The European Parliament Elections 2019: Is There a Sign of an Immediate Problem?

During the last weekend of May, over 250 million Europeans flocked to the polls to vote in what would become the world’s largest transnational election in history. For months leading up to the election, media outlets and analysts speculated and theorized about what new trends would result from newly elected parliament members. Many feared the upsurge of far-right, Eurosceptic parties and the rising control of populism. Others worried that low voter turnout would skew the accurate representation of European sentiment in the Parliament. Still others suggested that Russian interference would impede a fair election[1]. These divisive issues brought millions to vote, and as a result, voter turnout was the highest it has been in 20 years.

In the aftermath of the elections, we can clearly see how the expectations anticipated by much of Europe were largely overexaggerated. However, we must take note of some emerging trends of the recent European Parliament elections and its effects on the future of the European Parliament and the European Union as a whole. It is necessary to examine the results of the elections in the several different countries across Europe in order to see a polarization over national issues that pose a deeper problem as the European Union continues in its quest to integrate Europe.

Patterns Across Europe

Overall voter turnout at the European Parliament elections was higher than it has been in two decades, rising from 42.6% in 2014 to 50.2% in 2019. Turnout for individual countries increased in twenty of the countries from 2014 to 2019. Only Belgium, Ireland, Italy, Luxemburg, Greece, Portugal, Malta and Bulgaria decreased in voter turnout, and each by less than 3%[2]. This trend appears to show that overall legitimacy of and support for the European Parliament is increasing. However, a deeper look at the data shows other troubling trends between Western, Central, and Eastern Europe.

Source: European Parliament in collaboration with Kantar

Of the ten countries with the lowest percentage of voter turnout (40% or below), eight countries are from Central and Eastern Europe. Portugal and the United Kingdom are the two exceptions[3]. This shows a clear divide between Western Europe and the rest of Europe. In an organization built upon integration of Europe such as the European Parliament, this discrepancy is problematic. A higher voter turnout in Western European countries implies that Western Europeans have more trust in the European Parliament to make changes that will influence their country. Thus, it appears that many Central and Eastern European countries lack trust that their vote matters in the European Parliament elections. The European Parliament and Commission will have to deal with this issue sooner rather than later before the situation grows worse.

The Situation in Italy

 Internal controversy over national issues played a significant role in the results of the European Parliament elections. This phenomenon is not new to the European Union. Paradoxically, citizens hope that voting in a transnational election will lead to a resolution of national problems. However, national issues seemed a more poignant problem than ever before. In many of the countries where voter turnout was highest, these countries are experiencing internal tension over controversial national problems. As a result, the way which citizens voted was extremely polarized.

Source: European Parliament in collaboration with Kantar

Take Italy, for example. Current pressing national issues include immigration crises, economic instability, and popular disillusionment with the current regime[4]. Citizens in Italy made their voice on these issues clear during the European Parliament elections. The Social Democrats won only 19 seats in comparison to 31 in 2014. The European People’s Party also saw a dramatic decrease from 17 in 2014 to 7 in 2019. The Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy Eurosceptic party stayed roughly the same. However, the far-right populist Europe of Nations and Freedom swept 28 seats for Italy[5].

This dramatic shift from a majority center-left representation in 2014 to a significantly far-right majority in 2019 is a result of Italians expressing their views on national issues in hopes that a strongly Eurosceptic representation of Italy in the European Parliament will lead to significant change in national issues. Italy is not the only country in which this trend can be observed. France, Poland, and Germany also saw a large vote over national issues[6]. This is a troubling sign that the fundamental purpose of the European Parliament – to unite European Union nations and effectively address broad European issues – has not been achieved.

The United Kingdom – Brexit

Another state whose national issues highly affected the outcome of the European Parliament elections is the United Kingdom. The whole world has closely followed the events surrounding Brexit. There is much controversy over how the United Kingdom will pull out of the European Union and whether or not it will be able to make a deal with the European Union to keep some level of economic ties[7].

Source: European Parliament in collaboration with Kantar

While voter turnout was low compared to other Western European countries (only 36.9%), those who did vote were divided over the issue. The new Brexit Party won the largest percentage of vote for the Eurosceptic Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group. However, the left-wing Social Democrats, Green Party, and Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe also got a large portion of the votes[8]. The divisive result of the European Parliament elections show that Brexit is not a clear-cut issue.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s announcement of resignation the day after European Parliament elections also heightened tensions over how the British people feel regarding Brexit[9]. Conservatives are now looking to appoint a new prime minister by the end of July. The current likely choice, Boris Johnson could bring the personality and power necessary to pull off a Brexit deal, and subsequently restore the people’s faith in the Conservative Party[10]. However, noting the European Union’s little interest in renegotiating a deal, a more likely outcome is a no deal Brexit. Regardless of who the new prime minister will be, the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats are hopeful that the chaos and controversy of Brexit will be to their advantage in gaining votes and representation in the next national elections[11].

If all goes well when the United Kingdom leaves the European Union this fall, the European Union stands in danger of a domino effect. Some argue that after observing the long, hard road to leaving the European Union, no other country will want to leave the Union. Indeed, countries such as Italy who previously alluded to wanting to leave the European Union have largely been silenced over the past three years[12]. Still, the danger exists that other nations will want more autonomy like the United Kingdom and push for separation. Although minor, this is a threat to the structure of the European Union in the future.

The Baltic Region

 Among the Baltic States, Lithuania had a high voter turnout at 53.5%, over 3% higher than the European Union average. Estonia and Latvia fell far below at 37.6% and 33.5% respectively[13]. Experts disagree on the reason for such a huge discrepancy in voter turnout between countries of one region and with similar issues of importance[14]. One convincing explanation of the discrepancy is that because the European Parliament elections coincided with the Lithuanian popular presidential election, a significantly higher number of people voted than would have normally voted if the election were another weekend. This is another example of how European Parliament elections were influenced by national issues. Lithuania experienced a conservative shift. Conservative parties gained seven of the eleven seats as opposed to only five in the 2014 elections[15]. This is an increase of almost 20%.

For Latvia, low voter turnout for the European Parliament elections is not something new. There are varying reasons for low participation. Thousands of Latvian citizens that live in other European Union states did not take the opportunity to vote or could not because of complicated voting laws abroad[16].  Also, the European Parliament elections are not a serious mobilizing factor in Latvia because of the small number of representatives allocated to Latvia[17]. Many citizens feel that their voice cannot make a significant difference on the European level. As members of the European Parliament from Latvia work to be more transparent about the work they do in Brussels, Latvians’ faith in the European Parliament will grow[18].

Estonia experienced the most radical shift from liberal to conservative. In 2014, five of the six total seats were divided between the liberal parties with one representing the conservatives[19]. This year, the liberals only gained two seats to the Social Democrats, while three seats went to the European People’s Party and one seat to the far-right Identity and Democracy party[20]. This significant showing of populism from the national EKRE Party shows a trend that Estonians are becoming more skeptical of European integration and want to emphasize national culture more.

Moving Forward

Another question that will influence the European Parliament moving forward is the decision of the European Commission and president of the Commission. The president will have significant influence in the agenda of the European Parliament. There are three likely options for Commission president: Manfred Weber, Frans Timmermans, and Margrethe Vestager[21]. If Weber is elected president, the Parliament will likely see a conservative shift as his main agenda is to decrease illegal immigration and fight against terrorism by creating a “European FBI”[22]. For Timmermans, current vice president of the European Commission, the Parliament will continue largely in the same direction it is now, focusing on items such as sustainable development and gender equality[23]. If Vestager is elected as president, her main objectives include promoting economic growth and creating more jobs for Europeans[24]. Each of these candidates for Commission President will bring a different focus to the head of the European Parliament and define how the Parliament will run over the next five years.

In conclusion, the results of the European Parliament elections of 2019 were not as extreme as many feared they would be. The Social Democrats and European People’s Party will likely work together as they have before in conjunction with other parties to push their traditional agendas. The results of the new European Commission will largely impact how the Parliament will move forward in the next five years. However, the discrepancy in voter turnout from Western Europe and Central and Eastern Europe poses a significant problem of lack integration that the Parliament will have to deal with sooner rather than later to ensure stability in the European Union. Also, the trend of countries voting over national issues rather than over European issues similarly shows that the European Union has a long way to go to achieve true integration.

ENDNOTES:

[1] Kadri Liik, “Europe, Russia, and the Laws of Nature: Importance of the EP Election,” European Council on Foreign Relations, 11 March 2019, https://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_europe_russia_importance_of_european_parliament_election#.

[2]European Parliament, “2019 European Election Results,” Accessed 6 June 2019, https://www.election-results.eu/. See also POLITICO, “EU Election Results Country by Country,” 27 May, 2019, https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-election-results-2019-country-by-country/.

[3]Ibid.

[4]Steven Erlanger, “What to Watch for in the European Parliament Election Results,” New York Times, 26 May 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/26/world/europe/european-parliament-elections-issues.html.

[5]European Parliament, “2019 European Election Results,” Accessed 6 June 2019, https://www.election-results.eu/. See also POLITICO, “EU Election Results Country by Country,” 27 May, 2019, https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-election-results-2019-country-by-country/.

[6]Steven Erlanger, “What to Watch for in the European Parliament Election Results,” New York Times, 26 May 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/26/world/europe/european-parliament-elections-issues.html.

[7]Rafael Behr, “May’s Brexit Deal is Not Dead – and Only Rory Stewart Will Admit It,” Guardian, 19 June 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jun/19/may-brexit-deal-not-dead-rory-stewart-boris-johnson. See also BBC “Brexit: Your Simple Guide to the UK Leaving the EU,” 21 May 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-46318565.

[8]European Parliament, “2019 European Election Results,” Accessed 6 June 2019, https://www.election-results.eu/. See also POLITICO, “EU Election Results Country by Country,” 27 May, 2019, https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-election-results-2019-country-by-country/.

[9]Rafael Behr, “May’s Brexit Deal is Not Dead – and Only Rory Stewart Will Admit It,” Guardian, 19 June 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jun/19/may-brexit-deal-not-dead-rory-stewart-boris-johnson.

[10]Ibid. See also Gabrielle Adams, “Boris Johnson Looks Set to Become UK’s Next Prime Minister,” 9News, 20 July 2019, https://www.9news.com.au/world/uk-news-prime-minister-leadership-boris-johnson-in-the-lead-vote/dbe6a61c-a4c8-45a6-924e-fdc9d64b0c9f.

[11]Ibid.

[12]Vineta Kleinberga, interview by author, Riga, June 6, 2019.

[13]European Parliament, “2019 European Election Results,” Accessed 6 June 2019, https://www.election-results.eu/. See also POLITICO, “EU Election Results Country by Country,” 27 May, 2019, https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-election-results-2019-country-by-country/.

[14]Lunch Discussion, “European Parliament Elections: The Future of the EU?” Riga, June 4, 2019.

[15]European Parliament, “2019 European Election Results,” Accessed 6 June 2019, https://www.election-results.eu/. See also POLITICO, “EU Election Results Country by Country,” 27 May, 2019, https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-election-results-2019-country-by-country/.

[16]Vineta Kleinberga, interview by author, Riga, June 6, 2019. See also LSV.LV, “Voting Continues in European Elections Across Latvia,” 24 May 2019, https://eng.lsm.lv/article/politics/election/voting-continues-in-european-elections-across-latvia.a320177/.

[17]Ibid.

[18]Ibid.

[19]European Parliament, “2019 European Election Results,” Accessed 6 June 2019, https://www.election-results.eu/.

[20]Ibid.

[21]Emma Beswick, “Who’s Winning the Race to Be the Next European Commission President?” EuroNews, 28 May 2019, https://www.euronews.com/2019/05/27/who-s-winning-the-race-to-be-the-next-european-commission-president.

[22]Manfred Weber Home Page, Accessed 18 June 2019, https://manfredweber.eu/the-future-of-we/.

[23]European Commission, Frans Timmermans, Accessed 18 June 2019, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/

commissioners/2014-2019/timmermans_eu.

[24]European Commission, Margrethe Vestager, Accessed 18 June 2019, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/

commissioners/2014-2019/vestager_eu.

Publicēts 01. jūlijs, 2019

Autors Owen Bates