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The Centre and the Extremes: The EU Parliament Election Results

The voters have spoken. On the evening of Sunday, the 9th of June 2024, final and provisional results for the elections to the European Parliament were released across the 27 EU member states. With an estimated 51% voter turnout, millions of Europeans across the continent cast their votes for the 720 seats up for grabs in a shifting political landscape that sets the ball rolling for the EU’s positions, policies and projects in the coming five years.

The latest projected results paint a picture of a new parliament, strongly consolidated by parties to the right of the political spectrum. The traditional centre-right ‘European People’s Party (EPP)’ maintained its strong showing as the largest parliamentary group, with 189 seats, an increase of 13 from the previous elections of 2019. The traditional centre-left social democratic ‘Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D)’ continued its long-running streak as the second-largest group with a tally of 135 seats. Besides the traditional parliamentary blocs, it was the turn of the nationalist, populist and eurosceptic voices on the right with the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and the Identity and Democracy Group (ID) groups, to make inroads. The ECR and ID secured 73 and 58 seats respectively, a total gain of 13 seats for both groups from the previous elections. The biggest electoral declines fell to the Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA) and the liberal Renew group, which cumulated 53 and 79 seats, a decline of 19 and 23 seats respectively.

The Left group maintained a similar score of 36 seats and the remaining list of parliamentarians not aligned or yet to be assigned to any of the main parliamentary groups are expected to hold 97 seats.

“The centre is holding”, were the words proclaimed by current European Commission Ursula von der Leyen who belongs to the EPP. Their gains and positioning as the single-largest group reflected a majority of Europeans who wanted a stronger, stable and effective Europe in her words. She was also quick to point out that in the current atmosphere of ‘turmoil’ across the continent, the responsibility of the parties in the centre remained stronger in checking the surge in popularity across the political extremes, both left and right. As in the past, the EPP will rely on forming bipartisan voting coalitions with the S&D, Renew and Greens, or it could give more of a say to the right by seeking the support of the ECR. In the immediate future, the politics of coalition-seeking to add up the numbers will be highly crucial, particularly in electing the next European Commissioner, a position that von der Leyen herself is aiming for, knowing very well that she might not receive the unanimous backing of her members in the EPP. The EPP remains the key party to any legislative coalition. But to what extent it is willing to position itself favourably to work with the liberals, socialists and populists would vary across each major issue.

Evidently, the growth of the right-wing groups has made much more of the headlines as a decisive bloc that will strongly influence Parliament. Some of the most pressing issues including the cost of living and inflation spikes, immigration, agricultural distress and foreign policy positioning have been fruitfully attributed by the right in what has been described as a wave of ‘right-wing’ support across the continent.

There is a possibility that the ECR and ID which share similar ideals of nationalistic populism and euro-scepticism, could form an influential bloc worth 131 lawmakers. Adding to their joint tally of 131, a potential coalition with other non-aligned right-wing parties such as the AfD of Germany and the Fidesz party of Hungary would place the right wing as a commanding voice against the centrists. Yet a lot remains to be done to unify the diverse voices on this side of the spectrum.

On their end, the Greens/EFA group’s push for a stronger ecological consciousness at the centre of European debate failed to materialise. Importantly, in Germany and France where the Greens accounted for half of their 2019 tally, they witnessed a sharp decline of 16 seats in both countries alone, despite having impressive showings in Denmark and the Netherlands. Though the climate crisis, global warming and carbon emissions remain highly important for the average voter, the support for the green movement has taken a backstep in light of other growing social and political concerns over which their competence vis-à-vis the populist parties remains limited. This brings into question the proactiveness of the next Parliament in pursuing the Green Deal and its ambitions of achieving net zero emissions by 2050. With the EPP and von der Leyen having turned back on some of their climate pushes in light of the recent farmers’ protests, the Greens could find themselves in a frustrating position of lacking the numbers to influence ecology-related propositions. A right-leaning Parliament could open the path towards favourable re-industrialisation measures and cut down on many of the Greens’ ‘radical’ measures.

Like the Greens, the Renew group despite remaining the third largest parliamentary group, faces a tough position in carving a standing for themselves. Their decline reflects a larger challenge of liberal democratic voices in convincing the electorate on key issues in a crowded political space of rising populism. Much of the decline for Renew could be explained by its constituent parties’ challenges in failing to address key day-to-day issues at the domestic level, as has been the case with Renew’s biggest drop in France versus the surging right-wing.

Perhaps 2019 was an outstanding year where Renew had overperformed and would now potentially be open to coalescing with other like-minded liberal voices in the EPP for greater mileage due to their similar positions on a liberal and stronger Europe.

The challenges for the liberal and liberal-socialist parties on the continental stage are also a reflection of their current challenges domestically. The most keenly anticipated political movements are in France where President Emmanuel Macron announced the dissolution of the French National Assembly and called for fresh elections in less than three weeks, a decision taken on the back of the surge by Marine Le Pen’s ‘Rassemblement National’ which is in pole position to become the largest party in the national elections according to latest surveys. Though the European elections are historically used as protest elections in France, a new French government could have strong ramifications for France’s position in the Union and impact the legislative programme of the European Commission and the functioning of the EU Council. Similarly in Belgium, Prime Minister Alexander de Croo tendered his resignation after his party the ‘Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats’ that is part of Renew, finished with a below-par European result far behind its populist rivals. In Germany, the decline in seats for Chancellor Olaf Schulz’s Social Democrats and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock’s Green party is also a reminder of the prevalent anti incumbency wave. In Austria, the victory of the right wing came as a wake-up call for the incumbent liberal-conservative government of Chancellor Karl Nehammer with their national elections due later this year. In other countries, the vote reflected a positive backing to the governments in power, notably in Denmark, Poland and Spain.

The first plenary of the new Parliament will take place in Strasbourg between July 16 and 19. During this plenary, the newly-elected MEPs in their respective parliamentary groups will have to elect the President and Vice-Presidents of the Parliament and decide on the composition of the various parliamentary committees. The Parliament will also be hearing statements made by nominated candidates for the President of the European Commission post.

From then on, a newly functioning executive and legislature will define Europe’s position on questions that could further divide the Parliament along the liberal, socialist and conservative paradigms. Questions of foreign policy and defence in relation to ongoing wars in Ukraine and Gaza, the EU’s position versus Russia and China and the defence industrial strategy require overwhelming consensus in Parliament. Similarly, commitments to the Green Deal, the Migration and Asylum Pact and the Common Agricultural Policy will pose significant challenges in being realised in letter and spirit. Questions of euro-sceptic visions and stronger nationalism in favour of European integration could pose a parliamentary roadblock in attaining consensus not only for legislative cooperation but also for administrative reforms of the Union in potentially welcoming more Eastern European states as new member-states. In a more ideologically divided Parliament, the effectiveness of consensus building for five more years remains paramount if the Union is to be lubricated from either extreme and uphold its prominence on the global stage.

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