The 2019 European Parliament elections were like no other: like no other European Parliament election before, and like no other democratic exercise in the world. In fact, it is probably the first time that we may call it a singular European Parliament election because so many of the trends that shaped it are pan-European, write Michael Bruter and Sarah Harrison, and offer seven takes on what has made this vote so noteworthy.
1. Year 0 of electoral Europeanization
This has undoubtedly been the most ‘European’ European election ever, and certainly the first time that it has felt so much like one election. The trends have never been so pan-European, the debates have never been so much about ‘what Europe?’ people want. This is arguably year 0 of electoral Europeanization.
Of course some will comment that there are still differences with the left doing better in some countries and the right in some others. Really? Has anyone looked at the results in the UK? There is arguably more in common between how the election went in most of the Member States as between the electoral stories in London and in the North East of England – let alone Scotland and of course Northern Ireland with its different party system. The issues and political fracture lines were more trans-European than ever before, parties trying to campaign on national rather than European positions were largely punished everywhere, and then several voting trends transcended national borders. We highlight them below.
2. A surge in participation: mobilised Europeans
The second story is the extraordinary turnout. Very significant increases almost everywhere, notably in Spain, Germany, France, Romania, Poland. Overall, turnout increased by 8 points EU-wide and was the highest since 1994. In many countries, turnout also exceeded the levels seen in local and regional elections. What is more, this occurred in a particularly unfavourable context. We know that turnout in European Parliament elections tends to be boosted when they are organised jointly with other votes, but a record low number of countries experienced that situation in 2019 and in fact the only country holding a major national election at the same time was Belgium where voting is compulsory anyway.
In our view, this is largely due to two elements. First, the spitzenkandidaten experience of 2014 which finally imposed a translation of votes into leadership, highlighting the consequences of the vote; and secondly, the Europeanisation of the campaign which was paradoxically creditable in almost equal ways to proud pro-Europeans such as Macron and Ciudadanos, and to arch-Eurosceptics such as Le Pen and Salvini. Europeans have not voted that much for 20 years and have not voted that ‘Europeanly’ ever.
3. A winning trend for the Liberals
The biggest winners of the night are Liberals and pro-European centrists. Those include recent household names such as La Republique en Marche in France and Ciudadanos in Spain. They are joined by a number of new movements that try to move away from professionalised politics along the line of what LREM promised to do in France, for instance in Romania and Slovakia. They also include more traditional liberal parties, for instance in the Netherlands, and Lithuania or the Liberal Democrats in the UK.
Overall, the liberal family will likely get nearly 110 MEPs – a massive increase over 2014 and by far their largest ever share of the European Parliament, but also their most nationally diverse delegation ever. In a context of decline for the two historical giants – the European Peoples Party and the Party of European Socialists – this will give that family an unprecedented weight in the new EU legislature. Incidentally, this renewal will also likely lead to some personnel change. The Flemish Open-VLD of Guy Verhofstadt did not do particularly well in his election and delegations of MEPs coming from France, Romania and – perhaps paradoxically – the UK, will largely outweigh theirs.
In any case, those parties supporting a centrist, pro-European, and often federalist alternative have scored by far the biggest progression of any party family on the continent.
4. Green House effect
The second biggest winners are the Greens, where the gains are lower than for the liberals, but which have done remarkably well in Germany, the UK, Finland, etc and unexpectedly well in France, Ireland, and Belgium. Again, it seems that a mixture of pro-European progressive politics and pro-environmental responsibility agenda has had a lot of echo with European voters. The party family, traditionally limited to the West of the continent, even does well in the Baltic countries.
With approximately 70 MEPs, nearly a tenth of the total, European Greens, which are used to being part of national coalitions in several EU Member States, may well start asking for a place at the executive table and to be represented in the new European Commission.
5. The consolidation of the European populist right but not the suggested landslide
The results for the extreme right which had been promised a brown tsunami are a lot more contrasted. The French RN is still the first party in the election, which enables them to claim a symbolic victory, when they have lost some significant ground in both vote share (-1.6) and seats (-2). In fact, when the UK leaves the EU, they will only have the same number of MEPs as Macron’s LREM, which at the end of the night is only 0.9% behind the RN. The Italian Lega is also first but mostly as a result of taking some of the Five Star Movement votes whilst the centrist PD progressed. The Brexit party is doing well but effectively only adding a minority of the lost Tory vote to top up the seats it picked up from UKIP and far right scores in 2014. At the same time, whilst the Vlaams Belang registers an unexpected success in Flanders, The Danish People’s Party had a terrible election, Finland’s nationalists have been disappointed, and Geert Wilders’s iconic PVV has been wiped out against all expectations. More traditionally Eurosceptic PiS (Poland) and Fidesz (Hungary) performed very well, but the Tories in Britain received their worst score since 1832.
Of all party families, the populist and far right experience the most contrasted picture. Each family component does well in some countries but disappointingly in others. Their overall representation increases significantly, but well short of a predicted landslide, mostly thanks to strong performances by specific parties in specific countries rather than as the EU-wide alternative that Steve Bannon and others seemed to have dreamt of.
6. Warning shot for traditional leader?
In most countries, traditional left and right-wing parties which had dominated politics are facing major crises. The two historical ‘mammoths’ account for merely 15% of the vote between them in France, below 25% in the UK, and are at historical lows in Germany. In fact, at the time of writing, the Tories do not have a plurality in a single local authority across the country. Whilst less dramatically so, Jean-Claude Juncker’s Christian Social People’s party is not doing very well and losing its majority.
There are, however, a few notable exceptions: They include the excellent score of the PSOE in Spain, and of all major parties in Denmark, the Netherlands, Austria, and Finland. The Democratic Party also makes an unexpectedly strong come back in Italy.
Still despite those exceptions, both the EPP and the PES will lose significant ground and for the first time jointly represent less than half of the European Parliament, meaning that they will have no choice but to compose with at least one additional force (something that they had already done with ALDE in 2014, but at that time, ALDE was much smaller and not technically needed).
7. Towards a consolidation of EU democracy?
What will happen in terms of Presidency of the Commission is really hard to tell. The EPP are still the first party group but with a much reduced majority and their Spitzenkandidat, Manfred Weber, is not very popular with some of the EU leaders who may well try to use the party’s weak performance to impose a different head of the European Commission. The PES group will not benefit from that weakness, however, as they lose almost as many seats and remain 30 seats behind their centre-right competitors. Even more crucially, however, the liberals are in a pivotal place between those two forces, with an almost comparably-sized group and a far more positive dynamic which may well encourage them to try to trump their left and right neighbours. Conversely, the Greens may also well want to start being represented in the EU Executive and be part of a European Parliament majority. Their positive dynamic across Europe and pro-European credentials may make them hard to ignore, especially for the centre left which often relies on them in national coalitions.
The biggest stories, however, are about the citizens and not about the parties. This remains by far the most ‘European’ European Parliament election ever, with the first true emergence of a European public sphere, themes, and trends, and for the first time, European Parliament elections have generated a sharp increase in citizens’ interest, engagement, and turnout. Those two things, in and by themselves, are immense victories for European democracy.
Michael Bruter is Professor of Political Science and European Politics in the Department of Government at the LSE, and Director of the Electoral Psychology Observatory.
Sarah Harrison is Assistant Professorial Research Fellow in Political Science in the Department of Government at the LSE, and Deputy Director of the Electoral Psychology Observatory.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).