In the analysis of last week’s European Parliament elections, a number of claims which should be categorised as ‘myths’ have emerged. Here, I’ve singled out five of them that should be challenged:
1. The ‘major development’ that the centre-right EPP and centre-left S&D lost their majority isn’t a major development
For the first time since 1979, the centre-right European People’s Party (which included the UK Conservatives until 2009) and the centre-left S&D group (to which Labour belongs) do not command a majority of seats in the European Parliament.
Danish EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, who belongs to the centrist, soon to be renamed ‘ALDE’ group, and is a candidate to succeed European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, commented: ‘I have worked with breaking monopolies, this is basically what I’ve been doing for five years,’ adding ‘the monopoly of power is broken.’
But, it is all but certain that the two major groups will simply turn to her ALDE group to obtain a majority in the European Parliament, which has gained a lot more power since the Lisbon Treaty entered into force ten years ago.
And Vestager herself, who is part of the Danish Social Liberal Party, is pretty close to the policy consensus of the EPP-S&D ‘duopoly’ anyway, which is strongly in favour of more powers for the EU and wary of proposals to let the EU focus on its core business – scrapping trade barriers. US President Trump dubbed her the ‘tax lady’. Her views are closely aligned with the ALDE, which is being strengthened by a merger of the forces of French President Macron, and former Italian social democratic Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, whose party would further weaken the influence of the free-market supporting German FDP in the group. It all indicates that the EPP-S&D groups are simply being supplemented by something which is very similar anyway.
2. The ‘influence’ of anti-establishment eurosceptic parties will be indirect rather than direct
Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s governing ‘rightwing-populist’ Northern League, basked in triumph after the election, where his party gained 34 per cent of the vote share, doing even better than the polls had predicted.
In Hungary and Poland like-minded governing parties did well, while in France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally managed to beat Macron’s party for first place. Elsewhere, the results for eurosceptics were more disappointing, even if they consolidated past successes. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) for example, which will likely join Salvini’s new group in the European Parliament, only secured 11 per cent of the vote, which is an increase, but only a modest one.
Reacting to the results, Salvini stated that ‘Europe is changing’. That is true, but it would be wrong to expect that his new group will have a lot of pull in the new European parliament. For a start, the ‘business as usual’ parties – in the sense of creeping centralisation of EU power and money – still have a solid majority.
Also important are the internal divisions between the populists. Salvini just urged the ECB to ‘guarantee’ government debt, in order to keep bond yields low. This kind of Zimbabwe-style economics won’t go down well with the German AfD, which was founded due to German opposition to Eurozone bailouts and debasement of German savings as a result of ECB policies aimed at financing struggling governments in the eurozone’s periphery.
As well, mainstream parties will sooner or later learn lessons from the Netherlands and Austria, where mainstream conservatives have enjoyed electoral success after taking up the concerns of anti-establishment parties without copying their often problematic solutions. In the case of the EU, that means refraining from outsourcing choices that are already controversial at the national level on topics such as migration, taxation or national spending, to a supranational bureaucracy that doesn’t have the political legitimacy to make those choices.
Also in the UK, the massive success of the Brexit party will no doubt have an effect on Conservative party politics. No other politician like Brexit party leader Nigel Farage has been able to exploit the opportunity to exert influence on the political discussion through his European parliament speeches. Because the Brexit party will refrain from joining Salvini’s group, it looks like Farage will continue to enjoy the opportunity to get good ‘speaking slots’ in the EP, as leader of his existing group, the EFDD.
3. Talk of a ‘green wave’ is exaggerated
It is true that the greens have been doing well in this election, supposedly on the back of the climate debate, but at the end of the day, they will only have 69 seats, of a total of 751. Even if in relative terms their success is greater than other groups, it is still lower than the relative growth enjoyed by the ENF group, which includes Salvini and Le Pen. Also in absolute terms, they only gained 18 extra seats, which is less than the 39 seats gained by the ALDE or the 22 gained by the ENF.
The greens did very well in Germany but the trouble is that they are not particularly popular in Southern or Eastern Europe. They also can’t be used by the centre-right EPP and centrist ALDE to replace the left-wing S&D, as this combination does not deliver a majority. Also replacing the ALDE as the vehicle to prop up the EPP-S&D won’t work, given that such a majority would be too small, especially as Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán may be about to leave the EPP.
4. The European Parliament is unlikely to determine Juncker’s successor with its ‘Spitzenkandidaten’ system
Five years ago, MEPs designed a system aimed at complying with the EU treaty’s requirement that EU leaders ‘take into account’ the result of the EP election when deciding the President of the European Commission. The idea is that EU leaders simply endorse whoever can secure an EP majority, with the respective EP groups each nominating a ‘Spitzenkandidat’ or lead candidate. Back then, Merkel was pushed by the German media and her social democratic coalition partner SPD to go along with it and appoint Jean-Claude Juncker, who had been chosen as the EPP’s lead candidate.
An ambassador of a major member state told the Financial Times that EU leaders are today still ‘traumatised’ over losing the initiative to the European Parliament over Juncker, stating: ‘The wounds are still fresh. It won’t happen again.’
At the moment, MEPs are struggling to agree on a candidate, while French President Macron is a powerful opponent of the idea, clashing with Merkel who supports the process, possibly in a bid to gain extra concessions, as the nomination of the Commission President is part of a package of other EU top jobs.
Today, only 26 per cent of Germans have heard of their own compatriot Manfred Weber, a Bavarian CSU MEP who was chosen as the ‘Spitzenkandidat’ of the EPP. He has never run a government, nor has he ever had any important ministerial job. Soon, we may find out that this particular EP innovation will be ditched by the leaders of Europe’s democratically elected governments.
5. Turnout is up, but this isn’t proof of the EP’s legitimacy
Until now, European-wide turnout for the EP elections had been dropping at every single occasion since 1979. That trend has been reversed, with turnout now above 50 per cent – the highest level in 20 years. The reasons why are unclear, as Eurosceptic successes have been combined with both high and low turnout in different countries.
In any case, a higher turnout or even the fact that it is directly elected do not provide the European Parliament with the necessary legitimacy to take the important decisions it is currently taking.
In its verdict on the Lisbon Treaty, the German Constitutional Court ruled that the EP is ‘not sufficiently fit’ to take ‘representative decisions on the basis of majority’, at least as long as there was ‘no uniform European demos’ – a condition that looks unlikely to be satisfied any time soon. Surely, Germans wouldn’t find it fair if a majority in Europe imposed nuclear energy on them. Would it be in line with the idea of majority voting? Yes. Would the EU be seen as a constituency where it is fair that the minority is outvoted on important matters by the majority? Surely not.
In the debate on the EU’s upsides and downsides, the European Parliament has often correctly been singled out as contributing to many of the EU’s downsides. Fundamentally, it is part of the ‘political’ arm of the EU project. Whether the turnout for the direct election of the EP is up or not, it won’t do much to improve the legitimacy of the ‘political EU’.
Pieter Cleppe represents the independent think tank Open Europe in Brussels