Thursday, June 13, 2024

Have European Voters Hamstrung the EU?

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From June 6 to 9, more than 180 million people across Europe voted in elections to choose 720 new members of the European Parliament. The body, which meets in Strasbourg and Brussels, wields significant power, passing laws regarding the EU’s single market, international trade, environmental sustainability, agriculture, immigration, and more. Each EU country is allotted a given number of seats in the parliament based on its population size, but its members are organized into cross-national “political families,” factions that share similar political orientations and fill their ranks with ideologically aligned members from national political parties.

The results from this election were mixed. The parties of incumbent leaders Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz took a beating from voters in France and Germany, who preferred opposition far-right and center-right parties instead. Prime Ministers Giorgia Meloni of Italy and Donald Tusk of Poland—both of whom fall on the right side of the political spectrum —saw their parties perform well, helping them consolidate power at home. In Spain, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s ruling socialist party was bested by his conservative rival Alberto Núñez Feijóo’s Popular Party. But although the election marked an undeniable rightward shift, mainly at the expense of green and liberal parties, the much-feared far-right populist surge largely failed to materialize.

Moreover, EU officials can take heart that turnout was once again just above 50 percent, nearly the same as it was in 2019, but well above the all-time low of 43 percent in 2014. This relatively high participation level signals an end to the steadily falling levels of interest in EU elections since the first ones were held, in 1979, and underlines the salience of the EU for European voters’ everyday lives. It should blunt the critique in many quarters of the continent that the EU is run by technocrats in Brussels without most Europeans’ explicit consent.

In Germany, Scholz could not have been happy with the election results. His Social Democratic Party scored just 14 percent, a record low. His coalition partners also performed poorly: the Greens lost almost half their current members in the European parliament and the liberal Free Democratic Party flirted with electoral oblivion by barely surpassing the five percent national threshold required to keep their representation in the German Bundestag.

But the biggest cloud of uncertainty now hangs over France, where Macron’s centrist alliance garnered less than 15 percent of the vote, compared to 31 percent for the far-right National Rally party. During his victory speech, the party’s youthful leader, Jordan Bardella (the right-hand man of Marine Le Pen, the party’s president and three-time presidential candidate), dared Macron to respect the outcome of the vote in France, dissolve parliament, and immediately call for new elections. The French president stunned friend and foe by doing exactly that. And so France will go to the polls again on June 30 and July 7 for snap elections in which Macron hopes to call the far right’s bluff and give him a fresh popular mandate.

Thus, although largely pro-European centrists will hold a majority in the European Parliament, the results of the EU elections may well herald a new era for the continent—one in which France and Germany, embroiled in their own domestic political battles, may not be able to provide the leadership they customarily have. Instead, the EU election could augur a period of uncertainty and volatility about the future direction of European integration, just at a time when the EU can least afford it.


The European Commission—the EU’s administrative body—is led by Ursula von der Leyen of Germany, and because her political family, the center-right European People’s Party, gained ten seats for a total of 186, based on the latest estimates, it will once again be in a position to lead and form a coalition in the European Parliament. The party’s traditional partners on the center left, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, just lost four seats, and continue to be the second-largest grouping, with 135 seats. The centrist liberals of Renew Europe (led by Macron’s En Marche) and the Greens (led by the German Green Party) lost 23 and 18 seats, respectively. But together they still hold 132 seats, adding strength to a broad-based pro-European majority in the European Parliament. All told, traditional pro-EU parties hold more than 450 of the body’s 720 seats.

The antiestablishment Euroskeptic parties on both the far left and the far right performed well but did not see the level of electoral successes that would have allowed them to become part of an actual governing coalition that could wield direct influence over EU policy. In many ways, the main impact of the EU elections has been on individual countries, where some national governments that faced party losses, such as in Germany, will now struggle to go on without new elections. The results may also prove a telltale sign of things to come in smaller member states such as Austria, where the far-right Freedom Party of Austria’s victory puts it in a position to lead the next government after the country holds national elections in fall.

Both the far left and the far right also remain badly divided among themselves in the European Parliament. On the far left, Germany’s Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance may form a second left-wing coalition with Italy’s Five Star Movement. On the extreme right, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party may form a third far-right grouping with Bulgaria’s Revival party and Poland’s Our Homeland party, which would bring together an amalgam of pro-Russian, pro-Chinese, and ultranationalist Euroskeptic movements. But even as these alliances come together, their memberships will remain fluid: certain national parties may decide to leave one group in favor of another, or even decide to join one of the establishment groups.

The unpredictability of such coalitions is apparent in the choice now facing Meloni, whose right-wing Brothers of Italy party gained 19 seats in the European Parliament, thus making her the de facto leader of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), a far-right, Euroskeptic group. But rather than stay within that political family, which would limit her influence over policy, Meloni may well decide she is better off unaligned. She could tacitly offer her support to Ursula von der Leyen’s bid to win another term as the head of the European Commission, a move that would bolster her leverage over von der Leyen’s agenda in the years ahead.


With the European People’s Party family having done well overall, von der Leyen is in a strong position to reprise her role as president of the European Commission for the next five years. With the exception of Macron, who will likely remain preoccupied as the country prepares to go to the polls again to elect a new national assembly and government in the coming weeks, European leaders will be keen to move quickly and fill the top EU positions—whose occupants help determine the EU’s policy agenda and institutional direction—before the end of June. Von der Leyen has the momentum, especially since European heads of state will want a steady hand steering the EU, given the possible return of Donald Trump as U.S. president in January 2025 and all the transatlantic volatility that may entail.

The top candidates for other leadership roles are also coming into focus. Given the solid second-place finish for the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the EU elections, a current or former social democratic head of government will likely take over from the outgoing Charles Michel as president of the European Council, which sets out the broad strategic priorities for the union. (Likely candidates include former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, and former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta.) The post of high representative of the EU for foreign affairs and security policy, which coordinates the 27 member states on the EU’s diplomatic efforts abroad, is expected to go to someone from the liberal group, given its third-place finish (with Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas as the most high-profile possibility for the job, although former Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès and outgoing Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo are also in the mix).

The results of this year’s elections could result in a prolonged period of French and German navel-gazing.

If von der Leyen is officially nominated for a second term, she will face an uphill battle to get confirmed in a secret vote in the European Parliament, most likely in September. She will need at least 361 of the 720 votes to secure a second term. This will be tough, given that not all EU parliamentarians of the center-right, center-left, and liberal families support her candidacy, either because of personal animosity or as a result of individual disagreements over certain policies. She is keenly aware that she only narrowly secured her confirmation five years ago, when she needed all 11 members of parliament from Hungarian President Viktor Orban’s Fidesz Party to eke out a nine-seat majority. Von der Leyen may therefore need to convince a handful of Greens—and potentially all of Meloni’s 24 members of parliament—to vote for her.

This won’t be easy. Von der Leyen’s European People’s Party managed to increase its vote share thanks only to its rightward shift on immigration, agriculture, and clean energy. It is hard to imagine convincing many Greens to sign on to such an agenda. On the other hand, both the liberal and social democratic factions of the European Parliament will be leery of any deal between von der Leyen and Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, a far-right extremist party they see as anathema to their own progressive agendas. Von der Leyen will therefore need all the political savvy and negotiating skills at her disposal to cobble together a working governing coalition over the summer. Even if she succeeds, the European Parliament is bound to be a lot more volatile in the coming five years, as it will not provide blanket support for her new commission’s legislative proposals.


Much of the EU’s expected action on top posts and policy agendas would seem likely to deliver further incremental progress on European integration were it not for two fundamental problems. First, the Franco-German engine is now in disrepair. The two countries’ long-standing joint leadership of the EU has already weakened over the past three years as the result of personal animosity between Macron and Scholz, as well as fundamental differences on matters of EU policy and direction. Without collaboration between Paris and Berlin, very little change generally happens in the EU. Second, the EU is not in a situation where incremental changes will suffice. Europe faces major challenges over the next five years, including the tasks of enlarging the EU to include countries such as Ukraine and of undertaking institutional reforms. These ambitions will be hard to accomplish without enlightened leadership and a healthy dose of imagination. And both of those elements are less likely to materialize in the absence of a joint vision from France and Germany.

Franco-German cooperation reached its last high point in the summer of 2020, when the European Union put together Next Generation EU, the roughly $800 billion pandemic recovery fund that was financed through jointly issued “Eurobonds”—breaking a German taboo against jointly held debt. But the Franco-German engine has sputtered since Scholz became German chancellor in December 2021. Macron is full of new ideas on issues such as collective European defense and an EU-level industrial policy, but he lacks the necessary funding—whereas Scholz still seems to mostly live in the benign globalization era of decades past. He does not share France’s enthusiasm for big, new EU projects that would require yet more joint spending (and hence joint debt). The calamitous results of this year’s European Parliamentary elections for Macron and Scholz could result in a prolonged period of French and German navel-gazing—and hence a lack of progress on many EU priorities.

Macron delivering a speech after the polls closed in the European Parliament elections, Paris, June 2024

Christian Hartmann / Reuters

In France, Macron could, for the foreseeable future, remain consumed by his decision to announce snap parliamentary elections. His rationale seems to be that it would be better to force the National Rally to form a government (and deliver a prime minister) if it wins elections while Macron himself is still president, even if it would entail a very acrimonious political cohabitation of sorts. He could subsequently blame the party for rendering France ungovernable should chaos ensue. A National Rally majority in parliament would also deny Le Pen the opportunity to run as the antiestablishment candidate in the 2027 presidential elections. If she falls short of a majority, she could be forced to form coalitions with other parties—a task that would likely prove a struggle for her, since she is unlikely to find any volunteers outside the far right. It is also possible that French voters will give Macron a new working majority. The French electorate could theoretically choose to behave differently in national elections, where much more is at stake and turnout tends to be much higher, than it did in the recent EU elections.

Regardless, Macron is taking a big gamble that easily could backfire. Le Pen could mirror Meloni by exceeding electoral expectations and choose to have the inexperienced Bardella installed as prime minister to govern effectively from the center-right—an outcome that could put Le Pen herself in a strong position to succeed on her fourth try in becoming president of France, in 2027. And whatever the outcome, France’s domestic turmoil will prove problematic from the EU’s perspective in the short term, as it will keep Macron perennially distracted at home.

The situation in Germany is equally dire for Scholz, after the EU vote delivered victories to the opposition Christian Democrats and the far-right AfD. Scholz’s coalition of the Social Democratic Party, the Free Democratic Party, and the Greens was already proving to be an unhappy alliance, with divisions emerging over subsidies for the green transition, taxes, and social welfare spending. Given these rifts, it is hard to see this alliance enduring until September 2025, when the next general election is due to be held. Scholz will therefore be even more preoccupied in the coming 15 months with keeping his coalition together, leaving him little time or energy to deal with the EU’s challenges.


After 15 years of battling back-to-back crises, starting with the global financial crisis, the EU has managed to weather one storm after another by relying on mostly small, technocratic fixes. One exception proved to be the response to the pandemic, which called for massive EU borrowing and spending in a strong showing of European solidarity. But today, the EU’s institutional hardware, which prizes unanimity among members for the most important decisions, needs to be updated, as does its rules-based software, which remains anchored in the single-market competition and single-currency monetary and fiscal principles of the 1990s.

In recent years, the EU has announced plans to expand its membership by up to ten new member states, including Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine; reform its institutions to make them fit for a larger union in a world rife with competition; and draft a new seven-year budget to realize those ambitions. Von der Leyen has shown in her first term that she is up to the task, having worked to turn the EU into a major geoeconomic actor through a combination of fiscal solidarity, a more assertive trade policy, a green industrial strategy, and a whole series of anti-coercion commercial tools. But the job is only half done.

The EU election could augur a period of uncertainty and volatility, just at a time when Europe can least afford it.

Compared with the last major round of EU enlargement, in 2004, expanding EU membership will have even bigger consequences for how body will be financed and governed. Admitting Ukraine alone would make most, if not all, members net contributors to the EU budget rather than net recipients. Most of the current EU candidate countries are far from meeting the traditional economic and political criteria for membership—including functioning free-market institutions, respect for the rule of law, a fully independent judiciary, and broad press freedoms —and will need more than just the carrot of future membership benefits to enact the many necessary but costly reforms. The EU will have to devise a formula that rewards candidate countries for making good progress and deters them from backsliding.

EU leaders will also need to think about how such an enlarged union can function without the constant threats of national vetoes resulting in institutional gridlock, as the example of Orban has painfully illustrated over the past five years. Those same EU leaders will also have to come up with imaginative ways to increase their joint budget, so that they can put money behind their many ambitions on joint defense, clean energy, and renewed productivity growth.

Finally, the question that will continue to loom large in the coming six months and beyond is whether the EU can continue to rely on the security guarantees of its American protector through NATO. Regardless of who is in the White House come January 2025, there is sure to be more, not less, transatlantic discord over trade, industrial policy, and defense. The EU faces pressure to do more on all fronts. That would have been a daunting challenge for the EU, even with France and Germany leading the charge. But with Paris and Berlin now locked in major domestic battles, it will be an even steeper hill to climb.


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