The People of the EU Have Spoken. What Did They Say?

Photo via Axios

Results from the world’s largest multi-country election signal a shift for Europe.

This past week, voters from across the European Union’s 28 member countries went to the polls over the course of four days to select a new European Parliament. In previous years, voter turnout for these elections has often been low, and their results generally unexciting. 2019 turned out a little differently.

The elections took place in the midst of ongoing Brexit negotiations between the UK and the EU and political scandals in some EU member states. It’s not unheard of for EU citizens to express their frustration with their own countries’ national politics through EU voting. This time around, they appear to have had a bit more to say. With more than 50% voter turnout — the highest figure in more than two decades — we’ve seen the people of the EU dramatically shake things up.

Why It Matters
The vote yielded some significant results:

  • The traditional centrist ruling bloc coalition was dealt significant losses, while liberal-centrists, such as the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) saw a rise.
  • The liberal-center is making the most of their new position, forming a stronger multi-party group, the ‘ALDE plus Renaissance plus USR Plus’ Alliance which will sit third in the new parliament.
  • European voters, keen to see action on climate change, also handed the Greens an increase in parliamentary seats.
  • The far left saw losses, and the far right nationalists saw a rise — notably under Marine Le Pen in France and Matteo Salvini in Italy.
  • Spain bucked the broader trend, with the left Socialists gaining seats, and two Catalan politicians, who gained national and international recognition following the Catalan Independence Referendum in 2017, also won seats. The surprising part? One is currently living in exile abroad and the other in a Spanish prison along with other Catalan political leaders as they stand trial for allegedly participating in what the Spanish government considers a “rebellion”.
  • Brexit took center stage in the UK with the very new Brexit Party taking nearly a third of the British vote, while Labour lost ground and the Conservatives saw their largest defeat since the 1830s.

The ruling coalition of centrists lost more than 70 seats, and the majority status they held for decades. The bloc, made up of the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), is now down to holding just 43% of the seats. If they seek to maintain control, they will have to court a larger and looser coalition bloc with the other liberal-centrist groups that gained ground in the election. This means there may be more compromises on policy agendas, and both new voices and existing ones, that have not previously played a significant role, will now be shaping the future of the Union.

“I have worked with breaking monopolies, this is basically what I’ve been doing for five years by now, this is also what voters have been doing today. The monopoly of power is broken. And this is of course why we can do something else.”

— Margrethe Vestager, European Commissioner for Competition and member of the Danish Social Liberal Party, a part of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe

Clyde Insights
These results reflect a more splintered Europe. The obvious conclusion is that people want to see change. The problem, however, is that they do not all have the same vision for what that change should be. The two traditional leading centrist parties both lost ground while pro-environment, pro-business, pro-European groups, and far right nationalists saw gains. Now what?

And while the far right did make modest gains, it’s worth noting that many of these national parties, frequently lumped together by commentators with the catch-all descriptor “far right nationalists”, are not necessarily strongly aligned with one another. Many of these groups do not share the same policy positions. There is no common platform or program on which they agree. Some are working to form loose coalitions, but the rise in the nationalistic groups does not mean a single large far-right bloc will come to form a power position. Since they did not charge through the elections victorious, as some had predicted, their influence on policy is unlikely to see any dramatic changes.

Meanwhile, the liberal-center ALDE plus Renaissance plus USR Plus’ Alliance has taken a bold step, issuing a statement calling for a new commission president who better represents the new parliamentary makeup. They want change. They see themselves as THE pro-EU reformers.

POLITICO Brussels Playbook has called the alliance “kingmakers” and published a statement by the group: “The results of the 2019 European elections are clear. No pro-European majority is possible without the new central group that the ALDE Family, Renaissance, USR Plus and other reform-driven like-minded parties will create.”

The pro-EU parties from the liberal-center are more likely to work together and leverage their gains, and may be more likely to find common ground to advance policy issues with centrists than with the nationalists on the far right. The alliance of ALDE plus Renaissance plus USR Plus is an example of this. With the broader tone of ‘reform’ in mind, there is a strong chance that the Greens’ increase in seats will also lead to an increased focus on climate change, energy policy, and the environment. In fact, ALDE have already pledged to make climate a priority for their platform.

All that said, a more fragmented parliament means more division and more challenges when it comes to governance. The absence of the traditional governing coalition means there are many unknowns. These results leave lingering questions, not just about what European citizens want, but how it might be delivered and what impact this will have on continental politics, EU policy and regulations, and, in turn, the daily lives of Europeans and both the European and global economies.

This could get very messy, and from a public affairs perspective, all eyes will be following what happens next.