From Amsterdam to Athens and Sweden to Spain, recent national elections across Europe have revealed a rapidly fragmenting political landscape: the big parties are getting smaller; the small parties bigger. Now that fragmentation has hit the European parliament.
Much of the focus in the 2019 European elections has been on the rise of the far-right populists, bent on exploding the parliament’s decades-long centre-right/centre-left consensus and rolling back the EU’s remit in an attempt to return power to member states.
Matteo Salvini, of Italy’s League, is trying to forge an alliance of nationalist parties, such as Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), Austria’s Freedom party, the Danish People’s party (DPP) and Finland’s True Finns party, to do just that.
The Italian deputy prime minister’s putative putsch expands one existing group of rightwing Eurosceptics by poaching members from the other two. Add in conservative nationalists and far-left forces, and the “less EU” camp looks – according to provisional results – like it has perhaps a third of the parliament’s 751 seats.
This has led to reports of a Eurosceptic tidal wave sweeping the European parliament. But it is not the equivalent of Donald Trump storming the White House or Brexit blowing up British politics. Pro-EU forces still hold a comfortable majority.
The work of the parliament, which has acquired significant extra powers in recent years and now plays a major part in the EU legislative process, will undoubtedly become more complicated, but that isn’t just down to the populists’ advance.
Ever since the first European elections in 1979, the parliament has been run by the two main centre-right and centre-left groups, reflecting the fact that the vast majority of EU citizens lived in countries governed by parties belonging to one of them.
But with the steady decline of centrist parties across Europe, that is now the case for fewer than 40% of the EU’s voters. Major member states, such as Italy, Greece, Poland and France, are all ruled by parties that belong to neither the European People’s party (EPP) nor the Socialists & Democrats (S&D).
As such, it makes sense for the two big groups to have lost seats – more than 90 MEPs between them, according to the provisional count – and, for the first time, their historic joint majority.
Gaining seats are the Liberal Democrats (up 40, thanks mainly to Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche), the Greens (up 20-odd) and the Nationalists (also up 30-odd, thanks mainly to Salvini’s League).
The result will be a parliament fragmented like never before. And the “less EU” camp of nationalists, sovereignists and Eurosceptics itself reflects that fragmentation, divided by profound differences of ideology and policy.
Poland’s nationalist Law and Justice party and the far-right Sweden Democrats have shunned Salvini’s alliance because they distrust his fondness for the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Economically, AfD and the DPP are free-market ultra-liberals, but Le Pen rails against “uncontrolled globalisation” and wants to boost public spending.
On migration, Salvini favours a system of quotas obliging member states to distribute asylum seekers more fairly around the bloc, alleviating the pressure on southern “frontline” states; the illiberal democracies in the east, and many others, reject anything resembling such a scheme.
This means that the kind of straightforward majorities achieved in the parliament to pass EU legislation in the past are unlikely to happen. Ad hoc, cross-group coalitions will become more common, possibly complicating decision-making in sensitive areas, such as the EU’s next budget, border controls and climate measures.
Making matters even more difficult will be the political difficulty for the EPP of seeking support from its right.
The kind of centre-right/far-right alliance that until recently ruled Austria is unthinkable in Brussels, not least because it would splinter the EPP, already split over how to deal with Hungary’s illiberal leader, Viktor Orbán.
Many think fragmentation will be no bad thing. “A more fragmented European parliament may make the European decision-making process more troublesome and fractious,” argued Agata Gostyńska-Jakubowska and Leonard Schuette, of the Centre for European Reform.
“But it could also be a boon for European democracy. Greater political competition on the EU level could increase public interest in the European parliament elections, and that would be a healthy development for the EU.”
Luuk van Middelaar, a leading Dutch EU historian, also believes a “proper opposition” of the sort threatened by the likes of Salvini and Orbán – who aim to influence the debate rather than just shout from the sidelines and boost their profiles and party funds – could reinforce the European parliament.
Until now, the assembly has been mostly characterised by a desire to “de-politicise” debates wherever possible, reducing them to mere quests for technical or procedural solutions, van Middelaar told the EUobserver. That has left the EU with a credibility problem.
However, more genuine political debate might end up making the parliament stronger because it would “more credibly embody the full spectrum of public opinion in the EU”, he said.
A more complicated, ad hoc, but still fairly comfortable pro-European, mainstream majority is, naturally, a somewhat less exciting narrative than a tidal wave of populism sweeping away the foundations of the EU. But it looks like that is the outcome of these elections.