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EUROPE: ‘The Future of the EU as We Know Cannot Be Taken for Granted’

Jun 25 2024 (IPS) -  

CIVICUS discusses the results and implications of recent elections to the European Parliament with Philipp Jäger, Policy Fellow at the Jacques Delors Centre, an independent, non-partisan think tank focused on European policy processes and outcomes.

Philipp Jäger

The recent European elections saw significant advances by far-right parties in some but all European Union (EU) countries. They made gains in countries including Austria, Germany and France, where an early parliamentary election has been called as a consequence. In other countries, however, far-right parties stood still or lost support, while green and left-wing parties made gains. Overall, the EU’s mainstream conservative bloc held its leading position, but the results raise questions about the direction of EU policy on issues such as climate and migration.

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What are the key takeaways from the recent European Parliamentary elections?

As predicted by the polls, there was a shift to the right, with around a quarter of the seats going to the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and Identity and Democracy (ID) groups. Most of the parties in these two groups, including Italy’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy, France’s National Rally (RN) and Alternative for Germany (AfD) – which was expelled from ID just before the election – are far-right populist parties.

However, the right’s gains did not amount to a landslide victory and the political centre managed to keep a majority. The conservative European People’s Party (EPP) won the most votes, improving on its performance in the last election. The vote for the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) remained stable, while the Liberals (Renew) and the Greens lost a significant number of seats.

In the outgoing parliament, the EPP, Renew and S&D formed an informal coalition and legislation was usually passed with their support. This time they still have a majority, albeit a slimmer one, with around 403 seats out of 720. Together with the Greens, the political centre still has a comfortable majority to pass laws. A centrist coalition is emerging as the most likely way forward, which would imply a degree of continuity.

However, the EPP has indicated that it is open to working informally with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy on specific issues to secure a centre-right majority. There’s virtually no possibility of a centre-left majority. As all plausible majorities involve it, the EPP is in a strong position. Whether legislation moves to the right will therefore depend largely on how much the EPP moves in that direction.

The election results are also crucial in determining the next president of the European Commission, as the European Parliament must confirm the nomination made by the European Council. Current president Ursula von der Leyen will most likely be elected for another term, supported by the votes of the EPP, S&D, Renew and possibly the Greens.

What explains the uneven performance of the far right?

Right-wing parties made significant gains in France and Germany, the two largest EU member states, which together elect a quarter of all European parliamentarians. In France, Marine Le Pen’s RN party won 30 seats, twice as many as President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party. In Germany, the AfD secured 15 seats, more than any of the three parties currently in government.

The Greens suffered significant losses in France and Germany, accounting for 14 of the 19 seats lost by the group. In Austria, the right-wing Freedom Party of Austria, part of the ID group, emerged as the largest party.

In Denmark, Finland and Sweden, however, far-right parties won fewer votes than expected, while green and left-wing parties made gains. Meanwhile in Poland, the ruling coalition achieved a solid result, successfully fending off a challenge from the right-wing Law and Justice party.

This highlights the fact that the EU elections are not one election, but 27 different national-level elections. As a result, voting in EU elections is often more about national issues than EU policy. Generalising about the EU does not do justice to the diversity of its member states, where local factors often play a role.

Nevertheless, it appears that a significant proportion of EU voters are concerned about their livelihoods. They are not necessarily already negatively affected, but they may fear for the future. One reason may be that they are exposed to events over which they have little control, such as Russia’s war in Ukraine, climate change, immigration and inflation – the elements that provide fertile ground for extreme parties to grow.

What are the potential implications for national governments that suffered the biggest losses?

The results of these elections may have strong implications for national governments. In France, Macron dissolved the National Assembly and called early parliamentary elections. This is a very risky decision, as it may hand the far right a decisive win. If his party fares badly, Macron risks becoming a lame duck president, unable to push through domestic legislation.

In Germany, the conservative Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Social Union of Bavaria, currently in opposition, scored strong results, while the three governing parties jointly won only around 36 per cent. Combined with the strong performance of AfD, the results are seen as a damning indictment of the government. The results in eastern Germany, where AfD won more votes than any other party, are a harbinger of state elections later this year.

In Hungary, a challenge to incumbent Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has emerged. His right-wing populist party, Fidesz, scored its lowest ever EU election result.

These national-level political developments have implications for EU policymaking, given the role of the Council in the legislative process. With less political support at home, the French and German governments are less likely to push the EU agenda in the Council, as they have routinely done in the past.

What’s the likelihood of the EU Green Deal being rolled back?

It will require a major transformation of our economies, supported consistently over the next two decades, to achieve climate targets and successfully implement the EU Green Deal. Additional public funding will be essential to drive the costly process of decarbonising industry. Recent election results suggest we may lack the ambition and political will to do this. If the rightward shift continues and limits further climate action, the EU risks missing its overarching climate targets.

However, a rollback of existing environmental policies is unlikely over the next five years. While some targeted adjustments may be made to reduce administrative burdens, core climate legislation such as the Emissions Trading System is unlikely to be dismantled. Still, there is a risk that the level of ambition could be compromised under the guise of cutting red tape.

On climate, as on other key issues such as immigration, top-level personnel will play a key role. For example, Spain’s deputy minister Teresa Ribera, a vocal advocate of climate action, is a candidate for the role of climate commissioner. A leader of her stature would be well placed to defend the Green Deal in difficult circumstances. In the coming weeks, as von der Leyen seeks the Council’s nomination, political negotiations will intensify as parties vie to place their candidates in key positions.

How do you see the future of the EU?

The future of the EU as we know cannot be taken for granted. While the European Parliament’s overall shift to the right suggests a changing political landscape, the centre right is likely to retain control over most legislation. However, we may see more cooperation between the centre right and the far right on specific issues such as migration.

The situation is somewhat different in the European Council, where decisions require unanimity or qualified majority voting. Although the election hasn’t changed its composition, it has weakened the governments of France and Germany and strengthened Italy. This is highly relevant because small groups of governments, or individual governments, can block legislation or use their votes to extract concessions. EU-sceptical states or destructive forces such as Hungary’s government have often used their veto power.

The rise of Eurosceptic, right-wing governments in key EU states such as Italy, Slovakia, the Netherlands and possibly Austria, which holds elections soon, could further fuel anti-EU sentiment. If the number of hard-right, anti-EU governments increases, they will quickly gain more influence in the Council. While this scenario may not lead to the dissolution of the EU, it could result in an EU where consensus and common action become increasingly difficult.

Get in touch with the Jacques Delors Centre through its website or Instagram page, and follow @DelorsBerlin and @ph_jaeg on Twitter.

 


  
 
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