Other right-wing parties to watch are Spain’s Vox and Germany’s Alternative for Deutschland (AfD). Members of these parties will not only shape outcomes at national levels, but they will go on to join conservative coalitions in the European Parliament, thereby coloring the overall composition of the EU’s legislative branch.
Italy’s 5Star movement has begun softening its Euroskeptic stance, opting instead for a platform of EU reform. What makes the 5Star tricky to categorize in the European Parliament is that the 5Star movement views itself as left-wing rather than right-wing. This does not accord with traditional notions of right versus left but instead fits within broader paradigms of nationalism and protection by closing borders and turning inward.
Aside from a growing right-wing coalition, Germany’s Christian Democrats (CDU), which belongs to the EPP, will likely continue to be a major player. Not unlike Democrats in the U.S., the CDU is going through a major self-reflection period as Angela Merkel departs, and the party must decide whether to go with new blood or the establishment. For now, all signs indicate that the CDU will stick with Merkel and her groomed successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK).
Projections show the European People’s Party (EPP) maintaining the highest number of seats at 170 and the S&D, or Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, maintaining the second highest number with 144 seats. These preliminary predictions indicate that despite significant losses, the center-right will maintain the largest block in Parliament with a plurality. The results also illustrate concerningly large gains among Euroskeptic parties, and many pundits fear that current estimates are overly conservative.
That the United Kingdom still remains in the EU for the elections has bolstered the position of conservatives in the European Parliament. While the majority of UK seats will remain in center and left coalitions, the single largest allocation of British seats, 21 seats, will join the 5 Star and Brexit Party coalition in the European Parliament.
Recent data predicts that the far-right will increase its share of seats and will more than double their voting power in Parliament. It is possible that instead of joining with ALDE, the EPP and S&D will join the more conservative ECR in hopes of limiting the Euroskeptics’ voice, but such a move would simultaneously draw power from more moderate, mainstream parties. Key takeaways from the first round of polling indicate that big countries will produce big changes in Parliament’s landscape. The center-right is likely to top the elections with the center-left coming in second, while the establishment is forced to decide which parties would make the best allies. Overall, current projections indicate that pro-EU parties will hold 465 seats, while Europskeptics will hold 257, while 29 seats are unclear.
Anticipating potential EU regulation or reprimand, Twitter announced in February a series of new, self-imposed ad-purchasing policies intended to circumvent foreign interference during the elections. Twitter will vet bank account information and addresses of individuals or entities purchasing political ads on the social media platform to ensure that ads are being purchased legitimately and from within the European Union. Aside from private firms, European Member States themselves have a patchwork of anti-meddling policies, which work with varying effectiveness.
Germany, which enacted robust precautionary measures early on, saw no interference in its last election. The Dutch experience was similar to the Germans’. The French experience, however, has been entirely different. The last presidential election saw a significant dissemination of fake news, and, in a brazen link to foreign networks, Marine Le Pen was discovered to have had taken out loans from Russians during the campaign. Election preparedness across the EU will be vital now and in the coming years.
As Europeans across the world cast ballots from Réunion to Lapland, this election will be the year’s second largest democratic election after India. How Europe votes will affect global relations—on trade, agriculture, tech policy, data privacy, and more—for years to come. Seismic geopolitical shifts compound an already complex policymaking environment. When the new European Parliament meets July 2 for its inaugural plenary, we will have a better idea of how it will handle a broad range of issues.
For more information on how the European Parliament functions, see our European Parliament video.
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