The official results of the European Parliament election have been rolling in for more than a day now, and the chances are that you will have already read one or two pieces exploring the three key takeaways from this election. Firstly, at 51 percent compared to 42 percent in 2014, turnout was higher than expected: voters took this as a decisive moment in the development of the European Union.
Secondly, different parties reaped the benefits of this participation in different settings. Though the centre-left and the centre-right lost seats overall, both still had positive national stories to tell from this election. Socialist parties had great success in Spain and the Netherlands; Christian Democrats held first place in Germany; and New Democracy performed well in Greece. But, at the pan-European level, the biggest gains were achieved by liberals and the Greens, which are poised to be kingmakers in the new European Parliament.
And, thirdly, contrary to some predictions, there was no tidal wave of support for far-right and anti-European parties. Having achieved a modest increase in vote share, they will now occupy around one-third of seats in the European Parliament. But this did not shake up the European political landscape. In the countries where they came in in first place – France, Hungary, and Italy – they hardly lived up to predictions in the polls. France’s Rassemblement National, led by Marine Le Pen, even won fewer votes than it did in the 2014 election. In 23 out of 28 member states, the largest vote share went to a pro-European party.
European politicians may need to become more promiscuous
What else does the 2019 vote say about Europe’s political temperature? Firstly, the one big factor that lies behind all these developments is a desire for change. In a massive pan-European poll the European Council on Foreign Relations commissioned for February 2019, YouGov asked voters whether the national and European political systems worked well or were broken. More than three-quarters of the poll’s 50,000 respondents said that either one or both were broken. Two-thirds of respondents were unsure whether their children’s lives would be better than their own.
Regardless of who they supported in this election, voters rarely appeared to signal that they were content with the status quo. In every national election battle, the parties that fared best were those that proved most effective in arguing that Europe can be different. This desire for change spurred the green wave in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Portugal. The promise of a different, fairer Europe brought major victories for socialist parties in the Netherlands, Romania, and Spain. But it was also the promise to – in the end – not destroy the EU but force it to take a “common sense approach” that assured the victory of both Rassemblement National and Italy’s the League, led by Matteo Salvini.
This sense of disconnection from the political system, combined with pessimism about the future of the European project – as a separate survey conducted by YouGov for ECFR in April 2019 showed, most EU voters believe that the union could collapse in the next 10-20 years – has fundamentally changed the European electorate. It is now incredibly volatile, with most voters making issue-based decisions rather than voting according to party loyalty.
The big challenge now is a cross-party, pan-European one. How to answer the demands of this unpredictable, change-driven electorate, who have given European policymakers a chance to prove that Europe is capable of reform? Different times call for different measures: the European Parliament now needs to move beyond its established ways of working. For the first time in the European Parliament’s almost-70-year history, the grand coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats has lost its combined majority. Therefore, all possible majority coalitions in this finely balanced, fragmented parliament require a leap of imagination.
Perhaps, the challenge consists in communicating the need to build lasting coalitions. For the EU to achieve progress on the issues that voters have indicated they care about deeply – from climate change to fairness, to safety in a turbulent world – political parties may now need to think in original ways, forming short-term alliances on key policies and swapping partners when the need for consensus demands it. Perhaps, they need to think beyond the constraints of traditional political groups, and to look for support beyond the depleted mainstream – where views of various issues converge.
In short, European politicians may need to become more promiscuous.
The European Parliament would look very different if its members adopted this modus operandi. But this could create the change that voters have asked for.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.