Last weekend, over 400 million European citizens took to the ballot boxes to choose the make-up of the next European Parliament, and indirectly influence the direction the European Union should follow over the next five years. The elections unsurprisingly ended up without a clear winner, despite the centre-right EPP holding the plurality of the votes. As largely predicted, the new Parliament will be highly fragmented, and will experience the end of the longstanding “governing majority” of the centre-right EPP and the centre-left S&D. This grand accord built on the image of the German “Große Koalition” is no longer going to be commonplace in Brussels. The struggle of the traditional parties, hesitating between sticking to the governing centre or leaning towards a more radical path, is moving up from the capitals to the EU level. Historical political families appear to be losing ground, and new players, although sitting on opposite sides, are looking to occupy more space.
The populists’ electoral score was smaller than expected, but they did well in France, Italy and the UK. The populist parties built their election campaign around their idea of Europe – less bureaucratic, less ambitious, with nations regaining their lost sovereignty from Brussels. Delivering this “other Europe” will be easier said than done because the well-oiled Brussels machine is very complex to navigate. But most importantly because rather than offering a constructive idea, the populists are rallying around a divisive agenda, which is expected to tear them apart in the same way they are aiming to divide Europe. Despite the unified front and rhetoric, Mr Salvini and Ms Le Pen have very little in common other than their own national ambitions. Ruling over Europe on these grounds is likely to prove an impossible task.
A second camp will gather around French President Emmanuel Macron. Although struggling at home, he will come to Brussels as Europe’s only hope for, what he calls, a European “Renaissance”. His ambition could burn his wings and leave him with few allies. Germany, with the end of the Merkel era looming, seems more focussed on domestic issues rather than on greater European engagement. Northern countries are gearing up to occupy the political space soon to be left by the UK and resist French hegemony. With perhaps the Iberian peninsula as France’s only potential allies, the Macronian idea of Europe will continue to face headwinds.
All this will happen with Brexit still looming. European leaders already made clear that the time has come for the EU to move on from Brexit. Whoever leads Her Majesty’s Government after Theresa May is likely to come up against the same difficulties. Political turmoil in London can perhaps lead to further complicated delays to the Article 50 process, but it is unlikely to bring any substantive change to the EU negotiation tactics.
In 2020, the EU will celebrate 70 years of the 1950 Schuman Declaration. Its leaders will have to decide where its future will lie. The political bargaining to secure the EU top positions, with a difficult balance to be found between nationalities, political affiliations and gender, has already begun. It is soon to tell where this game of musical chairs will end up, and who will be in charge of carrying Europe forward. But this weekend’s higher electoral turnout shows that, while often seen as a declining or a divisive project, the European Union is still alive, and will continue to shape European democracies.
Jonathan Faull is Partner and Chair of European Public Affairs at Brunswick Group. He has been Chair of European Public Affairs at the Brunswick Group since 2017. He previously spent 38 years at the European Commission in a variety of functions. He worked for many years in the Directorate General of Competition, from the starting grade to Deputy Director General. From 1989 to 1992 he worked in the cabinet (private office) of the competition Commissioner (Leon Brittan). He was the Commission’s Spokesman and Director General of Press and Communication (1999-2003), Director General of Justice and Home Affairs (2003-2010), Director General of Internal Market and Services, later called Financial Stability, Financial Services and Capital Markets Union (2010-2015) and Director General of the Task Force on the British referendum on membership of the EU (2015-2016). He is the author of many articles on European law and policy, co-editor of a leading work on European Competition Law and holds a number of academic and other appointments.