There is no populist right anti-EU surge. Voting participation increased. The old centre-right and centre-left in the European Parliament declined but the centre holds with a stronger role for Greens and Liberals. The European Union is not anti-democratic and does not impose its will on member states. Its decision-making is complex, but that is to achieve consensus, not to eliminate democracy. The EU and the Euro currency are more popular. At least for the moment, the EU’s institutions, democracy, and projects are strengthened.
Elections for the European Parliament (the Parliament of European Union) the took place between 23rd and the 26th of May this year. The official results can be found here. The turn out was the highest since 1994 at 51%. This is higher than for the US Congressional Elections of last year, though that was the highest turnout in an ‘off year’ (a year in which the President is not up for election) for over a century. There is no equivalent figure to the President of the United States in the European Union. Roughly speaking the US President is equivalent to a combination of the President of the European Commission and the President of the European Council, neither of which are directly elected, and have a tiny bureaucracy compared with the machine of the United states federal government, at their service. There is no reason then for European Union elections to generate as much voter participation as US elections when the President is elected. Even so, such elections in the United States have only generated marginally more participation than EP elections, 55.5% in the 2016 election. It seems reasonable to conclude that the European Parliament has had some success in establishing itself as a representative institution, even compared with an elected body as old as the Congress of the United States.
Political Groups in the European Parliament
The European Parliament is mostly composed of Members (MEPs) who sit in transnational political groupings, which usually have a transnational party, essentially serving as a framework for co-operation between national parties. The political groups in the European Parliament are prone to change in their political boundaries and composition, but the four biggest groups have existed in a mostly stable way over multiple elections. They are:
- European People’s Party (EPP, also referred to as Christian Democrats, centre-right),
- Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D, often referred to as the Socialists, centre left),
- Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE, also known as the Liberals, containing classical liberals, left liberals, various moderates and centrists),
- Greens/European Free Alliance (G/EFA, often referred to as the Greens, left leaning environmentalists plus leftwing regionalists).
The other groups, which have been less stable so far or have not existed for very long are:
- European United Left-Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL, left socialists, communists and left-wing greens),
- European Conservatives and Reformists (Eurosceptic right),
- Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD, Eurosceptic right and centrists),
- Europe of Nations and Freedom (EFN, nationalist right).
I take results from here, focusing on percentage of seats as the easiest way to understand the proportional support of these groups both within the EP and the EU electorate. It makes comparison with the last Parliament (elected in 2014) easier as the number of seats has slightly increased (from 749 to 751) and most importantly because defections, expulsions and reconstruction within and across groups means that a comparison with the seats for political groupings of the 2014 parliament at the end of its term is easiest. Percentage of seats in the outgoing EP in brackets.
- EPP 23.83 (28.84)
- S&D 20.37 (24.70)
- ALDE 13.98 (9.21)
(This result relies on assuming Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance list in France and and the Save Romania Union will join ALDE though this has not been confirmed. It does seem overwhelmingly likely. )
- G/EFA 9.85 (6.94)
- ECR 8.39 (10.28)
- ENF 7.72 (4.81)
- EFDD 7.19 (5.61)
- GUE/NGL 5.06 (6.94)
(the remainder is composed of non-aligned MEPs)
Stories and Trends
The big story in the build up to the election was whether there would be a populist right/eurosceptic breakthrough. The political groups that could be classified as such are ECR, ENF and EFDD. Their total at the end of the 2014 Parliament was 20.7%. Their total now is 23.3%. There was a swing in this direction, but only of 2.6% of seats which is a good deal less than a breakthrough. It is a long way short of the 30% which might have enabled them, presuming they could co-ordinate, to block the EP from progress in the wrong direction, from its point of view, though the way committee memberships and chairs are distributed. GUE/NGL is sometimes classified as left populist/eurosceptic, though it contains a variety of views. It fell back and if we add it to the right-wing eurosceptic seats, we still only get a total of 28.9%. There is little prospect of the right-wing groups co-ordinating closely and none at at all of close co-ordination of these three plus GUE-NGL.
The big story as the results came in was less the right-wing eurosceptic swing than the swing within the groups which support the EU with as much power as it has now, or movement towards more EU powers.
There was a notable shift from EPP and S&D to ALDE and G/EFA, so from the centre-right and centre-left to the liberal centre, greens, and regionalists.
Generally speaking the EPP has moved from previous domination by a grand coalition of EPP and S&D to a more fragmented or pluralist situation in which a centre ground, pro-EU middle ground requires ALDE for a majority and is also likely to bring in G/EFA, with the place of the Eurosceptic right consolidated.
The Liberal swing is largely based on Liberal Democrat success in the UK and the new Macronist list in France. The Green swing is based in northwestern Europe. S&D remain comparatively strong in Spain and Portugal, with a good result in the Netherlands. ENF is dominated by the League in Italy and the National Rally in France. ECR is dominated by PIS in Poland.
Traditional centre-right and centre-left parties had very bad results in France and the UK. The radical and populist left has fallen back, particularly in France, Spain, Greece, and Ireland.
Despite what some reporting might lead you to believe, hard Brexit did not win in the UK and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally did not have a big success in France. The Brexit Party was the single most popular party in Britain, but even if its vote is combined with the United Kingdom Independence Party (from where its leader Nigel Farage came from), the no-deal hard Brexit vote (33.8%) was distinctly less than the combined vote for second referendum and remain supporting parties (39.8%): Liberal Democrats, Greens, Change UK, Welsh and Scottish Nationalists, Alliance Party (Liberal Democrat partners in Northern Ireland). The European trend for the traditional centre-right and centre-left to collapse was heightened by the inability of both the Labour and Conservative parties to find a clear direction on Brexit and achieve internal unity on the issue. UK participation in the election was the result of the failure of the pro-Brexit Conservative government to find a Brexit policy with majority support in the UK Parliament.
In France, despite transforming the National Front into the National rally with the aim of broadening support, Marine Le Pen lost ground compared with the 2014 European election. National Rally was slightly ahead of Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance list, but given Le Pen has not increased her base and given that Macron is clearly ahead of all non Le Pen forces, it is likely that the next Presidential election in France will be between Le Pen and Macron again, with another victory for Macron.
Democracy, Law, and Bureaucracy in the European Union
Two ideas circulate widely about the European Union that cannot both be true, though the same people often state both. 1. The EU Parliament has no power. 2. The European Union imposes over-regulation and bureaucratisation on member states to an oppressive degree. As the European Parliament’s main role is as co-legislator in matters of regulation, it is a major actor in this issue. It co-legislates on regulation with the European Council, an assembly of government ministers from member states varying according to the policy area in question.
The European Council and the European Parliament act under the direction of the Council of the European Union, which is composed of heads of governments of member states and the heads of EU institutions. The European Commission drafts legislation. It has the sole power to initiate legislation, but only under the direction of the Council of the EU and with the agreement of Parliament and the European Council.
Despite what is frequently assumed, the Commission is not an oligarchy of unaccountable permanent civil servants commanding a vast expensive, complex bureaucracy. The Commission is nominated by member states and is very largely, if not entirely, composed of commissioners who have been elected politicians at a senior level and not civil servants. The Commission has to be confirmed by the Parliament which can also forced the Commission to resign. The Commission did resign in 1999 before the Parliament could force it to do so. The Parliament has the right to suggest legislation to the Commission, and since it can sack the Commission, it cannot be ignored. The bureaucracy of the Commission is no greater in numbers than the larger units of local and municipal government in the UK.
The EU structure of decision making is complex and indirect. It is not anti-democratic rule by bureaucrats. Laws and decisions are made by bodies which are either directly elected by the citizens of the European Union or are made up of members of elected governments. The Commission can only exist through the will of elected member state governments and the Parliament. The President of the Commission tends to be the public face of the European Union, though recently that has been shared with the President of the Council of the EU. This public role tends to create confusion and exaggerated ideas about the power of the Commission. Though in EU thinking, the Commission is the civil service of the Union, it also a political body appointed to guard the treaties that have constituted the EU. The role of defending agreed basic law is not obviously an anti-democratic conspiracy, it is surely part of a stability of law necessary to the functioning of any political institution. Clearer lines of decision making would be preferable in some respects, but is difficult to achieve so long as the EU operates on a consensus between member states.
Those who are most hostile to the idea of a fully federalised European Union with strong decision making powers are also those most likely to claim that the EU is a bureaucratised conspiracy against member states, lacking clear and direct lines of political decision making. Decisive decision making by directly elected bodies would go beyond what is politically feasible now or in any feasible future. Such clear decision making would require a far far larger bureaucracy and much more intervention in member states. The EU works by consensus between member states and institutions. Unfortunately at any one time it tends to suit some people to claim that the EU is a conspiracy against member states, or a member state supposedly under siege from other members state, or the Commission turned into some monstrosity of unaccountable power which has no basis in reality.
I would certainly welcome less enthusiasm for regulating from above in the European Parliament and other institutions. The drive to the administrative and regulatory state long precedes the European Union and is a universal phenomenon across the globe of the last two centuries. There is no reason to think the member states of the EU would be less regulatory outside the Union. By creating common regulation, the EU at least ensures that regulation does not impede continent wide trade.
The EU does things to promote trade that no existing free trade agreement has ever done. It has uniquely achieved a single market in services and human capital (that is labour), as well as goods, over a continent, over hundreds of millions of people. The creation of regulation at the EU level is a necessary aspect of this, which still leaves considerable scope for countries to have a relatively less statist approach, with a wide variety within member states regarding the scope of the state in the economy. This can be confirmed by careful examination of the Cato Institute’s Human Freedom Index.
The Political State of the European Union
Despite fears and hopes of a eurosceptic ‘populist’ right surge in the European Union leading to its weakening and possible disintegration, these political forces have stabilised at less than one-quarter elected seats in the EP. Support for the European Union and for the Euro currency (frequently pronounced dead in the past by sceptics) has increased in recent years. The continuing political confusion regarding Brexit in the UK has discredited claims about the benefits of leaving and have made it increasingly uncertain that the UK will leave.
Participation in European level voting has increased. The EU has been strengthened in credibility in recent years. Donald Trump’s enthusiasm for trade wars, and bypassing the World Trade Organisation, has undermined claims that the UK could seek a place in the world after Brexit based on free trade with the US. An EU trade agreement with Japan soon after Trump pulled the US out of the Trans Pacific Trade Partnership, which includes Japan, has undermined the idea that the UK would be better off outside the EU in pursuing world trade. Trumps’s tolerance (along with Congress) of an ever increasing federal deficit in the US looks highly imprudent compared with the fiscal prudence imposed by Euro currency institutions and regulations.
Not everything is great about the EU, there are certainly some things the US does better with regard to innovation and regulation, but the EU is increasingly popular and and weakening or breakup would weaken a single market under a unified, predictable regulatory regime. The concentration of powers in national governments is not advantageous to liberty, as the Framers of the US Constitution recognised when they turned thirteen ex-colonies in a loose confederation into components of a Federation based on balance of powers and consensual decision making across institutions.