Centrist parties: Biggest losers in EU elections?

    Far-right Eurosceptics did not win as predicted, but the victory of their opponents almost spells their own defeat in five years’ time.

    With the dust settling over the EU elections, it has become clear that the European Parliament (EP) will be much more fragmented over the next five years. The centrist alliance, the most powerful political grouping since direct elections began 40 years ago, will not secure a majority. This new reality will have a decisive impact on the political direction of the EU for the upcoming years.

    Pro-EU parties in most European countries held their ground against the far-right anti-EU parties with the exception of Italy and France. In Italy, the nationalist League party has scored a clear victory with 34 percent of the votes compared to 17 percent in last year’s general election. Meanwhile in France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, a rebranded version of the infamous National Front party, claimed a slight victory in a bitter fight with Macron’s “La République En Marche,” winning about 24% of the vote share, compared with roughly 22.5% for Macron’s centrist-liberal party.

    In Germany, even though Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) came first, as predicted by the polls, the CDU dropped from having 35 % of the vote in 2014 to 28 %. Surprisingly, the Greens appear to be the real winners by receiving the 22 % of the votes while the far-right Alternative For Germany (AfD) performed worse than expected by getting only 10.5 % of the votes.

    In the UK, Nigel Farage’s newly founded Brexit Party had a crushing victory over the two big traditional parties, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party, by taking 34% of the votes. The Lib Dems came second in the elections. Overall, there are three key takeaways from these elections.

    The rocky road ahead

    Centrist parties lost their majority in EP

    The first observation is that the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the center-left Socialist and Democrats (S&D), which held power in Brussels for several decades, have lost their combined majority in the EP. The EPP, the largest party in the parliament, is down from 221 seats to 179, whereas the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group is set to drop from 191 seats to 150. These two main groups are likely to seek help from the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE), which won about 107 seats. In order to lead the parliament, the centrist parties will have to enter into coalition with the Liberals. Moreover, the Greens achieved major successes across Europe, with the group increasing its seats from 50 MEPs in 2014 to around 70 at present.

    These results will, no doubt, trigger a domino effect over the top jobs in the EU institutions, including Jean-Claude Juncker’s position as the president of the European Commission. Manfred Weber, the EPP’s candidate for the commission presidency, said the EU was facing a “shrinking center” [1] and stated that the Greens were “the winners” of the night and he would be open to holding talks with their leaders and the ALDE group over building a majority in the parliament to pass legislation and approve the commission team.

    No breakthrough by far-right

    The second takeaway is that anti-EU nationalist parties flopped in the 2019 European elections contrary to predictions. Most analysts predicted a landslide Eurosceptic victory across Europe, which did not materialize. Despite strong showings in countries, such as Poland, France, Hungary and Italy, these parties failed to emerge as the leading parties.

    A strong mass mobilization by the pro-EU forces in the election dashed the hopes of the far-right leaders. However, the far right parties will return to the European Parliament in larger numbers than ever before. A total of 169 MEPs [2] represent the Eurosceptic parties across the EU compared to 155 MEPs in the 2014 elections. This means a greater say for the Eurosceptics who aspire to diminish the EU’s powers.

    Highest turnout in 20 years

    The third key observation is that the voter turnout in this election is around 51 %, the highest since 1994. Since 1979, the turnout in EP elections has been steadily decreasing, going from almost 62 % that year to a historic low of 42.6 % in 2014.

    This turnout reinvigorates the legitimacy of the European Parliament, which has often been criticized for failing to mobilize voters. Therefore, senior EU figures welcomed the rise in voter turnout, calling it a boost to EU legitimacy. The high turnout could be attributed to many factors, including the willingness of many voters to stand against the far-right parties. Young voters were clearly concerned by climate change issues. Hence, their high numbers in this election.

    What does the result mean for the EU?

    Contrary to all predictions, there has been no widescale shift to the far-right. Conversely, the results also indicate the need for change in European politics. The traditional center parties lost several seats to the Greens and the Liberals, as well as to far-right parties. While this state of affairs will put an end to centrist parties’ monopoly over the EU’s decision-making, it also indicates that the old power-brokers will have to work with new people and parties.

    The decision-making within the EU will be much more complicated and tedious than before. Everything will have to go through multiple negotiations. The centrist parties will have to make even more concessions over sensitive issues, such as the EU’s next budget, border controls and climate measures. The far-right Eurosceptics did not win as predicted, but the victory of their opponents almost spells their own defeat in five years’ time.

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