• Polina Tveleneva

European Parliament Election: Referendum on Europe

Source: https://www.southeusummit.com/europe/analysis-this-years-european-parliament-elections-can-reshape-the-eu/, copyright: andriano.cz /Shutterstock.com

More than a month after the European Parliament election, it seems not premature to say that the elections marked a turning point in the history of European integration. Most previous European parliamentary elections were either ignored by the majority of European citizens, as reflected in the steadily declining turnout [1], or used to protest against policies of national governments, as it was the case in the 2014 European election when Marine Le Pen’s National Front and the UK Independence Party delivered stunning blows to the mainstream political forces in their countries. [2][3] In 2019, amid all the challenges the EU is struggling to tackle, including Brexit, a rising China, US unpredictability and looming climate change, the European election was more than a second-order event or an opportunity for a protest voting. Instead, it was something of “a referendum on Europe”, as leader of the Italian Northern League Matteo Salvini put it.[4] Unlike in another infamous referendum, which took place in 2016, and which continues to rock Europe, this time European citizens clearly voted in favour of the EU.

Historically high turnout

First of all, the 2019 European election was marked by an 8% increase in turnout in comparison to the previous election.[5] A rise of 8% might seem unimpressive, but it was the first increase in turnout since the first continent-wide election to the European Parliament took place 40 years ago in 1979. Since relevant disaggregated statistics are yet to be released, it is not clear what accounted for the resurgence in voter interest in the European Parliament elections. It might have been the fear of Europe being swept away by the far-right or a growing realisation that climate change can be dealt with only by all EU countries in cooperation. It might have been Brexit as “a vaccine against anti-Europe propaganda” and indifference to the future of Europe, as European Council President Donald Tusk suggested.[6] In any case, European citizens voted with their feet, showing unambiguously that the European Union matters to them despite all hardships it is encountering.

Green wave, not far-right deluge

Second of all, contrary to widespread expectations, the far-right, eurosceptics and populists did not make considerable gains. Granted, with around 23% of votes, they almost doubled the seats they won in the 2014 European election. However, if we carefully look at statistics, we will see that the three far-right, eurosceptical and populist political groups of the European Parliament[7] which comprise 27 parties from all over Europe would not have made any significant gains but for two single parties.

The first one is the specifically tailored for the European election Brexit Party of Nigel Farage which won by a landslide in Great Britain. What should not be overlooked is that for British voters it was the future of Britain, not Europe, which was at stake in this election. They voted rather against the mainstream parties which had not managed to deliver Brexit almost three years after the historic referendum, not against the European integration per se. One fact which speaks in favour of this argument is a staggering downfall of the former leader of British eurosceptics - the UK Independence Party - from almost 27% to 3%.[8] Another fact which should be borne in mind is that after the resignation of Theresa May as prime minister, Britain has become increasingly likely to leave the EU on October 31, as agreed by May and EU leaders at the end of April, or even earlier. This would also mean leaving the European Parliament with 46 of the 73 UK seats being freed up and only 27 redistributed among other EU members.[9] The beneficiaries would include largely eurosceptic Italy, but also Spain and the Netherlands where eurosceptic parties performed only poorly.

The second party whose victory on the national level accounted for the gains of eurosceptics in the European election is the Italian Northern League. The phenomenon of the Italian euroscepticism and nationalism has already proved problematic for the EU, especially in terms of maintaining Union’s fiscal discipline and dealing with migration, and it is likely to remain so for the next legislative period. Yet, the same is not necessarily true for Matteo Salvini’s European Alliance of Peoples and Nations - a political group in which Salvini plans to unite all far-right, eurosceptic and populist parties represented in the upcoming European Parliament.[10] The problem is that these parties are not only divided over such key issues as the distribution of migrants, regional aid or attitude to Russia, but with only a quarter of seats in the European Parliament they will not be able to create what could be called “a blocking minority”, that is enough votes to block undesirable legislative and budgetary proposals.[11]

All in all, “a far-right deluge” predicted by some commentators did not sweep across Europe. The question is: who rode the wave of support? The centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats who lost 38 and 33 seats, respectively, in comparison to the 2014 election are definitely not among the winners. By contrast, the Greens (the Greens-European Free Alliance) and the Liberals (the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, including Macron’s party) who won almost 10 and 14% respectively showed the best results in the history of the European elections. Admittedly, they will still have less seats and influence in the European Parliament than the EPP and Socialists with their 24.3 and 20.3% of votes, but this change in the constellation of power will have and already has considerable consequences.

New constellation of power

Firstly, for the first time since 1979 the two centrist parties have less than 50% of seats which means that they will need to cooperate with either the Greens, or the Liberals (or both of them) to create a working majority and to ensure the smoothness of legislative and budgetary processes. Moreover, some European diplomats have already brought up the need for “a coalition programme” as a safety valve preventing the fragmentation of a future coalition. Although coalition programmes are not unusual for European parliamentary democracies, the need for agreeing one on the European level is unprecedented.

Secondly, unlike in 2014, when it was largely the mainstream centre-right and centre-left political groups which participated in the discussions about EU top jobs, this time, both the Liberals and the Greens rightfully insist on a fairer distribution of EU top positions based on the election results. In 2014, Martin Schulz expressed support for Jean-Claude Juncker - his contender for the European Commission presidency - the night the results were released. In 2019, one could only dream about such consensus. The reality is that two days after the European election the EPP, Socialists and ALDE appointed “six coordinators” to direct discussions on the distribution of the EU top jobs.[12] The creation of a new coordination mechanism shows that the negotiation process promises to be uneasy, protracted and will require mutual compromises. The same is likely to be true for decision-making process during the new legislative period in general.

Most importantly, by shifting their support from the broad-based centre-right and centre-left parties to issue-specific Greens and Liberals, European citizens clearly demonstrated that they need political forces which would propose concrete solutions to the most burning issues, including migration, social, economic and gender equality and, crucially, climate change. The paradox is that European citizens both empowered pro-European forces to propose their vision of the solutions to these issues and complicated their implementation by making the pro-European coalition more fragmented. To stand in the next “referendum on Europe” in 5 years, pro-European forces, especially those in the European Parliament, will have to learn to deal with this paradox.


[1] http://www.europarl.europa.eu/elections2014-results/en/turnout.html

[2] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/european-elections-results-2014-sweeping-gains-for-nigel-farages-ukip-deal-further-body-blow-to-main-9434042.html

[3] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/european-elections-2014-marine-le-pen-s-national-front-victory-in-france-is-based-on-anguish-rage-9436394.html

[4] https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/1127855/european-elections-news-italy-matteo-salvini-polls-legs-eu-new

[5] https://election-results.eu/turnout/0017.png

[6] https://www.politico.eu/article/brexit-is-vaccine-against-euroskepticism-says-tusk/

[7] These include the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, the Europe of Nations and Freedom Group and the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy Group.

[8] https://election-results.eu/national-results/united-kingdom/2019-2024/

[9] http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/press-room/20180607IPR05241/number-of-meps-to-be-reduced-after-eu-elections-in-2019

[10] https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/afd-fraktion-europaparlament-101.html

[11] In the framework of the ordinary legislative procedure, the European Parliament votes either by simple majority, or by absolute majority (the majority of all MEP’s, regardless of whether they are present or not) on the most important issues. On budgetary matters, the European Parliament votes by qualified majority.

[12] https://www.politico.eu/article/european-commission-president-choice-new-meeting-discussion/

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