The European Union has survived its latest contest between pro-EU and anti-EU forces.
Helped by high turnout, pro-EU centrist and leftist parties together won more than two-thirds of seats in the European Parliament elections held in 28 countries from May 23 to 26. Populist parties intent on destroying the EU from within made only modest gains, increasing their share from 20% to 25% of the 751 seats.
The European Parliament – one of the three institutions involved in passing laws in the European Union – was once a debate society with no real influence. Today, it has a significant role in shaping how EU countries will tackle climate change, threats to democracy, immigration and other matters of great concern to European voters.
The election outcome ensures that populist forces cannot form a blocking minority, which could paralyze the work of the European Parliament.
Despite hobbling populist forces, the result is messy. No single party has a majority of seats, meaning the EU will be governed by a broad coalition – one that will likely have to accommodate left, right and centrist views.
I’m a scholar of European politics. While the European Parliament relies on bargaining between its groups, this is the most fragmented I’ve ever seen it.
It is possible that the necessity of building coalitions among the varied pro-EU parties could foster compromise. But with lots of small parties and divergent opinions vying for influence, legislators may also struggle to make any concrete legislative progress at all.
In recent months, student-led school strikes against climate change have spread across Europe.
These environmental concerns contributed to the surge of Green Party representatives, who won 9% of the vote – increasing their parliamentary seats from 52 to 69.
Greens were particularly effective in Western Europe and with younger voters, capturing one-third of all German voters under the age of 30. Their campaign pledges to push for urgent climate action, social justice and civil liberties were less successful in Central and Eastern Europe.
“We will need to see much more serious climate action, a real change of attitude: a price on CO2, properly tackling aviation, the greening of agriculture,” said Bas Eickhout after the election. Eickhout is a leading member of the Greens in the European Parliament.
Pressuring EU countries to meet these environmental goals, however, will not be straightforward.
Germany and Poland have refused to endorse a bold plan to achieve carbon-neutral economies by 2050. That has put them at odds with many of their partners in the EU, such as France, the Netherlands and Sweden.
Any legislative action on the environment, such as reforming EU agricultural or trade policies, will require agreements between parliamentary groups. The likely coalition of the center-right, liberal, center-left and Green parties would bring together groups with very different environmental records.
That will likely mean more compromise and less ambitious policies.
Rule of law
The members of this fractious likely alliance also hold divergent views on how – and indeed whether – to grapple with the decline of democracy across Europe.
The populist leaders of Hungary and Poland have both undermined the rule of law in recent years, curtailing the independence of key institutions like the press and the judiciary. Both countries have also passed harsh laws that reduce civil liberties, restricting the ability of human rights organizations to operate.
Such laws violate the values of the European Union, a political and economic alliance founded in 1957 with a clear commitment to protect liberal democracy and the rule of law.
But efforts by the EU to sanction Poland and Hungary have hit roadblocks. Populist parties view EU punishment as an infringement on national sovereignty, and even the more centrist European People’s Party also refused for years to censure Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán because he is a member of their group.
In September 2018, European Parliament members eventually voted 448 to 187 to recommend that Hungary’s EU voting rights be suspended – the main tool available to rebuke European countries that violate EU rules.
However, for this severe sanction to take effect, all EU member states except the offending country must vote in favor of the punishment. That’s an impossibly high bar to clear, especially since Poland and Hungary have been protecting each other.
But unless the EU and the European Parliament can find some way to reprimand Hungary and Poland, it could embolden illiberal-leaning Romania and the Czech Republic to follow in their footsteps.
Immigration is another controversial topic that the European Parliament will want to act on in the coming years.
The number of undocumented migrants entering Europe has dropped significantly since the 2015 refugee crisis, but pre-election polls showed that many European voters saw immigration as a top campaign issue.
After years of discussion about reforming Europe’s shared asylum system, EU member states remain stubbornly divided on this subject.
In both national politics and the European Parliament, centrists and leftists across Europe generally seek to collaborate on a regulated approach to immigration that fairly shares responsibility across the region. But populist parties want closed borders, and anti-immigrant rhetoric has fueled their rise.
Given Europe’s divided new Parliament, finding agreement on how to proceed on this issue will be hard.
Europeans have high expectations of their leaders. Polls show that 68% of Europeans view membership in the EU as beneficial. The high turnout in European Parliament elections and strong showing of pro-EU parties confirm that the contested union is experiencing something of a resurgence.
If the EU’s parliamentarians can forge agreement across the political spectrum, they may foster a renewed, pluralistic defense of European integration that will satisfy voters on immigration and other critical everyday matters.
If paralysis results instead, anti-EU populists may well triumph the next time around.
Garret Martin, Professorial Lecturer, American University School of International Service