Europe after the Elections: An Untimely Job Hunt amid Political Fragmentation

29 mai 2019
Le point de vue de Rémi Bourgeot

The European elections have reconfigured the European Parliament and confirm the weakening of traditional parties as well as the partition of political forces. What are the possible outcomes? What impact will it have on the EU’s orientation?

What can we learn from the results of this European election, which was marked by an increase in turnout?

Turnout rose above 50 percent overall, due in particular to the deepening of new types of polarisation, as well as the rise of environmental awareness, which has been a recurring theme of this campaign in many countries. This series of national votes have also reflected the political crisis that European countries are going through in various ways. This type of election has not made it possible as such to start a conversation at the European or national level on the continent’s strategy, and in particular on the reorientation of the model that has emerged from the crisis, beset with economic instability and unbalanced relations among member States.

The widely announced populist wave has not occurred as expected, given the weakness in particular of left-wing populist parties, in France and Spain among others, which is echoed by the poor score of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in Britain. For their part, far-right opposition parties, particularly in France and Germany, have not experienced any additional surge, but above all repeated their scores of recent years. Although it came out on top with 23 percent of the French vote, the National Rally (RN) confirmed the stagnant nature of its electoral base, which is certainly important, but too limited in its structure—especially in the context of France’s two-round national elections—to follow the path of the right-wing populist parties that came to power in Italy and across Central Europe, with more massive electoral support. Those populist right-wing parties in office are further strengthened, with a score of 33 percent for Matteo Salvini in Italy or over 50 percent for Viktor Orban in Hungary, and 45 percent for the PiS in Poland… The barrier between governmental populists and opposition populists, in addition to major programmatic differences, calls into question the notion of a pan-European populist movement that would offer anything close to a homogeneous alternative vision.

While these elections confirm the « glass ceiling » that many opposition populists continue to face, they also confirm the fragmentation and decomposition of traditional political scenes in a number of countries. In Germany, the already weakened « Great Coalition » now appears to be a minority, based on the results of this election. In addition to the decline of the CDU-CSU, the SPD confirms its retreat, with the flight of a significant part of its electorate to the Greens. This resembles, at a less severe stage, the French situation, where the Socialist Party’s traditional electorate turned to the Greens this time, after voting for Macron in 2017 in many cases, while a large part of centre-right voters eventually joined the presidential camp, leading to the collapse of Les Républicains.

– Does the European Parliament’s reconfiguration mark a real change in the political balance of power? Is the populist/progressive division relevant?

A number of comments on the meaning of these elections are marked by a certain confusion about the functioning of the parliament and the EU as a whole. The orientation of European policy remains mainly the result of the balance of power between national governments, not only at the European Council, but also in the work of the Commission. The European Parliament is an important forum for exchange, work and ratification in this context. Nevertheless, its role is hardly comparable to that of national parliaments in traditional liberal democracies. Similarly, the European parties remain an aggregation of national parties whose concerns often remain focused on their own political scene. Against this background, the European campaign has failed to address key policy issues and in particular the rebalancing of the EU’s economic model. Despite similarities across national borders, both traditional and populist parties remain unlikely to build long-term transnational agendas.

Although there is some convergence between Le Pen in France and Salvini in Italy, overall European populist movements are just as divided in their concrete options as traditional parties, following mostly national lines. The RN in France and the AfD in Germany (whose members accuse Le Pen of socialism) thus display irreconcilable orientations. When there are common themes, such as migration, it is essentially because they are very present on the respective political scenes. The obstacles that characterise European debates in general remain daunting for example on the integration of the euro zone. This applies in particular to government parties, especially French and German ones, which are nevertheless likely to coalesce in some way at the European Parliament, without agreeing on a decisive policy agenda.

The evolution of the European Parliament’s balance reflects the fragmentation of national political scenes, with the decline of mainstream conservatism (from a decline in the case of the CDU-CSU in Germany to a full collapse in the case of Les Républicains in France) and the relegation of social democracy, deserted by the working class. The gains of the Greens and the emergence of a liberal group enlarged by the contribution of Macron’s party do change the balance, against the historical conservative/social-democratic block, which is no longer able to form a majority. Nevertheless, these developments, which certainly have a significant impact on European institutional life, do not as such bring about a change in the policies pursued at the European level and the power relations between national governments that lead to these policies.

– After the elections, the debate is now turning to the appointments for top EU roles (Commission, Council and Parliament). Who are the candidates to Jean-Claude Juncker’s succession? Which political group can expect to lead the Commission? What is at stake more generally?

The « Spitzenkandidaten » system, initiated in 2014, consists in appointing as President of the Commission the lead candidate of the main European party or that of another party as long as it is supported by a majority. The Bavarian Manfred Weber was thus nominated by the European conservatives of the EPP, but, in addition to the retreat of mainstream conservatives during these elections, this political figure of the European Parliament suffers from a lack of exposure both in Europe overall and in his own country, and from his lack of government experience. He also suffers from the opposition of a number of countries to Germany’s increased weight within the Commission, particularly at the level of the General Secretariat. Moreover, Angela Merkel’s support is less determined than it seems at first sight, especially considering the series of key European positions at stake this year, including the ECB’s leadership in addition to the presidency of the Council, of Parliament and the post of High Representative for Foreign Affairs.

In this context, Weber’s bid is in the process of being rejected. Other lead candidates are being considered for the Commission’s top role, as discussions also include the building of a parliamentary majority. However, the candidacy of the Dutch social-democrat Frans Timmermans, current deputy chairman of the EU parliament, is expected to suffer from the EPP opposition following Weber’s rejection. Margrethe Verstager, the current Competition Commissioner known for her opposition to global digital conglomerates, is also mentioned by the liberal group and has secured the support of the Danish government. Michel Barnier is also being considered. The chief negotiator for Brexit has conducted a discreet campaign across European capitals in recent weeks and, counting on the support of the French government, he could stand as a consensus figure among mainstream European parties. But Weber’s rejection could lead to a certain level of tension over the appointment of a French candidate or to large concessions in exchange, both in terms of upcoming appointments and the European political agenda more generally.
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