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European (Dis)Union

Updated: 6 days ago


"They are elections whose purpose many do not see, for an institution whose role few fully understand; an international ballot still viewed primarily in national terms, by voters who see it chiefly as a low-risk way to vent national frustrations.", reads an article by Jon Henley, Europe correspondent for The Guardian, on January 3, 2024.

“The European Parliament elections largely remain 27 national campaigns and 27 national elections,” states Georgina Wright,  senior fellow at the Paris-based Institute Montaigne think tank.

The European elections will take place from June 6 to 9, 2024 . Before analyzing the political context in which the elections will take place, it is necessary to briefly explain the functions of the European Parliament and why these elections are particularly relevant in the European and global socio-political context.

The European Parliament is currently the only EU institution whose members are directly elected by the people. It is, therefore, the highest and unique expression of the will of European citizens. Among the powers attributed to it are legislative, budgetary, and control powers. It is also the task of the largest group in the European Parliament to propose its lead candidate for the presidency of the EU's executive arm, the Commission. Hence, the significance of the upcoming June elections and the considerable attention national governments are giving to this event.

A December 2023 Eurobarometer survey showed encouraging signs regarding voter turnout, with 57% of European citizens interested in the upcoming EP elections, a stable result compared to spring 2023 but 6 points higher than in the fall of 2018 before the last European elections in 2019. Additionally, other Eurobarometer surveys show that 68% would be willing to vote if the European elections were held in a week - nine points higher than in the fall of 2018.

A stronger parliament, despite being among the main objectives of the 2007 Lisbon Treaty, has not yielded the expected effects. The new powers and status of the European Parliament, for instance, aroused the interest of national political parties, not so much for strictly European political reasons, but rather because the now increasingly representative European democratic process could serve as a testing ground for domestic government support. The consequence has been a growing importance and participation in the electoral process and a more fragmented and uncertain composition of the Parliament.

The apparent rise of the far-right, initiated in 2014, but which had its highest point, at least in Italy, with Giorgia Meloni's victory in the October 2022 elections, continued with the inclusion of the far-right Swedish Democrats in the government for the first time, within the right-wing government bloc. This trend was also confirmed by the victory of the right-wing in Finland, painting a European scenario dominated by a growing political influence of these factions in the run-up to the 2024 European parliamentary elections. The ascent is not solely manifested through political victories in elections; it is enough to consider the constant increase in vote shares and polling results dating back to 2014. This is evident in the Polish parliamentary elections of 2014 and 2018, as well as the latest French presidential and parliamentary elections. However, beliefs in the presumed unstoppable rise crumbled in July of last year. In Spain, the far-right Vox and the conservative Popular Party failed to secure a joint majority in the elections, leading to the return of a progressive coalition led by Pedro Sánchez. Three months later, in Poland, voters rejected the right-wing populist Law and Justice party, paving the way for a liberal government under the leadership of Donald Tusk, the former President of the European Council. In this context, anxiety about a far-right wave returned with greater force after Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom unexpectedly triumphed in the Dutch elections, becoming the largest party in the parliament with over 23% of the votes.

These results highlight the evident political fragmentation plaguing European countries as a whole and the internal divisions within the states. This leads us to be cautious about providing a simplistic analysis of the forces and alliances that will form in the European Parliament. An additional element of division is provided by the expected high voter turnout. EU elections, with their traditionally low voter turnout, have historically tended to see both left- and right-wing populist and Eurosceptic forces fare better compared to national elections, as the more polarised and politically active sections of the electorate increase in relative relevance.  This year, however, as both historically high voter turnout and historically high support for populist forces on both the left and right (albeit more so on the right) are forecast, it would be reasonable to assume that the election results will be more fragmented, but not less radical.

The latest polls suggest that the centre-right European People's Party (PPE) and centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) will finish first and second with over 170 and 140 seats respectively. With the liberal Renew Europe party led by Emmanuel Macron poised to secure 83 seats and the Greens at 45, the so-called "centrist" block in parliament should still have a comfortable overall majority. 

Polls indicate a clear gain for the far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) group, which includes AfD, RN, FPÖ, and Matteo Salvini's Lega, projecting over 85 seats compared to the current 76. There is also an anticipated advancement for the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), including Law and Justice (PiS), Brothers of Italy, the Finnish party, the Swedish Democrats, and Spanish Vox, moving to approximately 80 MEPs from the current 61. However, right-wing and far-right parties also appear strengthened in national polls: Geert Wilders' anti-Islam party in the Netherlands would gain even more seats now compared to when it won the Dutch elections in November, while Marine Le Pen's National Rally (RN) maintains a 10-point lead over Emmanuel Macron's centrist alliance, polling between 28% and 30%. Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy comfortably retains the lead in polls with 29%, the Freedom Party (FPÖ) in Austria stands at 30%, and in Germany, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) won its second municipal elections in six months, securing the second position with 22%.



This fragmentation is already evident in the European Council, a crucial institution in defining the agenda of the next political cycle, whose task is also to be responsible for selection of the next President of the Commission. In fact, the 27 heads of government sitting around the European Council table, who will have the final say on the appointment of European commissioners next summer, come from different political backgrounds. Among the six largest economies in the European Union – Germany, France, Italy, Spain, The Netherlands and Poland – two (Germany and Spain) are currently led by socialist parties, another two (France and Poland) by liberal-leaning formations, while Italy and The Netherlands are under the leadership of the right-wing. The new configuration of the European Council and the leaderships of these six economies reflect the significant heterogeneity in the political makeup of Europe. In 2024, except from Poland, none of the EU's six major member states will be governed by the EPP, the party of outgoing President von der Leyen, and it is expected that heads of state and government will be dispersed across various affiliations, including the EPP, the more conservative ECR, the centrist Renew, the center-left S&D, and notably, the non-aligned Hungarian nationalist leader Viktor Orban.

However, this fragile composition is even more pronounced within the same alliances: migration is a hotly debated issue in various political parties across nations. Right-wing parties across Europe all agree that they do not want irregular migrants or asylum seekers, but they are deeply divided on sharing responsibilities among themselves. Immigration has also been a divisive issue for center-left parties. To support this, it is enough to remember the anti-immigration policies of the Danish government or much more recently, the new immigration law desired by Macron and declared unconstitutional for more than a third of the articles by the Constitutional Court. In both cases the objective of these policies can be summarized in the words of the French president himself: "It is a shield that we needed".

The year 2024 is expected to be challenging for the center-left as well: the centrist Renew group will lose ground in its largest national delegation in France, particularly in Macron's Renaissance, and the Greens, predicted to lose up to a third of their seats, face a similar situation in Germany.

The Renew group strongly opposes the formation of a coalition with the center-right and far-right but would be in serious trouble if the far-right ID group were to beat them to third place. In that case, ID could demand a significant role in the commission. The current structure of the Commission includes five members from the Renew party (rectius ALDE); however this configuration may not be proposed again if the party were defeated not only by ID but also by ECR. In fact, the latest surveys show ID ahead of Renew, which in turn has a very slight advantage over ECR. It is therefore clear that making reliable predictions about the party that will win the lowest step of the podium is extremely complex, but it is clear that the distances have definitely weakened compared to the 2019 elections.

As of early February 2024, there are four possible EP majorities that could be formed in the aftermath of the elections. These would have varying impacts on the future of the European Union and its executive body - the Commission.

The first scenario could be viewed as the continuity scenario, involving the reaffirmation of the current coalition (EPP, S&D, Renew), including the re-election of Von der Leyen as President of the Commission. Policy-wise, changes would be minor. What could change, however, are the internal equilibria within the Commission. In 2019, Poland's then-ruling party PiS provided critical support in establishing the commission, and the country was rewarded with the position of Agriculture commissioner. Today, given the likelihood that the EPP-S&D-Renew coalition's seat tally will be lower than in 2019, support from outside forces would become even more important, meaning parties such as Fratelli d'Italia could potentially play a key role and demand a strategic position within the Commission.

The second scenario would be characterised by the current coalition (EPP, S&D, Renew), plus ECR to shore up support and formalise what the first scenario assumes would be the case in practice but not in theory. In this case, a potential second term for the outgoing president of the Commission would be improbable but not impossible, especially given the central position that the EPP would occupy and the apparent lack of other candidates able to rally support from such a disparate majority coalition. This scenario would gain even more credibility considering that the current Commission president had to rely on external votes for her election compared to the coalition. The coalition would be complex to manage, especially considering the participation of further-right parties in ECT (Finns, SD, and others); policy-wise, however, Europe's direction is likely to remain relatively steady, if adjusted slightly.

The third scenario, which could be called the Conservative Europe scenario, involves a majority formed by the EPP, ECR, ID, and Renew. This coalition would be everything but a continuity solution with respect to the recent past, and internal fractures within the majority on issues such as Ukraine and the Green transition could prove especially challenging. As far as the makeup of the Commission is concerned, such a scenario would make Von der Leyen's re-election virtually impossible.

The fourth and final possibility would see the current coalition extend to the left rather than to the right, incorporating the Greens and possibly (although very much not probably) the Left into the majority currently composed by the EPP, S&D, and Renew. In this case, a reelection of Ursula von der Leyen would certainly be more probable, albeit not without challenges, facing potential obstacles from the more left-wing parties that have been critical of the Commission for being too supportive of Ukraine and not being willing to go far enough regarding the green transition. The most likely outcome is by far the continuity scenario, leaving the EPP at the helm of the European Commission, potentially with a second term for the current president, Ursula von der Leyen, supported by S&D and Renew with some limited external support. 

Regardless of scenario, one thing is clear: the further rise in support for right-wing and hard right parties on the one hand, and the likely changes in the EU’s ruling majority on the other, are both bound to have consequences on Europe's policy agenda, including a possible decrease in European support for Ukraine and a downward revision of climate targets.

These challenges and the possible changes they might bring are not isolated - they are but two of the ways in which the idea of Europe seems to be changing, precisely at a time when Europe that is called by history to decide which direction to take, hoping that its history provides the tools to establish itself as a pivotal point and reference for trade, innovation, and technology.

What Europe decides to do in response may well determine if the EU will remain united for long, or if we will bear witness to a move from the European Union to a European Disunion.


Sources

Thurn, L. von B. (2023, December 11). European Elections: A Game-changer in 2024? Geopolitical Monitor.


Interest in EU elections up as polls project shift to the right. (2023, December 6). Euronews.


Tocci, N. (2023, December 14). Will the hard right really sweep Europe in 2024? If it does, here’s what could happen. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/dec/14/hard-right-europe-2024-ukraine-climate-election-us


Henley, J., & correspondent, J. H. E. (2024, January 3). Make or break for the EU? Europeans vote in June with far right on the rise. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2024/jan/03/make-or-break-for-the-eu-europeans-vote-in-june-with-far-right-on-the-rise



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