The first months of this year have been a very interesting period.
It was our first time to campaign for the European Parliament (EP) elections: one of us as a civic society campaigner for Alliance 4 Europe, and the other one as candidate Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for Volt Belgium.
We have been delighted to speak with people from different nationalities, get acquainted with the campaigning mechanisms and discover the particular issues that concern people in different communities or countries.
Now, several days later, we felt the need to digest the results of those elections, filter some of their facts and share the main points that we took away as our most important conclusions:
1. Truly European elections.
These were perhaps the most “European” elections in recent memory. The division between “europhiles” and “eurosceptics” crossed many national boundaries and characterised the polls in number of member states.
Party candidates habitually made cross-references to their ideological allies or foes from other EU countries (Salvini, Macron, Orban, Verhofstadt, Le Pen, etc).
The electoral debates touched upon broader European issues, such as immigration, “more” or “less” Europe, European identity or climate policy.
Politicians and media used the word “European” many times, as well as the comparison between “us” (Greeks, Polish, Lithuanians etc.) and the rest of Europe when discussing policy and identity matters.
2. Highest turnout in a quarter of a century
Thanks to the distinct European character of the elections, as explained above, and also due to special political circumstances in certain member states, we saw the highest turnout in the last quarter of the century.
It rose from roughly 42% in 2014 to 51% this year. Participation increased in almost all the member states, particularly in the two largest ones: in Germany, from 48.1% to 61.5%, and in France from 42.4% to 51.0%.
It almost doubled in Poland. It also increased by more than 8% in countries like Slovakia or the Czech Republic with traditionally very low turnouts.
3. Inconclusive direction
The results did not produce a clear mandate for the EU politicians to move in a new direction.
"The Europeans did not send a clear message whether they prefer enhancing the European integration or strengthening the national competencies."
The pro-EU establishment has prevailed, but we cannot tell with certainty if the majority of the people endorsed more federal choices, such as a stronger eurozone governance as supported by Macron, or the more conservative German agenda.
The same uncertainty remains in the area of European defence, social policies or external relations.
Overall, it was a balanced result in many different aspects. The voters wanted a change and having no clear majority of any group or party means that the upcoming five years politics will be shaped by plurality of opinions, which is also healthy for democracy.
4. More women than ever before, but still not enough
Although significantly more women than ever before were elected, the EP still remains a men’s world accounting for 60% of MEPs.
"Proportionally, female MEPs increased from 36% to about 39% compared to the last term, or 286 out of 751 seats."
There was a slight increase of member states imposing gender quotas from eight in 2014 to eleven in 20192
This remains a part of the party culture for movements such as Volt, ensuring parity on its lists when running for any elections across Europe.
Hopefully, next time the EP will become more gender balanced in order to reflect the true representation in the society. Now it is time to elect the first female president of the Council or the European Commission.
5. The Green rise
The Green parties celebrated the gain of the votes in almost all northern and western EU member states and stand now as the fourth biggest group in the European Parliament.
On the other hand, they scored very poorly in eastern and southern Europe (except Portugal) where people seem to be most preoccupied by other issues.
We would like to stress here the cultural division between industrialised and less industrialised Europe, as well as the different civic attitudes of people living in those different parts of the continent.
On a general note, it is becoming a clear that the climate and environmental issues are going to dominate the political agenda in Europe and the globe over the next decade.
6. Liberals in the heart of the EP agenda
The coalition of the liberal ALDE and the French LREM (La Republique En Marche) proved fruitful and delivered 111 seats, 40 more seats that the ALDE held alone in the previous term.
This makes them an indispensable part of any majority alliance needed to decide on important issues, like accession of new member states, international trade agreements, budget, social and environmental standards etc.
We, as liberal-minded persons, welcome this development.
We would further welcome a progressive blend of their business-friendly ideas while leading toward the ecological transition of the Greens and the Socialists, as well as the growth focused policy of the EPP.
7. No breakthrough for the eurosceptics
As expected, the illiberal, national populist and/or eurosceptic forces gained some extra seats; however, did not achieve any real breakthrough.
One could count less than 180 seats on the right side from the EPP, which is of course worrisome but not disastrous for the European project.
On the other hand, we shall highlight that the far-right populists have won the first place in the big countries, such as France, Italy, Poland and – equally important – in the United Kingdom. No, this is not a political earthquake – Marine Le Pen also won in the elections of 2014.
Nevertheless, we should not underestimate the message sent by those victories.
"This is the first official electoral defeat of President Macron, the current champion of European integration, and should be definitely seen as a setback for the liberal agenda."
As expected, people were attracted by various new parties promising a new change that Europe urgently seeks for.
8. The failure of the Spitzenkandidaten process
The new EP is split more than ever between political groups of rather moderate sizes. There is no clear winner, as the first party (EPP) got less than one quarter of the seats and overall percentage of casted votes.
As a result, it lacks the political legitimacy to impose its candidate on the Council and the rest of the EP for the position of the President of the European Commission.
No matter what finally happens with the appointment to this position later this year, it is clear that changing this process is inevitable for the future as it does not respect the institutional balance between the EP and the Council.
9. Fake news is a marginal factor.
The overall result of the 2019 European Parliament elections were not affected by the fake news, Russian troll farms, Chinese bots, info-wars, extravagant conspiracy theories or any other similar factors.
Yet, many of those elements remain relevant and we should not underestimate their influence. For the time being, they are not strong enough in Europe to influence its political agenda.
We would be too self-centred or naïve to think that Twitter, Instagram or Facebook are so powerful to affect the political choices of dozens of millions of European citizens.
However, through the recent policy changes, those platforms prevented many pro-European and transnational forces to run their political adds, while benefitting nationalists’ movements.
Despite this, more important remains to the citizens what is the political agenda of the European political parties, their capacity to deliver solutions that work for everyone, the ability to communicate their policies in a convincing manner and also the way in which people experience those policies in their everyday lives.
These are much more decisive factors than the action of some marginal agents or trolls.
Alliance 4 Europe, Brussels
Volt Belgium, Brussels
Disclaimer: The authors work for the European Commission, but all views expressed in this article are strictly personal and do not necessarily represent that organisation.
1See European Parliament, “Highest turnout in 20 years”, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/headlines/eu-affairs/20190523STO52402/elections-2019-highest-turnout-in-20-years