Coming in 2019: a more fractious and gridlocked European Parliament
Simon Hix / Apr 2019
With only a few weeks to go until the European elections, the forecasters are in full swing. Whether pooling national opinion polls or modelling previous European election results, the forecasts are all predicting some dramatic changes.
First, parties on the populist right are expected to win between a quarter and a third of the seats. There is also likely to be a re-alignment of the groups on the right of the European People’s Party (EPP). Salvini and Le Pen’s new European Alliance of Peoples and Nations (EAPN) will draw in most of the MEPs in the current Europe of Nations and Freedom group as well as several parties from the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group. This new group could win 80 to 100 seats and even become the third largest in the parliament. That would send shock-waves across Europe.
But a new EAPN group could leave several parties on the right with no home. Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) is unlikely to join Salvini and Le Pen, given their sympathetic attitude towards Putin, and neither is Italy’s Five Star Movement (M5S). Perhaps surprisingly, VoteWatchEurope.eu data suggest that the M5S MEPs have voted most closely with the Greens/European Free Alliance (G/EFA) group in the current parliament. Add to these populists right MEPs the Fidesz members who are likely to leave the EPP at some point, and could be natural allies with PiS and the Czech conservatives in a new ECR.
Overall, expect at least two groups to the right of EPP: one out of the ashes of the current ECR, who could be a tempting ally for the EPP, at least on market regulation issues; and the other a thorn in the side of mainstream parties, willing to challenge established EU policies across a range of issues, from refugee and asylum policies, to climate change, the digital economy, Eurozone reform, international trade, and EU foreign policies.
Second, diametrically opposed to these populist right groups will be a larger group of centrist MEPs, bolstered by Macron’s La République en Marche (REM). Although Macron’s MEPs may not want to join the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), and may look to build an alliance with moderate Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and EPP MEPs, I doubt many parties will leave their traditional families. This will leave Macron seeking an alliance with ALDE, perhaps in return for ALDE’s support for a Macron-supported candidate for Commission President. If so, this new ALDE+REM group could win 100 to 120 seats, and so be the “kingmakers” between the two bigger groups in the battles for the key EU and EP offices at start of the new term.
Third, this leads me to EPP and S&D: the Tweddle Dee and Tweddle Dum of EU politics. Both of these groups are projected to lose seats, to such an extent that the combined forces of EPP and S&D are almost certain to fall below 50 per cent for the first time. In the 2009-14 parliament, the EPP was often able to form winning coalitions with ALDE and ECR against the socialists. In the 2014-19 parliament, this centre-right majority shrunk, forcing the EPP to work with S&D. In the next parliament, this “grand coalition” will need to be extended to include ALDE and perhaps even G/EFA. This will be an unwieldy and ugly coalition, with little in common on many of the key issues, from liberalisation of the services market, to tackling climate change, data protection, gender equality, labour rights, and so on. The only thing that will hold this coalition together will be the threat of the combined Eurosceptic forces of the populists right and radical left.
So, unless there are dramatic changes in the last few weeks of the campaign, the elections could produce a more fragmented and fractious European Parliament, which is an unreliable ally for the Commission and the governments. If this happens, expect policy gridlock across a range of issues, which would make it difficult for the EU to address the underlying economic, social and cultural causes of the rising support for populist anti-establishment parties across Europe.