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European Elections: Barking Populists Failed to Bite



In the months before the European elections of May 23–26, it was taken for granted that the long-running  centrist “grand coalition” in European politics between the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the center-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) political groups would lose their majority in the new European Parliament. The question that voters would determine was: Which party would fill the power vacuum left by the two traditional parties?

EU voters have now answered that question emphatically in two surprising ways. First, the surprisingly large turnout of more than 50 percent is being widely interpreted as a boost to the European Parliament’s own legitimacy.

Second, EU voters clearly handed the greatest gains to the Liberals (market-oriented) and Greens political groups, increasing their representation by a combined 60 seats. In contrast, the predictions, especially in Anglo-Saxon media, of a boost for the far-right/nationalist anti-EU groups largely failed to materialize and yielded a total increase in their representation of only 22 seats.[1] Meanwhile, the far left political group (European United Left/Nordic Green Left) in the European Parliament also lost 14 seats, leaving the political extremes in the European Parliament essentially unchanged.

On a net basis, the representation of the far right/nationalist groups increased essentially because of the increase in representation of Italy’s League party from 5 to 28 (or 29) members. Outside of Italy, the far right failed to materially add to their vote tallies. Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party merely took the combined votes of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and other far right parties in the United Kingdom in 2014. Marine Le Pen of the anti-immigrant National Rally party might have beaten Emmanuel Macron’s La Republique en Marche (LREM) party in France by 1 percent or so, but her party got fewer votes than in 2014. Germany’s Alternative for Germany party (AfD), with 11 percent, grew from 2014 but fared worse than in the 2017 German national elections. Spain’s Vox party also did worse than in recent national elections, while in the Netherlands Geert Wilders’s Party of Freedom lost its four seats, and in Denmark the Danish People’s Party dropped from four to one seat. Certainly, far right parties have consolidated their (considerable) support in many EU countries in these elections. But with the exception of Italy, they have not expanded it.

In many ways the recent European elections will prove more consequential at the national level in several member states rather than giving a firm future direction for Europe. Party leaders in the European Parliament have now reiterated their demand for the process of the spitzenkandidaten in which the European Parliament will confirm only nominees for president of the European Commission proposed by the EU Council who have “made her/his program and personality known prior to the elections, and engaged in a European-wide campaign.”  With more than 50 percent of European voters participating in the elections, they are now less likely to back down. The EU Council, which consists of the leaders of the 28 member states, consequently risks facing a protracted, paralyzing power struggle with the European Parliament if it nominates a candidate outside the “spitzen-process.” Many risks abound, however, given the need to project an image of “political action” as important deadlines approach, especially with Brexit.

The rise in voter participation in the European elections has probably helped the European Parliament constrain the freedom of the EU Council in nominating the next European Commission president.[2] As a result, prospects of several candidates have been boosted, notably Manfred Weber (EPP), Frans Timmermanns (S&D), and Margrethe Vestager (Liberals). Meanwhile, chances of other outside candidates, such as Michel Barnier or Kristalina Georgieva, have shrunk following the rise in voter participation in the elections.

Europe will now enter a period of intense horse trading about what should be the top items on the continent’s agenda in the coming years and not least who will get the top jobs in European institutions. Voters are likely to get answers to both at the EU Council meeting on June 20-21, 2019.


1. This is the combined net increase among Salvini’s European Alliance (+37), European Conservatives and Reformists (–17), and the MS5 + Brexit Party group (+2).

2. It is noteworthy that the European Parliament’s leaders’ statement in 2019 is considerably more restrained than it was in 2014, when it explicitly said: “The candidate of the largest Group Mr. Jean Claude Juncker will be the first to attempt to form the required majority.” In 2014, the European Parliament clearly attempted to dictate precisely who would become the next president of the European Commission, whereas in 2019, it merely seeks to limit the EU Council’s choice to be among the declared spitzenkandidaten.

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