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The rise of liberals in European parliamentary elections 2019

Muhammad Zamir | Published: July 07, 2019 20:44:20 | Updated: July 11, 2019 15:54:05


There is a general consensus after the 2019 EU elections held at the end of May that certain power blocs have lost their grip on the EU Parliament. Analysts have pointed out that both the big centre-right and centre-left blocs in the European Parliament have lost their combined majority amid an increase in support for Liberals, the Greens and Nationalists. This aspect is being taken seriously because the European Parliament helps shape EU legislation and the results will play a big part in who gets the key jobs in the European Commission.

The Centre-Right EPP won 180 seats, down from the 216 in 2014. The Socialists and Democrats dropped to 146 seats from 191.Of the total number of 751 seats, the Left leaning Parties have won 392 seats - Left (GUE/NGL) -39 seats, Socialists and Democrats (S and D)-146 seats, Greens (EFA)-69 seats, Liberals (ALDE)-109 seats and others-29 seats. The Right wing groups have won 359 seats- Independent MEPs-8 seats, Centre-Right (EPP)- 180 seats, Conservative Party (ECR)- 59 seats, Populists (EFD)- 54 seats and Right Wing Nationalists (ENF)- 58 seats.

EU citizens turned out to vote in the highest numbers for two decades, bucking years of decline and significantly higher than the last elections in 2014, when fewer than 43 per cent of eligible voters took part. Turnout in Hungary and Poland more than doubled compared to 2014 and Denmark hit a record 63 per cent participation. Analysts have attributed this high turnout to a range of factors including the rise of populist parties and increased climate change awareness.

Pro-EU parties are still expected to hold a majority of seats, largely due to gains made by the liberal ALDE bloc, and particularly a decision taken by the party of French President Emmanuel Macron Renaissance Alliance to join the group. "For the first time in 40 years, the two classical parties, socialists and conservatives, will no longer have a majority," said Guy Verhofstadt, former Belgian Prime Minister and currently the leader of the ALDE. "It's clear that this is a historical moment, because there will be a new balance of power in the European Parliament," he said. There were also major successes for the Greens, with the Group jumping from 50 to 69 MEPs.

However, gains for nationalist parties in Italy, France and elsewhere have been interpreted as a move towards a greater say for Euro-sceptics who want to curb the EU's powers.

It would be important to briefly reflect on how the voting has created new dimensions in different parts of the European Union.

In Germany, both major centrist parties suffered. Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats has dropped from 35 per cent of the votes in 2014 to 28 per cent, while the centre-left Social Democratic Union has fallen from 27 per cent to 15.5 per cent. The right-wing populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) performed worse than expected - winning about 10.5 per cent - a slight improvement over its first results in 2014.

In the United Kingdom, still struggling with the problem of BREXIT, the newly formed Brexit Party, led by Nigel Farage, obtained about 32 per cent of the votes, amid gains for the Liberal Democrats and significant losses for the major Conservative and Labour parties.

Amid mixed results for far-right parties across Europe, Ms Le Pen's National Rally party in France -- formerly National Front - celebrated their victory over ruling President Mr. Macron's party by securing 24 per cent of the votes to his 22.5 per cent. A presidential official has, however, described the outcome as a "disappointment" but "absolutely honuorable" compared to previous results.

In Hungary, Viktor Orban, whose anti-immigration Fidesz party won 52 per cent of the votes and 13 of the country's 21 seats, was a big winner. Mr Orban described the elections as "the beginning of a new era against migration".

In Spain, the ruling Socialist party (PSOE) obtained about 32.8 poer cent of the votes and secured 20 seats, while the far-right Vox party won just 6.2 per cent and three seats -- coming in fifth.

In Greece Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has called for an early election after the opposition conservative New Democracy Party won 33.5 per cent of the votes compared to 20 per cent for his Syriza party.

This outcome has reflected a tendency already apparent in national elections all over Europe: rejection of the status quo. It has also been described as a slap in the face on the UK's Conservative and Labour parties. Europe's voters are clearly looking elsewhere for answers. They have underlined that that they are drawn to parties and political personalities, who according to them, better represent their values and priorities.

Some are attracted to the nationalist right who are promising a crackdown on immigration and more power for national parliaments, rather than for Brussels. Italy's firebrand Deputy PM Matteo Salvini is a successful example of this. So is Hungary's Viktor Orban. Other voters have preferred a pro-European alternative, like the Green Party and liberal groups who performed better than expected in these elections.

The European Parliament is European Union's supreme law-making body. It is made up of 751 members, called MEPs, who are directly elected by EU voters every five years. These MEPs -- who sit in both Brussels and Strasbourg - represent the interests of citizens from the EU's 28 member states. One of the Parliament's main legislative roles is scrutinising and passing laws proposed by the European Commission, the bureaucratic arm of the EU. It is also responsible for electing the President of the European Commission and approving the EU budget.

The traditional centre-left and centre-right parties, which have dominated the EU for the last two decades appear to have lost their majority for the first time in the European Parliament. This is consistent with the tendency already apparent in national elections all over Europe: rejection of the status quo. This aspect conforms to the beating meted out to France's centre-right and centre-left; to Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Social Democrat coalition partners; plus the rebuke by denotation delivered to the UK's Conservative and Labour parties.

Nevertheless, the results indicate that the new European Parliament will be broadly pro-EU but also fractured, making law-making and change relatively difficult. Strategic analysts examining the results have also suggested that all of this could have an effect on Brexit too.

Now that the election to the EU Parliament is over, a fresh dynamics has started within the important positions in Brussels, EU Headquarters. On November 1, the new Commission President will take over the office, along with the new High Representative (the EU Foreign Minister) and the President of European Central Bank. On December 1, the new European Council President will take over.

In the first week of July the EU Parliament was tasked with nominating five persons for the five most important positions within the EU paradigm. On July 3, the European Parliament voted and selected Germany's Right-wing Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen to replace Jean-Claude Juncker and lead the EU Commission as its President. She's loyal to the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a true Christian Democrat and a conservative Europhile. It is the first time in more than 60 years that a German has been given the post.

The election has assumed special importance as it has seen the big centrist blocs lose their majority with nationalists and Greens gaining ground. It leaves the EU more fragmented, so finding consensus on issues may be harder than in the past.

The EU and Britain will now be following the evolving situation in the EU very closely. This will be particularly true with regard to the Brexit issue. Earlier, on Brexit, the European Commission negotiated on behalf of the EU member states. Those negotiations ended when the UK government signed off on the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement back in November. The only ones now with the legal power to change or add to the text are now the EU national leaders and not the European Commission. As depicted through the wave of indecision among national leaders over the selection of top EU jobs, it is clear that while France and Germany are still powerful, they are not all-powerful in EU circles any more. This will be something that will have to be kept in mind by the new UK Prime Minister ahead of planning trips to Berlin and Paris to request a renegotiation of the Brexit deal.

 

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.

muhammadzamir0@gmail.com

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