Editor's Note: This assessment is part of a series of analyses supporting Stratfor's upcoming 2019 Second-Quarter Forecast. These assessments are designed to provide more context and in-depth analysis on key developments over the next quarter.
Between May 23 and 26, every EU country will hold elections to appoint the members of the European Parliament, the European Union’s supranational legislature, for a five-year term. Representing more than 500 million EU citizens, the parliament plays a crucial role in shaping EU policy by serving as a co-legislator alongside the European Council, which represents the bloc's national governments. Its approval is required to pass legislation on a host of issues, including the EU budget, trade, immigration, energy and transportation.
But despite these powers, many Europeans do not think of the parliament as a particularly crucial institution, as evidenced by a decline in voter turnout in elections over the past four decades. However, the outcome of the vote in May will unearth just how pivotal its role is by influencing the appointment of the next European Commission, as well as the political environments of several key member states. But perhaps most importantly, polls suggest that the elections will result in a fragmented EU parliament, which could disrupt the bloc's policymaking process in the face of growing political and economic turbulence.
The elections for the European Parliament are slated to be one of the most important political events in the European Union in 2019. The voting will take place at a tumultuous time for the bloc as it grapples with a slowing economy, rising nationalist and Euroskeptic movements, the political and economic implications of Brexit, and increasingly complex relations with the United States, China and Russia.
Fears of Fragmentation
The European People’s Party (which represents some of the largest conservative parties in Europe, such as Germany's ruling Christian Democratic Union) is still expected to win the most seats in the upcoming elections, followed by the Socialists and Democrats (which represent some of the Continent's largest center-left parties, such as Spain's ruling Spanish Socialist Workers' Party). The two parties have been in an alliance since the last elections for the EU parliament in 2014, though recent polls indicate that they may not win a combined majority of seats again. This means that the larger parties would need support from smaller groups to pass legislation, which would stall the entire process by requiring more time for negotiations.
In addition, polls suggest that nationalist and Euroskeptic political forces will increase their presence in the European Parliament. But while this would send a strong political message that a growing number of European voters are disillusioned with EU integration, increased representation of these more radical parties may not necessarily translate into stronger influence over EU policy. First of all, they may not win enough seats to block the decisions of pro-European groups. The parties also all hail from different political factions in the parliament and often have varying priorities, weakening their ability to coordinate their actions.
But even if the Euroskeptic parties fail to win enough seats to block legislation, that doesn't mean parliament will be able to make decisions easily. Small pro-European forces like the Greens and the Liberals have agendas that do not necessarily coincide with that of the European People’s Party or the Socialists and Democrats group. And should they pick up enough seats in May, these smaller parties could become key to approving legislation as well, adding to the fragmentation and subsequent gridlock in parliament.
Implications for the European Commission
The elections for the EU parliament will also mark the beginning of the appointment process for the next president of the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm. The presidency is one of the most prized roles in EU bureaucracy, as the commission proposes legislation, executes policy and represents the European Union in international negotiations. It's also a role that is deeply connected to the parliament, which is why the outcome of the vote in May will impact the next appointment.
According to EU treaties, the president of the European Commission is appointed by national governments “taking into consideration” the results of the parliamentary elections. In other words, even if the final decision is technically in the hands of governments, their choice must somehow reflect the composition of the European Parliament. The commission president also has to be ratified by the institution, meaning that candidates who are aligned with the ideological composition of the institution have a better chance of being approved.
In 2014, the European Union introduced an informal system to appoint the president of the commission, known as the Spitzerkandidat (or "lead candidate") process. Under this new system, the leader of the party that wins the most seats in the European Parliament assumes the role of the next president. The main political party families in the European Union, such as the European People’s Party and the Socialists and Democrats, have already chosen their leading candidates for 2019. But the Spitzerkandidat process is based on an informal agreement between governments and is therefore not written in any EU treaties. EU members are not legally obligated to use the system again this year, and they could instead demand that the next commission president be appointed through qualified majority voting, which is the formal process written in the treaties.
Since bigger parties are the only ones that can feasibly win the most seats in the EU parliament, the Spitzerkandidat system essentially bars independent parties from participating in the appointment of the commission president.
The likelihood of this happening depends partially on the European's elections in May, where several of the bloc's larger, independent parties will compete — most notably, French President Emmanuel Macron's party, La Republique en Marche! (Republic on the Move!). While most national political parties belong to bigger European political families, some parties choose to run independently. And since bigger parties are the only ones that can feasibly win the most seats in the EU parliament, the Spitzerkandidat system essentially bars independent parties from participating in the appointment of the commission president. France’s ruling Republic on the Move! party is negotiating with like-minded independent parties to form a group in parliament, but Paris could decide that the current system goes against its interests and call for the return of qualified majority voting. In addition, the likely fragmentation of the European Parliament could also threaten the legitimacy of the Spitzerkandidat system, since a legislature where no one party has a clear majority would just give more ammunition to critics of the mechanism.
In any case, the EU governments will have to make a decision on the next commission president later this year — making for a fiery debate among member states after the elections in May. The fact that a new commission will be appointed by the end of the year also means that most meaningful policy decisions at the EU level will be postponed. France and Germany, for example, recently presented proposals to reform the European Union’s antitrust legislation, but admitted little will happen before the new European Commission is appointed. Decisions on other topics, such as the introduction of a common deposit guarantee for eurozone banks or the creation of a separate budget for the eurozone, may also be delayed until EU governments and institutions have a clearer view of what the new balance of power in the bloc looks like.
In theory, elections for the European Parliament should focus exclusively on issues concerning the entire bloc. In practice, however, the campaigns often focus on domestic politics, with voters using the elections to either punish or reward their national governments.
France, in particular, could be significantly impacted by the vote in May. Macron’s popularity is low, and the country has been plagued by street protests for months. The parliamentary elections are expected to be a close race between Republic on the Move! and the right-wing National Rally. And while Paris still plans to move ahead with its ideas for economic and institutional reform, it may decide to postpone some of the most controversial reforms, such as changes to the pensions system, until after the European elections. A worse-than-expected performance by Macron's party would force the French government to reassess its entire political strategy — opening the door for Cabinet reshuffles or even more drastic measures, such as an early legislative election.
Due to its economic fragility, Italy is another country where the upcoming elections could have serious consequences. The country is in a recession, raising questions about the sustainability of Rome’s spending plans for 2019. But the Italian government is unlikely to make any meaningful policy changes before the European elections, which means that markets could get increasingly anxious about the country's fiscal future. Italy’s governing parties will also compete against each other for seats in the European Parliament. The right-wing League is polling above the populist Five Star Movement. If the League has a good performance in May, it could tempt the party to withdraw from the coalition and force an early general election to win more seats, adding to the mounting uncertainty about Italy's future.
Meanwhile, in Germany, the two ruling parties will use the results of the EU Parliament vote to gauge their political strategies as well. The country is governed by a coalition between the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). But after almost a decade and a half of sharing power, both parties are now seeking to redefine their identities. The CDU recently announced a tougher line on immigration to appeal to conservative voters, while the SPD just unveiled plans to redesign the country's market-friendly labor reforms of the early 2000s to attract left-wing voters. Over time, these moves by the CDU and SPD to differentiate themselves could make it harder for the parties to continue working together.
In addition, the European Parliament vote will coincide with many countries' municipal, regional and federal elections. Belgium, for example, will hold both federal and regional elections, Spain will hold elections for 13 of its 17 autonomous regions, and Germany will hold one regional election and nine municipal elections. As a result, parties across the bloc will be competing across multiple elections for multiple positions, meaning the political environment in several EU countries will be significantly altered after May 26.
A High-Stakes Election
Elections for the European Parliament were once a relatively secondary event since the institution's formal role on Continental and global affairs is not as visible as those of the European Commission or the European Council. But with Brexit looming, nationalism on the rise and several of the largest EU member states now facing political and economic turmoil, the timing of this year's election will make it one of the most important political events in Europe, carrying with it long-term repercussions that will be felt in the second half of 2019 and beyond.