While the results of the European Parliament elections were announced in May, the balance of power in the Parliament has also been affected by the decisions of parties to join new party groups in the weeks following the elections. Nicolai von Ondarza and Jan Will demonstrate the impact this movement between party groups has had, noting that the situation could soon be altered again with Brexit on the horizon.

The European elections in May reconfigured the power balance between political parties in the European Parliament (EP). But voters’ choices are not the only factor shaping this balance.

In European elections, voters vote for national parties whose European party-political allegiance is sometimes unclear, open for negotiation, or ends up being changed during the legislature. As a consequence, after each European election a sort of ‘bazar of parties’ takes place in the European Parliament, with the EP party groups competing to convince new parties to join them and/or win over MEPs who are currently sitting in other party groups. Thus, the makeup of the European Parliament already looks different now, in July, than it did on election night.

It is therefore important to analyse not only voting behaviour in the 2019 EP elections, but also how national parties changed their European party allegiance in the period before the inaugural session of the EP in July. Notably, an analysis of this bazar of parties in 2019 reveals that the centre parties profited most from new parties and were net winners from the movement of parties between groups, while Eurosceptic actors failed to fully consolidate.

All party groups attract new parties

Over 40 national parties were newly elected to the European Parliament in May. We define new parties as those that did not enter the EP in the elections of 2014 or beforehand, either because they did not run previously, did not exist yet or simply did not manage to secure enough votes earlier. All seven political groups remaining in the EP managed to attract new parties.

Among those, the Renew Europe group stands out. A total of 11 national parties joined the group contributing 32 representatives. The new recruits thus contribute almost the entire gains made by Renew compared to the former ALDE group. A second group that profited strongly with 13 MEPs from new parties was the ECR group. By attracting the Spanish party Vox, among others, it was able to balance the losses made by established group members, in particular the British Conservatives.

The group of the European Left (GUE/NGL) lost seats overall, but attracted 11 MEPs from new parties, in particular from France. In contrast, in the Greens/EFA-Group the gains from its established members went hand in hand with the attraction of 10 MEPs from new parties. Both the EPP and S&D attracted few MEPs from new parties, with the notable exception of the Polish Wiosna party joining the S&D. Finally, the EFDD group collapsed when the Brexit party decided to remain non-affiliated, while UKIP was eliminated from the European Parliament.

Table 1: Gains by EP party groups from new national parties

Note: Compiled by the authors.

No Eurosceptic consolidation

The consolidation of Eurosceptic actors, which was discussed before the EP elections, has so far failed to materialise. During the EP term of 2014-2019, Euroscepticism was split across three groups, the more moderate ECR, the EFDD group led by UKIP and the Italian Five Star Movement, and the ENF group led by the French National Rally and the Italian Lega. Originally, Lega’s Matteo Salvini, in particular, aimed to unite the whole body of Eurosceptic parties, reaching out even to Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz in the EPP.

In practice, however, the newly formed group ‘Identity & Democracy’ (ID) mostly took over from the previous ENF group. The biggest change was the decision by the German AfD to switch from the now collapsed EFDD to the new ID. This switch, together with huge gains by Lega in the elections, helped the more radical ID to become the largest among the Eurosceptic groups. Defying expectations, however, so far only three MEPs from the more moderate ECR group have decided to join the ID.

Table 2: Changes between political groups in the new European Parliament

Note: Compiled by the authors.

The centre parties hold together

In contrast, it is remarkable how resilient the political groups of the centre remained. Before the 2019 elections, the centrist groups were increasingly strained. There continues to be a fierce discussion in the EPP about the membership of Fidesz, which also threatened to take other EPP members with it if it was expelled. S&D leaders feared that Macron would rip apart the centre-left, just as he had done in France, by attracting S&D member parties like the Italian PD to the expanded Renew Europe group. For now, however, although both party groups lost seats at the ballot box, they also managed to keep their existing parties together, with only one MEP switching from the EPP to Renew Europe.

Influence on the EP’s power balance

Overall, these changes did have a noticeable, but not a fundamental impact on the power balance in the Parliament. First, they changed the order of size amongst the political groups. While the EPP and the S&D remained the largest and second largest groups respectively, Renew Europe and the Greens/EFA-group only became third and fourth through their new recruits. This was especially close for the Greens/EFA, who currently stand at 74 MEPs, only one above the ID group. This was made possible partly by the choice of Nico Semsrott, a member of the previously unaffiliated satirical party “Die PARTEI”, who joined the Greens explicitly so that they would be bigger than the far-right ID group. The order of group size is important for the distribution of speaking time, committee chairs and rapporteur positions in the EP.

Secondly, the potential majority options were also affected. On election night, it was clear that the EPP and S&D had lost their overall majority, but it also seemed that no majority either left or right of the centre was possible. This has now changed. At least theoretically, there is the option of a so called ‘progressive majority’ of the S&D, Renew Europe, the Greens/EFA and the GUE/NGL group, which together account for 376 of the currently 747 MEPs. This majority could have been used to elect Frans Timmermans as Commission President, but it was not tested as he was blocked in the European Council. It could however impact on upcoming legislative votes in the EP, for instance on social policy, migration or consumer rights. But even then, a majority ranging from the far-left to the liberal centre will be hard to put together, so the dominant majority will more likely still come from the EPP, S&D and RE working together.

Brexit and beyond: More changes on the horizon

The changes in the composition of party groups will not stop now that the EP has had its inaugural session. More big changes are already on the horizon. The first is, of course, Brexit. If and when the UK formally leaves the EU – whether on 31 October or after another extension – it will affect the European Parliament in two key ways. On the one hand, all 73 UK MEPs will have to leave Parliament and their party groups. On the other, the EU has already decided that 27 of these seats will be redistributed to the remaining member states. The additional MEPs have already been elected, so we know their party affiliation. In short, the main winners will be the EPP (+6) and ID (+4) groups, while the S&D (-13), Renew Europe (-6) and, less so, the Greens (-3) and GUE/NGL (-1) will lose seats. The ECR will stay at 62. More importantly, the theoretical “progressive” majority of the S&D, Renew Europe, the Greens/EFA and GUE/NGL will also disappear.

Question marks also hover over the remaining non-affiliated (NI) MEPs. At 54, the current EP had the highest number of NI parliamentarians at an inaugural session in the EP’s history. The 30 Brexit Party MEPs will leave the EP with Brexit. If, however, Brexit is delayed further into the future, their group affiliation could come up for negotiation again. It would also be quite uncommon for a large group such as the 14 MEPs from the Italian Five Star Movement to remain unaffiliated for the whole term. Finally, more changes between the ID and ECR groups remain possible.

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Note: This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image: Opening session of the European Parliament on 2 July 2019, CC BY 4.0: © European Union 2019 – Source: EP


About the authors

Nicolai von Ondarza – SWP
Nicolai von Ondarza is Deputy Head of the EU/Europe Research Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

Jan Will – SWP
Jan Will is an Assistant in the EU/Europe Research Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

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