June 25, 2019

What Did the European Parliament Elections Tell Us?

Postimees Grupp/Scanpix
The turnout in Estonia for the European elections remained modest, but in the EU as a whole it exceeded 50%.
The turnout in Estonia for the European elections remained modest, but in the EU as a whole it exceeded 50%.

Member states pose a real threat of the EU’s disintegration.

Elections to the European Parliament were held between 23 and 26 May. The Dutch and British voted first, on the Thursday. On Friday and Saturday the Irish, Latvian, Slovak and Czech electorates cast their votes and on Sunday those in the remaining member states, including Estonia, had their say. The elections to the European Parliament are the second largest in the world, after India. These are big elections in terms of numbers and geography, but politically they still have a long way to go.

In academic debate, the European elections are considered secondary to national ones, such as local and general elections.1 In general, elections to the European Parliament do not generate much interest among voters, political parties or the media. The results depend more on domestic political developments than the candidates’ positions on European issues. Those in power and in opposition play a significant part, as well as the general satisfaction or dissatisfaction of the voters. Sometimes individual candidates and their notoriety are decisive, as has been demonstrated several times in the EP elections in Estonia. Occasionally there are attempts to interpret these elections as a referendum on the national government’s ability to provide solutions to domestic political and social challenges during the years preceding the elections, while in other cases the low turnout means the outcome is not considered a suitable indication of the current political situation. The role of the European elections in reading political trends and situations is thus still evolving.

Turnout: a U-turn

The 2019 vote, however, was significant in the development of the EP elections. The increased turnout across Europe was the most positive phenomenon. More people decided to cast their vote than in the past, reversing a decline that started in 1979. The average turnout across the EU was 50.59%, which is 8.34 points higher than in 2014. Turnout increased in 20 of the 28 member states, and did not fall below 20% in any country, as happened in two countries in 2014.2

Why is this significant? Again, academic circles are discussing whether the legitimacy of the EU derives from people’s participation in legislative processes, i.e. whether the voters and their interests are sufficiently represented in law-making through elected institutions such as the European Parliament—or is its legitimacy derived from providing effective and relevant solutions to the challenges that Europe is facing?3 So far, there has been a tendency to gauge the legitimacy of the EU by its actions. The EU is lawful and gains wider support if the legislation it produces contributes to the success and progress of European societies. It therefore seems that the claim that the EU’s legitimacy has risen on the basis of increased turnout is proved. This is positive and significant. However, it should be borne in mind that support for the EU and its raison d’être depend much on its ability to manage new challenges and achieve the goals it has set.

What Should We Make of the Decline of the Centre?

The second significant change is the fragmentation of the European Parliament’s composition and its resulting internal politics. The elections bring to an end the domination of two political groups. The European People’s Party (EPP, 179 seats)4 and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D, 153 seats) have dominated the European Parliament since the end of the 1980s. But their poor results do not constitute a majority (376 seats), and the missing mandates of the majority are needed for 326 seats. Negotiations are being held with Renew Europe and the Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA). This jumbo coalition would form a comfortable majority (504 seats) and would unite liberal and pro-European forces.

The poor results of the centre-right and centre-left (i.e. the EPP and S&D) and the success of the extreme forces—the Greens and far-right parties—pose a serious challenge to politicians, political analysts and observers. The political landscape of Europe is changing, and the traditionally popular centre-right and centre-left parties are losing their support and role in society. There are several reasons for this, and the biggest question is: who will be the future political forces that implement policy and democracy in Europe?

Two factors can currently be foreseen. It is specific issues, and not ideology, that play a bigger part in voters’ decisions. Voters are not as loyal to political parties and more often decide to cast their vote based on specific issues. Second, socioeconomic justice is not the only thing defining people’s ideology and political inclinations. There are different spectrums: global v local, pro-Europe v anti-Europe, and so on. So, the important question is how to define oneself politically and analyse a political landscape in which the voters decide based on more factors than merely traditional ideologies.

The Much-feared Anti-Europeans

A great sigh of relief has heaved throughout Europe after the elections. Populist and Eurosceptic forces did not win a third of seats, as had been feared, and pro-European forces retained their dominance. Although there is more fragmentation and a greater need for cooperation, the worry that the European Parliament would become the blocking force in Europe’s institutional machinery will not come true.

The number of populist and Eurosceptic party groups is so large and diverse that they are unlikely to cooperate and form a united front. Four party groups can currently be identified, but this is not final and is likely to change. Some smaller party groups will probably break down once the British leave, and those MEPs will join other groups, or new groups will be formed.

We should pay attention to what the anti-European forces really want from Europe. Brexit has been like a vaccine against talk of leaving the EU, but how could one find a new way of expressing antipathy towards the EU? Some analysts say that the Eurosceptics’ criticism is “breaking Europe down”, but what does this mean? Breaking it down into what? The Coal and Steel Community of 1952? Or the situation preceding the Treaty of Maastricht, which entered into force in 1993 and allegedly drastically changed the EU? Other analysts—including me—see the Eurosceptics’ criticism as dissatisfaction with the way integration is going at present. Cooperation on the European level takes place in too many fields and is too extensive. They claim this poses a threat to the sovereignty of nation-states. This is the limit of their criticism and it is difficult to see them proposing any alternative. My detailed research so far has revealed that the Eurosceptic forces do not in fact have a clear vision or ideas on how to move forward with the EU and European integration differently in practice. Rather than fearing them, we should create a discussion about how they see European cooperation and what their vision is.

Oh Dear, It’s the British

In some respects, the European elections are not yet over, because the current results include the results from the United Kingdom. The Brexit process currently—and I stress currently—foresees that that the UK’s MEPs will take their seats in the European Parliament but leave once Brexit has been completed. As of now, this could happen at the beginning of July or on 31 October—and they also have the opportunity to leave at any time between today and the end of October. There is also a possibility that they might not leave at all.

This does not have much effect on the parliamentary maths. The UK has 73 seats. The biggest loss will be borne by the group known as Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD), made up of Italy’s Five Star Movement (14 seats), the UK’s Brexit Party (29) and one from Croatia’s “Human Shield”, whose 44 seats will fall to 15 after the British leave; the EFDD could then join another faction. Renew Europe will lose 17 seats, the S&D 10 and the Greens/EFA 11. Six more seats will be lost in smaller groups between which they are distributed. Twenty-seven members elected in May in other member states will join to replace the British, including Riho Terras from Estonia. This will not change much, but the numbers will have to be reviewed again.

“Fatal Elections”

Finally, one of the most important differences between these elections and previous ones is how much—sometimes too much—importance was given to them. In Germany they were called Schicksalwahl or “fatal elections”, and Brussels relayed the message that they would decide the future of the EU.

I agree that the rise of populists, Eurosceptics and the far-right is critical, but the EU must always be seen in a wider context than the European Parliament and the elections to it. The parliament may become a blocking force in the EU legislative machine but, at the same time, it is only part of the whole EU system. Member states remain at the core of the Union, and the last political cycle demonstrated that, when the legislative mechanism comes to a halt, it does so in the European Council rather than in the parliament. The biggest threat to the EU is posed by member states who stop believing in the European project and working towards it, compromising and contributing to the Union.

The representation of Eurosceptics, populists and extremists in the capitals of member states is therefore a bigger concern than their presence in the European Parliament. If the diplomats and ministers working in Brussels do not have the political mandate to contribute to the European project, work for compromise and express solidarity, we will be discussing the break-up and end of the EU.

I am not vilifying or playing down the European Parliament; however, I would like to point out that the EU develops every day, not only during EP elections. The EU will not disintegrate overnight; rather it will fade and become a talking shop, unable to tackle challenges and manage crises. Unfortunately, there are plenty of international organisations that have experienced this fate, which is why we should be especially alert.

These elections to the European Parliament sharply outlined the changes that have occurred in recent years in the politics and societies of member states and in European cooperation. People’s awareness of and support for the EU has grown. The political debate in Brussels is intensifying, due to the fragmentation of the European Parliament and the presence of the Eurosceptics. But the question of how to turn the political opposition between the pro-Europeans and anti-Europeans into practical policies so that the EU can manage crises and support the development of Europe in the future still remains to be answered.


1 Karlheinz Reif and Hermann Schmitt, “Nine Second-Order National Elections – A Conceptual Framework for the Analysis of European Election Results”. European Journal of Political Research 8(1) (March 1980), pp. 3–44.

2 Slovakia (13.05%) and the Czech Republic (18.2%).

3 I.e. input vs output legitimacy. See Fritz W. Scharpf, “Problem-Solving Effectiveness and Democratic Accountability in the EU”. MPIfG Working Paper 03/1, February 2003, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies. http://www.mpifg.de/pu/workpap/wp03-1/wp03-1.html (accessed 31 May 2019).

4 Division of seats as published by the European Parliament; see http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/press-room/elections-press-kit/8/european-elections-results.



Holger Mölder, Associate Professor of International Relations at TalTech

Piret Kuusik has written a pertinent article about the recent European Parliament elections but some of her conclusions are debatable. In a way these elections also represent the ideologically motivated polarisation between liberal and conservative values, increasingly evident in European societies in recent times, which could have been the motive behind the increased turnout as voters expressed their attitudes to the EU and its future.

I think the biggest losers in these elections are the traditional parties that have defined themselves on the right and left ends of the political spectrum: the right-wing European People’s Party (down 38 seats), the European Conservatives and Reformists (₋13 seats), the left-wing Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (₋34), and the European United Left–Nordic Green Left (₋14). Meanwhile, popularity was gained by new alternative forces whose ideological orientation cannot always be clearly determined, and which include not only Eurosceptic movements but also pro-European forces. They cannot be thrown into the same pot of Eurosceptics, populists and extremists but, with opposing compositions, agreement between the groups will be more difficult because different interest groups are placed on a much wider spectrum and the diktat of the largest groups is no longer sufficient.

The Renew Europe group of liberals and centrists (formerly ALDE) strengthened its position (adding 37 seats), mainly thanks to the success of Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche! in France, but the Greens/EFA and Identity and Democracy (formerly Europe of Nations and Freedom) can also be considered as winners in these elections, each gaining 22 seats. The Eurosceptic group Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) gained 13 seats, but this was mainly thanks to the success of Nigel Farage’s Brexit party in the UK.1 If Brexit really does happen, they would also join the losing side. I agree with the author that socioeconomic issues are no longer decisive in forming voters’ preferences, but identity politics has an increasing and more powerful presence in the elections. For this reason, I would call these elections not so much a failure of the centrists as a failure of the right- and left-wing parties that represent the traditional ideological divisions.


1 In the UK, the Brexit Party gained a record 29 seats, but the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party together with the regional Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, Sinn Fein and the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland gained the same number. The biggest losers were the Labour Party, down to 10, and the ruling Conservative Party, with four seats. These elections were renewed proof that British society is conflicted over Brexit matters, and those whose positions and goals remain unclear tend to lose.


A New European Parliament and New Lines of Power

Viljar Veebel, Research Fellow at the Baltic Defence College

On the one hand, an analysis of the results of the recent elections to the European Parliament allows one to conclude that the sceptics were more successful than ever, but this success was not as great as feared. On the other, there is even more truth to the claim that the sceptics and anti-Europeans gained a quarter or a fifth of the seats in several member states (more than a third in the UK)—and, unfortunately, this reflects the objective balance of power between the pro-Europeans and anti-Europeans in the Europe of today. In other words: the overall picture is pro-European, but this is not to gainsay the strong performance of the anti-Europeans in the UK, Italy, France, Hungary and several other member states.

Turnout did increase, but just 51% is still more a sign of little interest on the part of voters and the resultant rather weak mandate. The relative progress is largely down to the extremely low turnout at the last elections. The concurrent increased turnout and reduced support for the two major centrist groups is a clear indication that, this time, the additional votes came primarily from supporters of the Greens and the extremists. Europe’s voters have thereby conveyed a clear message to the two largest groups that sticking with old, worn-out promises and slogans costs their loyalty.

The newly elected European Parliament could be called fragmented, but also more representative and a better reflection of the division of social preferences. The division of forces is still clearly inclined towards the pro-Europeans, but it is important to note that the European Parliament does not vote by simple majority but by absolute majority, with the additional requirement of a double majority in some cases. In these latter cases, where the opposition of a third of those present is sufficient to suspend a draft act, the 150 or so sceptics and anti-Europeans become a significant force. In practice this means that in future there might not be enough support in the EP to limit the voting rights of, for example, Hungary or Poland (or Greece and Cyprus).

Can the new Parliament work? This depends on what is considered the indicator of effective operation. There will undoubtedly be more heated arguments, opposition, mutual open attacks, labelling and complete lack of cooperation on certain issues and between certain groups. Compared to before, the European Parliament will be more of a battlefield and less a homogeneous legislator. Meanwhile, it is positive that those (radical and anti-European) groups who have up to now felt that they have been left on the sidelines and channelled their energy outside traditional parliamentary democracy are now feeling sufficiently represented.

What is more likely: a pro-European grand coalition or an anti-European opposition? The pro-Europeans have thus far demonstrated a greater ability to cooperate but, on the other hand, the positions and programmes of the anti-Europeans are more similar. The central factor will therefore be the degree of motivation for cooperation. The golden hour of the Eurosceptic forces will be before Brexit actually takes place, while they have the support of nearly 30 British anti-Europeans.

In conclusion, the European Parliament (and Estonia’s representation in it) is more diverse and less willing to cooperate but, paradoxically, a more objective reflection of the mindset and division of forces in Europe today. It is important to keep in mind that the European Parliament is not merely an institution intended to represent pro-European forces but a proportionally representative body of all members of society and a lawmaker.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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