The European Parliament elections drew the highest voter turnout in twenty years: more than half of EU citizens headed to the polls between 23 and 26 May.
The results have demonstrated a slight shift from mainstream politics, putting pressure on politicians and businesses alike to move away from their typical policymaking and engagement strategies to find new political alliances to achieve their policy objectives. This will present both challenges and opportunities.
The no one and everyone majority: who has what?
The newly elected European Parliament is significantly polarised. The centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) has lost its hegemony and the centre-left Social Democrats (S&D) has diminished its influence compared to the previous elections’ results (39 seat reductions for both political groups). Even if the EPP managed to retain its position as first in these elections in terms of the number of seats won, it will find it challenging to convince other parties to support their lead candidate, Manfred Weber, to becoming the next President of the European Commission.
Meanwhile, the liberals – the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group has climbed to third place with 109 seats, mainly thanks to the French President’s LREM (La République En Marche!) joining the force. The liberals could be followed by a Eurosceptic bloc led by Italy’s deputy Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini, whose party won the election in his country. The size of his group will depend on the national parties that join his bloc, which already includes France’s winner, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party. Overall, the huge victory expected on the far-right did not materialise, with most of these parties retaining their old positions or making onlyslight gains (Germany’s ‘Alternative for Germany’ – AfD), and some even losing their seats (Netherlands’ Party of Freedom – PVV).
Another striking result was that of the Greens. While they still only have 67 out of 751 seats, their surge in popularity across the EU cannot be ignored. The party was second from the top in Germany, pushing the established SPD into third place and they beat the Conservative Party in the UK.
With the current format, there is no majority against the EPP the S&D, the ALDE-plus, or the Greens. However, this cannot be defined as “EU paralysis”. On the contrary, a diversification of political voices in Europe could allow the EU to grow and change for the better.
The challenges & opportunities
Manfred Weber announced that the EPP will go into these negotiations with a humble but firm approach, promising to stick to the Spitzenkandidaten procedure. Not long after, Angela Merkel reinforced the statement by affirming that the EPP stands by its lead candidate.
The S&D’s candidate, Frans Timmermans, hopes that the numbers might allow him to form a progressive coalition with the liberals and the Greens. Many have noted that both the EPP and S&D have suffered losses and that, as a result, the parties should not automatically dominate the key EU positions.
Meanwhile, the liberals and the Greens have already dubbed themselves among the winners of these elections. Both the EPP and S&D need the liberals to get a pro-European majority and the Greens would be indispensable for the S&D to ensure a more left and progressive approach. The key challenge here will be for these parties to find common ground to ensure that the European Parliament does not find itself in a deadlock, which would allow for more Eurosceptic parties to swoop in.
This challenge will be extended to businesses engaging with the EU institutions, as they no longer only need the EPP and S&D on board to push through policies. They will also have to take into account the diverging interests of parties that are needed to get a majority of votes in the European Parliament.
Everyone is on board
The polarisation of the European Parliament may also present opportunities for businesses. With the new dynamics of the current European Parliament, there are more options to build coalitions in favour of, or against, certain proposals; each party will have a greater voice regarding the adoption of new legislation. This certainly presents a challenge in the short term, but will be interesting and positive for other stakeholders, who can be sure that their voices will be heard.
Playing politics – what’s next?
The fight over who will get the top jobs started as soon as the election results came in. EU leaders came together yesterday for the EU Summit to discuss the election outcome and discuss who could become the next President of the European Commission. Any candidate would have to be approved by a majority in the European Parliament, so EU leaders will have to take into account its new political structure brought on by the polarising election results.
EU leaders face significant time pressure, with Donald Tusk pushing for an outcome before the next EU Summit on 21st June, but this is not their only problem. Another issue that could drive the pace of these negotiations is the recent tectonic movements at the national level in many countries, such as in the case of Belgium, Romania and Austria.
On the same day as the European elections, Belgium also held its federal election, due to a political crisis that emerged in December 2018, which led to Belgium being ruled by a minority government. However, the traditional parties lost seats in elections, with more seats being won by far-right Vlaams Belang, the Green parties and the leftist PTB/PVDA (The Workers’ Party of Belgium) which will make the negotiation process for a new government if not impossible, then extremely challenging.
Romania, the country that currently serves the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, has emerged from these elections with an acute political crisis inside the Social Democratic (PSD) ruling party. The party not only scored the weakest results in a decade, but also saw its leader Liviu Dragnea (Romania’s leader de facto) jailed over corruption.
Last but not least, Austria is facing a big governing crisis as well, with the Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, suffering a non-confidence vote despite his centre-right Austrian People’s Party coming first in the European elections.
Despite many challenges across Europe, finding a compromise for the key positions in Brussels (aka EU institutions) it’s a feasible task. The “mastery of high-level politics playground” is open. In the meantime, businesses should not sit and wait for the outcome. On the contrary, increasing public salience on policy issues that matter would help to shift the behaviour of the key EU politicians, offering hope of negotiating the best outcome possible.