European Election Results: A More Fragmented Europe but a Contained Populist Wave–for Now

May 29, 2019

Over the weekend more than 215 million Europeans went to the polls to elect a new European Parliament of 751 members, the world’s second biggest democratic exercise after the Indian elections. As negotiations for the European Union’s top jobs and priorities have barely started, it seems too early to project what the new European Parliament will mean for the EU’s role as a global development actor. Nevertheless, below I provide a few main takeaways from this decisive election and outline potential impacts on Europe’s future and issues beyond its borders.

The new European Parliament: Gains and losses

The centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) managed to defend its pole position with 179 seats (down 38), after losses in key countries such as Italy, France, and Germany. Voters delivered gains to the Liberals, the Greens, and far-right populists. The other establishment party, the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) is expected to come second, with 149 seats (down 38), also with big losses in Italy and Germany. A new centrist-liberal coalition led by French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to come third, with 108 seats.

The right-wing populists, whose rise was feared by many for months, should be considered a strong force moving forward, with Italian Minister Matteo Salvini’s “European Alliance of People and Nations” emerging as the fourth biggest party group with 73 seats. However, this seemingly significant number is not as straightforward as it may seem. Salvini can claim this success as his own, with a gain of 25 seats in Italy alone. But his Alliance has been undermined by his sympathy for Russian President Vladimir Putin, as nationalist parties from both Poland and Sweden refused to join his group for that exact reason. Contrary to expectations, the Dutch right-wing parties lost seats compared to the elections in 2014, as did Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France, despite attracting more voters than President Macron’s coalition. Beyond the traditional right-wing supporters, Le Pen failed to profit from popular discontent as illustrated by the “gilet jaunes” movement.

Growing green and liberal forces indicate that the new European Parliament will remain a strong force in favour of a global Europe, with increased support for climate change mitigation and a progressive social agenda.

The EU matters—at least to Europeans

With nearly 51 percent voter turnout, Europe witnessed the strongest democratic commitment by its people since 1994. The various crises over the last few years have clearly helped to mobilize voters, and the EU’s failures—such as its unwillingness to manage migration—have certainly contributed to the perception of EU-citizens that both good or bad decisions taken in Brussels impact their daily lives. The increased turnout (up from 42.6 percent in 2014) also mirrors the fact that many politicians branded this vote as decisive for the fate and future of the continent. Despite increased fragmentation in European politics, which will challenge traditional European policy-making, Steve Bannon’s and others’ plans to radicalise Europe and break it up from within have clearly failed. Also, it is worth pointing out that despite the notable success of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party in the UK (strongest party with 31.7 percent of the votes), Brexit has had the opposite impact on his counterparts in many European nations; any signs of further EU-exit plans have completely vanished from party manifestos. Both Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini now talk about wanting to reform the EU from within, for example.

The strong signal of support by European citizens and the move away from EU-exits by populist forces may lead to increased integration within the EU. However, with the East-West and North-South divisions within the EU amplified, we could expect to see less consensus on matters of foreign affairs, where voting rules of unanimity will prevent the EU from expanding its position as global leader.

Is green the new red?

The decline of the traditional centre-left and pro-development “red” Socialist parties across Europe has continued. What could be observed in many European national elections for the last couple of years has been confirmed as a Europe-wide trend. Many observers expected to see a “green wave” instead, a growth of green parties fuelled by climate change concerns and the strong movement of the younger generation’s protests for solutions, led by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. Indeed, the Greens have managed to increase their seats from 52 to 68. However, this wave is geographically one-sided; the Greens won seats in 10 out of 28 member states only, all of them in Northern or Central Europe. They performed strongly in Germany, France, and the UK in particular, all countries which also reported significant losses for the Social democrats.

The Greens will play a significant role in advocating for green legislation and Europe’s position as a leader on climate change issues, which will be crucial for the EU’s support for Africa. However, given hardly any South or Eastern European member states will be sending a Green representative to Brussels, their requests for some of the EU’s top jobs and their impact will be restrained.

The impact of fragmentation

Not only did the Socialists lose voters in many countries, but so did the European conservative parties. The current informal “grand coalition” between the S&D and the EPP in the European Parliament will end. Their previous comfortable combined share of 401 seats has shrunk to 329, well short of the “straightforward” majority of 376 seats, which we have seen consistently in the past. Moving forward, political power will have to be shared across multiple political groups. More ad hoc-coalitions are likely, especially on such crucial topics such as the EU’s next budget, its migration policy, and policies to address climate change. The work of the Parliament, which has significant powers in the EU legislative process and a final say on the EU’s budget will undoubtedly become more complicated, but that isn’t just to the populists’ advantage. A more intense political competition among European political groups and the need to build coalitions could increase public scrutiny and interest in EU policies.

Crucial to the Parliament’s role in legislative work are the 22 Parliamentary committees. They instruct legislative proposals through reports, propose amendments to the European Parliament Plenary, and during the co-decision process appoint a team to conduct negotiations with the European Council on future legislation. For global development issues, each committee and their composition (such as the Development Committee, the Foreign Affairs Committee or the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs [LIBE] Committee) will matter greatly. While the composition of the Committees should reflect the composition of Parliament, power lies with the Committee Bureau, especially its chair who shapes the agenda and watches over the proceedings. All three committees are currently chaired by one of the two establishment parties S&D or EPP. The holder of these positions will be re-negotiated, as will all the key leadership positions in the EU such as the presidents of the European Commission, the European Council, and the European Central Bank.

It is too early to speculate who might lead the work of these committees moving forward. It seems possible that at least the Development Committee, which is often seen as a “less prestigious” Committee, might fall into the hands of a chair from one of the fringe parties, with very different priorities; the Greens would likely advocate for a more open migration and asylum policy, an increased focus on climate change mitigation in poorer countries, and more financing for the Sustainable Development Goals. Salvini’s alliance would likely push for less migration, aid directed solely towards national/European interests, a less regulated arms sales regime, and a shift away from the European values agenda of democracy, human rights, and rule of law.

However, while proportionality is sought among political groups, Members of the European Parliament can vote down a candidate for the chair or vice-chair from a political group that has been informally “assigned” the post, as it has been in the case in the past when the EFDD’s group candidate for Committee chairmanship was refused. Therefore, it seems entirely possible that the “pro-EU” majority (502 seats) will prevent eurosceptic parties from assuming chairmanship of any Committees. The European Parliament will first meet in early July and CGD will be following its internal decisions and potential impact on global development issues closely.

Legislation is shaped within Parliamentary committees. Right-wing groups could end up chairing one of the committees with significant power over policy agendas and priorities with a strong impact on global development. Populist parties from the right would likely call for less development aid, aid spent in the national interest, and an increased focus on fighting the “root causes of migration” as well as humanitarian aid.

One (final) chance for change

Overall, the outcome of the elections is great news for democracy in Europe and the future of the EU. But last weekend’s results are no reason to breathe easy for any one party or politician. Despite the clear verdict of pro-Europe voters, the increased fragmentation and move away from establishment parties illustrates growing discontent. The newly elected legislators now have a clear mandate to create change. And with shifting geopolitics, tensions within and outside its borders, a lack of social cohesion, and many other urgent issues, this new Parliament will be decisive for the EU’s role in the multilateral system.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.