Understanding the New European Parliament

The European Parliament that will sit for the first time on 2 July 2019 is very different from the assemblies that came before it. More Europeans voted in the 2019 elections than ever before and with a higher rate of participation than we have seen since the 1990s. More votes were cast for parties outside the two main formations, the European People’s Party and the Socialists and Democrats. More new political parties have won representation, both from the right and from the left. And more uncertainty surrounds the group formation process and coalition building dynamics than we have seen since the first direct elections in 1979.

This combination of unprecedented characteristics supports a wide number of interpretations. For optimists, this parliament has greater legitimacy, because it results from a larger turnout. It has greater representativeness, because it includes a wider range of voices. It is more encompassing, because it distributes political power more evenly across the ideological spectrum. And it is more transparent, because any majority will be the result of multi-party negotiations and not the same pattern of back-room horse-trading that characterized relations between the Christian- and Social Democrats.

Pessimists take an altogether different view. They underscore that any increase in turnout has more to do with the polarization in national politics than with anything connected to the legislative responsibilities of the European Parliament. As a result, the European Parliament is more fragmented and so also harder to manage in the conduct of its electoral mandate. The promise of pre-electoral transparency that was associated with the appointment of the Spitzenkandidat from the largest political group as President of the European Commission has most likely come to an end. Instead, the European Parliament will rely on complex coalition bargains across heterogenous political groups. This sounds less like representation and transparency than an opportunity for mainstream political elites from larger countries to exercise a condominium in alliance with the heads of state and government in the European Council.

The participation of the British delegation represents an added complication. In theory, at least, these British MEPs may never have the opportunity to represent their constituents if the United Kingdom manages to leave the European Union before the European Parliament sits. In practice, the British have already changed the election by altering the distribution of seats across countries when the European Parliament returned to the pre-Brexit seat allocations, by showing up in the aggregate statistics for turnout and ideological positioning within the electorate, and by participating in the preliminary discussions about parliamentary group formation. It is hard to imagine a similar situation unfolding in any other parliamentary elections in the history of liberal democracy and so also difficult to anticipate just how important will be the impact — both so long as the British remain members of the European Union and when (and if) they should exit.

Here too, it is possible to put the spin in both directions. Britain’s involvement in the European elections has given a powerful voice to those who would remain in the European Union. Depending upon how the parties are characterized when the votes are counted, support for parties with a clear ambition to leave the EU constitutes only a minority; the majority of British voters backed parties who either advocated remaining, called for a second referendum, or expressed some ambiguity about their true preferences regarding membership. If nothing else, these elections have forced a realignment of the British political system by bringing the cleavage over Europe more clearly into the open rather than leaving it to fester within the country’s two largest political parties.

A more negative interpretation of Britain’s involvement would highlight the near destruction of the British Conservative Party and the collapse of Theresa May’s government. Whatever the flaws of the modern Tories, the Conservative Party was an impressive electoral machine capable of intermediating large and diverse chunks of the British electorate; now those voters are floating freely. By the same token, May’s government may have mishandled its negotiations with Europe and yet few believe the next government will mark an improvement. If anything, the risk that Britain will leave Europe without a deal has increased — as has the risk that Scotland will move to leave the United Kingdom.

Both the good and the bad interpretations of contemporary British politics will find manifestation in the new European Parliament and so will the good and the bad interpretations of the European Parliament itself. As a result, we should expect the parliament’s deliberations to be more contentious and issue-by-issue majority building to be more complicated. Everyone can remember the first time they saw Nigel Farage speak in plenary sessions; now his voice will be less isolated, his flaunting of the norms and conventions of parliamentary discourse will be more widely shared, and his penchant for theatrics and rhetorical flourishes will be more common.

At the same time, we should expect the European Parliament to have to intermediate many more interests directly that used to be folded into the legislative process within the traditional political parties. The strong stand from the new sovereigntist members on issues related to immigration is only the most prominent illustration; we should also expect greater assertiveness on environmental issues and human rights concerns from the newly emboldened Greens. The point here is not to complain that these issues will get a more prominent hearing. Rather it is to wonder whether an open airing of these issues will facilitate decision-making within the European Parliament or make it more complicated to form parliamentary majorities. There is an important trade off at work. For example, many observers have already expressed concern that large, complex trade details will be almost impossible for the new European Parliament to ratify.

A final question is whether this new assembly will be easier or more difficult for European voters to identify with as Europeans. The range and diversity of voices in the new European Parliament is wider and more varied than in any single Member State. Many of the more central parties at the national level are more peripheral within the European Parliament. This unfamiliarity will not stop voters from participating in European elections, but it could reinforce their sense that what really matters politically takes place in the national context.

None of this speculation allows us to pass final judgment. For the moment, we can talk about positive perspectives on the most recent European elections and perspectives that are more negative. Time will tell whether the optimists or the pessimists are more correct. Most likely the results will be ambiguous. They are also likely to prove irrelevant. What really matters for the future is not what just happened but what Europeans make of it.

This piece was originally published in Italian as ‘Identikit del nuovo Parlamento’ in the July/August 2019 issue of Eastwest.