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Political Analysis
Europe's Path forward: Steady Leaders, New Horizons

Author: Dr. Thomas Leeb

The recent EU parliamentary elections have resulted in a clear victory for the European People’s Party (EPP). These results suggest a likely continuation of the partially unstable informal centre-left to centre-right coalition over the next five years. Although populist and nationalist right-wing parties have gained more seats, a strong united far-right alliance remains unlikely. Both Parliament and the new Commission face significant political challenges in the years ahead.

Philippe BUISSIN; European Union 2024 - Source : EP; https://multimedia.europarl.europa.eu/en/photo/european-elections-night-2024_20240609_EP-169765A_PB9_EG_31

Back in Brussels: Reviewing the election results and main trends

Only days after the European Parliamentary elections, Brussels has gone back to normal: Newly elected and re-elected parliamentarians from  the 27 EU Member States have come back to Brussels after  weeks of  campaigning in their respective constituencies. The first political group meetings spanning from the left to the far right of the political spectrum are now underway. In the first plenary session from July  16-19, posts will be allocated, parliamentary committees formed and the prestigious parliamentary top positions, including the new President, its many deputies and the chief administrators, the so-called quaestors, decided.

While things are slowly falling into place and the new Parliament of 720 members takes shape, one could  feel reminded of the European soccer transfer market. This picture seems particularly fitting  for the approximately  100 non-aligned or independent MEPs who might consider joining one or another political group, to increase their political weight in Parliament.

Provided by Verian for the European Parliament

But overall the playing field is already clearly divided up between the major political forces, and there is good reason to believe that the informal coalition of the three centre-left to right parties supporting the outgoing von der Leyen Commission will hold and be continued.

True, the heterogeneous Liberals (Renew) lost about a fifth of their seats, dropping to 80, while the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) decreased slightly to 136 seats. But the strongest centre party, the EPP led by Manfred Weber, gained even more seats, maintaining its position as strongest parliamentary group with  190 seats (at the time of publication). This means that nothing significant will happen in this Parliament without the EPP’s consent. Together the three centre parties command roughly 400 seats, which  amounts to a comfortable majority on paper. However, in contrast to national parliaments, majorities in the European Parliament are often unpredictable since national interests often diverge, even within parliamentary groups, then strongly affecting the outcome of  important votes.

Populist European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR) (with its most prominent member party Fratelli d'Italia, led by Prime Minister Meloni) and extreme right nationalist Identity and Democracy Group (ID) (including Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National) gained a combined 1, 9 percent and now hold approximately 18 percent of the seats – pooled with non-affiliated groups like Victor Orbans Fidesz or Germany’s AfD this amounts to some 25 percent, reflecting a pan-European voter trend. Still, they won’t shake the European Parliament in its foundations due to the strong democratic centre parties. And indeed, these two rightist parliamentary groups had already held about 17 percent of seats in 2019, so, if there is a real rightward shift of the whole Parliament is questionable. However, on traditional conservative centre-right topics such as migration or defence, there may be occasional cooperation with pro-European, pro-NATO ECR members, expanding the EPP’s scope of possible intermittent or selective cooperation to its right. 

Europe’s new Leadership – The Commission Presidency

The upcoming weeks until the summer break starting by end of July will be critical for Europe’s ability to act. Decisions not only on the composition of parliamentary committees with their chairs, or the Parliament’s presidency (possibly shared again between EPP and Socialists for alternating two and 1/2–year terms), but also on the future EU-leadership, particularly the Commission presidency are imminent. Incumbent President Ursula von der Leyen, who, five years ago, only narrowly secured her position by a margin of nine votes, now seems the natural choice. This time she stood as the EPPs leading candidate – unlike five years ago when she was the compromise candidate of the European Council, bypassing leading candidate Manfred Weber from the victorious EPP.

Campaign themes and political programmes

In the past weeks von der Leyen actively engaged in campaigning across Europe while at the same time fulfilling her duties as Commission president. She presented a clear-cut program reflecting the EPP’s priorities and focused her campaign on young voters. Her main themes were “Prosperity” – a Union that is internationally competitive,  creating prosperity and sustainable growth; “Security” – a Union that controls migration and defends itself against external aggression; and, finally, “Democracy” – a Union that  promotes democratic values, embodying the European way of life.

The Green Deal, the flagship project of her first term, was notably absent from her key messages. Clearly, this shift can be seen as a response to a radically changed economic environment:  While Europe in 2019 could afford a drastic reform programme of green economic transformation because of its growth trajectory –  internationally competitive, with low interest rates, profiting from cheap energy from Russia – today’s economic outlook is rather bleak. Therefore, the new von der Leyen Commission  is expected to adopt a more economically oriented programme, with reduced regulations, bureaucracy and reporting standards for small and medium-size enterprises and agriculture.

The Commission president will most likely be proposed by a majority of the heads of government and state at the European Council at the end of June, and will need to be confirmed by the Parliament with at least 361 votes either in July or –  less likely – in September. After this decision, the College of Commissioners will be selected through a negotiation process between Member States and the new Commission president, and will then either be accepted or rejected in the ensuing parliamentary hearings. This process will take several weeks, and the new Commission is expected to take office by the end of the year.

Outlook on Europe’s future

Both the new Commission and Parliament will face significant tasks, such as negotiations on the upcoming EU-Budget, the new Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), EU-enlargement and necessary institutional reforms, strengthening of defence cooperation and economic competitiveness. In order to achieving these goals the approval of the often-divided European Council, in short the 27 Member States, is imperative. Even if this looks inconceivable – in the end, there is no alternative to further integration if Europe wants to remain relevant on a worldwide scale.

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Editorial office: Global Perspectives
Editorial office:  Global Perspectives