The flags of the EU and member states fly in front of the European Parliament building, Strasbourg, France. May 29, 2024.

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EU citizens vote mostly for continuity


Photo Credit: DPA/Philipp von Ditfurth


The European parliamentary elections last weekend produced a headline analysis focused on victories by center-right and far-right parties. But overall the balance of power in Strasbourg remains with the centrist political forces, making unlikely any weakening of environmental and carbon pricing policies, as well as reforms in processing asylum seekers. Most important, the European Union's strong support for Ukraine is not going to be undermined.

There was no far-right surge in the European Union, but far-right parties did do well in Germany and France, the region's two largest economies that happened by be led by weak incumbent governments, providing an opening for the German Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement National (RN) party in France. In European states with actual experience of far-right national governments, the appeal of such parties was weaker.

President Emmanuel Macron of France immediately took the consequence of his defeat to dissolve the French parliament and call for a snap election at the end of June. His intent appears to be to compel Le Pen's RN party to abandon their many populist and costly election promises, lest voters realize how costly they are, casting doubt on Le Pen's ambitions in the next French presidential elections in 2027. In Italy, for example, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's right-wing Fratelli d'Italia parti (FdI) successfully cannibalized the voter support away from her national coalition partner, the League party—which is even further to the right—possibly undermining the party leadership of Matteo Salvini; indeed, the overall far-right vote did not expand. In Poland, Prime Minister Donald Tusk defeated the far-right Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS) party. In Slovakia, the liberal Progresívne Slovensko (PS) party beat the ruling nationalist Sociálna Demokracia (SMER) party of Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was recently shot, a sign of the nation's toxic polarization. And more importantly, in Hungary a new center-right opposition party led by Peter Magyar got 30 percent of the vote, dealing the first domestic political challenge to authoritarian leader Prime Minister Viktor Orban in over a decade.

Looking at the incoming European Parliament, the two main far-right political families—the European Conservatives and Reformist group (ECR), and the Identity and Democracy group (ID)—gained only 13 seats out of 720 available. More importantly, the centrist majority—the European People's Party (EPP), the Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), and liberal Renew Europe groups—looks set to retain their majority with around 400 seats (see table). The European Union's political center held again, despite voters suffering the worst cost of living crisis in a generation.

Seats in the incoming European Parliament, by political party family
Political groups Total number of seats (losses, gains)
EPP - Group of the European People's Party (Christian Democrats) 186 (+10)
S&D - Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament 135 (-4)
Renew Europe - Renew Europe Group 79 (-23)
ECR - European Conservatives and Reformists Group 73 (+4)
ID - Identity and Democracy Group 58 (+9)
Greens/EFA - Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance 53 (-18)
The Left - The Left group in the European Parliament - GUE/NGL 36 (-1)
NI - Non-attached members 45 (-17)
Others - Newly elected members not allied to any of the political groups set up in the outgoing Parliament 55 (n.a.)
Total seats 720
n.a = not applicable
Source: Provisional results from European Parliament.

As European voters have now cast their ballots, the political impetus shifts from winning elections to ensuring EU institutions continue to function smoothly. Here of most immediate political importance for the newly elected parliament is its need to confirm with a simple majority of 361 the next president of the European Commission. With potentially prolonged political instability in France looming, EU leaders will want to signal continuity in Brussels by quickly appointing the new EU leadership team. Given the strong performance and return as largest block by the center-right EPP family, to which incumbent president Ursula von der Leyen belongs, she is near certain to be first reappointed by EU leaders and then confirmed by the European Parliament.

EU leaders and political families know that denying the powerful position of Commission president to Germany will fortify Germany's claim to the next presidency of the European Central Bank, a post that opens up in 2027, a prospect even more unappetizing to some leaders than rejecting von der Leyen as head of the Commission.

As noted, a centrist majority remains in the new European Parliament, meaning that von der Leyen has good political options to secure the votes she needs. In the center, the Green political family suffered severe political losses and will have an incentive to seek influence over the new Commission's policies, so some of their members are likely to support von der Leyen. And on the right, some members of FdI led by Giorgia Meloni will have the same incentives. Hence, von der Leyen is likely to get a majority of 361, even if the vote is likely to be deceptively close – as many important votes in the US Congress are – as individual members of the European Parliament (MEPs) chose to signal personal virtue with a no vote of no political impact.

Yet, the vote for president is secret, creating a small risk of her being defeated, which would usher in weeks of paralysis and infighting requiring party discipline by center right parties to stave off her defeat. In general, as the incoming European Parliament will not have a natural majority in most political issue areas, the leaders of the centrist political families will have to build up political "parliamentary whip operations" to better enforce party discipline on their otherwise often unruly members. This will in turn help turn the European Parliament into a more normal political confrontational body, where politics are decided by open votes, rather than by backroom agreements among a few dominant centrist political families.

Added together, these dynamics make policy changes unlikely. The main parts of the EU Green Deal are not really at risk. The EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) CO2 price is settled law. No majority exists to repeal it. Indeed, the ETS auction price recovered quickly, after falling on June 10 on the initial news of the election result (see figure).

Future funding supporting Ukraine against Russia's invasion is more of a concern, because national parliaments matter a great deal. A far-right majority in France could well oppose French participation in further EU funding for Ukraine. The political setback dealt to Orban in Hungary, on the other hand, could cause him to rethink his opposition to EU support for Ukraine in the future. Still, a clear majority in the new European Parliament remains strongly pro-Ukraine.

Lastly, despite the opposition by far-right parties to immigration, a tightening of EU immigration rules seems unlikely. It is overwhelmingly the member states, not the European Union, that set immigration rules nationally. A rightist majority in France could tighten French immigration rules. But this spring, the European Union legislated a complex reform of the common rules for processing asylum seekers across the Union. This reform took eight years to win approval, and there will be very limited appetite among MEPs and member states to reopen it.

Data Disclosure

This publication does not include a replication package.

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