From the 23 May to the 26 May, 2019, members of the next European Parliament will be elected. That much is certain. But this election is more than usually uncertain. Traditional parties look weak; many well-known figures will retire, to be replaced by new faces; and we are not even completely certain which countries will participate.
That last bit of uncertainty, of course, is due to Brexit. If the United Kingdom is still a member of the European Union on 1 July, the new Parliament’s first sitting day, then the new Parliament must include 73 British MEPs. It is not the most likely outcome of at the moment, but both a postponement of the Brexit date past 1 July and indeed a revocation of Britain’s decision to leave still remain distinct possibilities.
It is probably not worth spending too much time or energy on this scenario; but if there are British MEPs, the view is at the moment that they would need to be elected by British voters, at the same time as all the other MEPs; and they would hold their seats while the UK remains a member state, even if it is due to leave a few months after the election. So, it could be that the UK faces a European electoral contest in May.
The precedent, by the way, is a colourful character by the name of Finn Lynge. He was elected as the MEP for Greenland in 1979, on a platform of getting his home territory out of the then European Communities. Even though the Greenland Treaty, which set the terms and date of Greenland departure, had already been signed before the 1984 election, Greenland still needed to have an MEP for its last few months, and Finn Lynge was re-elected (by all of 7,364 votes to 4,241).
When and if Brexit does happen, a third of the British seats will be distributed around the other EU member states, to compensate for some of the current distortions in the allocation of MEPs between member states. To be precise, five extra seats go to Spain and France, three to Italy and the Netherlands, two to Ireland and one each to Poland, Romania, Sweden, Austria, Denmark, Slovakia, Finland, Croatia, and Estonia, the other thirteen remaining member states staying with their current representation. The other 46 seats will not be filled.
If the UK leaves after the election, these 27 seats will be held in reserve until the date of Brexit, and the people who would have been elected to them will just be on a waiting list. A similar adjustment to the number of MEPs was made in 2011 following the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty, when 18 new members from 12 member states were chosen from the runners-up in the 2009 elections.
Assuming that Brexit happens before 1 July, the new European Parliament will have 705 MEPs from 27 countries. There is a wealth of opinion poll data already available which helps us to predict the likely outcome. Both POLITICO and the European Parliament itself have aggregated this to make overall projections of the strength of each party group. They differ on details, but agree on the broad picture.
That picture is that the two largest parties, the centre-right European People’s Party and the centre-left Socialists and Democrats, are expected to lose around 100 seats between them, taking them down to around 170 and the mid-130s respectively. That will mean that between them, for the first time, they would not be able to create a majority in the European Parliament. The liberal ALDE group expects to come back at around the same strength (they currently hold 68 seats), but if they can make a deal with President Macron’s En Marche! party, that may take them into the 90s.
The right the ECR group will lose the British Conservatives and so probably will slip not only behind the Liberals but also behind the harder right Europe of Nations and Freedom, whose members include the French Rassemblement National, led by Marine Le Pen, and the Italian Lega Nord, led by Matteo Salvini.
Other fringe right-wing groups are also expecting to do well, though the departure of UKIP leaves a gap for the current EFDD group. On the left, the more hardline GUE/NGL group looks to hold steady, and the Greens look like they will slip a little.
Speaking at a conference I attended in Brussels last month, Simon Hix of the London School of Economics added some caveats to these projections. He finds that consistently, governing parties do worse in European Parliament elections than expected by opinion polls, where social democratic parties do even worse; small parties do better; and anti-European parties do better. Applying these caveats to the coming election, he expects the Liberals to end up roughly level-pegging with the Socialists and Democrats, on around 110 seats each.
That would all be pretty remarkable. It would certainly not add up to a convincing mandate for either of the two main Spitzenkandidaten, Manfred Weber of the EPP or Frans Timmermans from the left, who have been nominated as their respective parties’ choice for the next President of the European Commission. (The Liberals are not playing that game this time).
It would add up to a fragmented European Parliament, with up to 40% of the seats held by populist and/or Eurosceptic parties, where the political groups are more fragmented than they have ever been. A lot of the MEPs will be new; many of them, both new and old, will be more interested in political stunts and grandstanding than in legislating. Making the wheels turn in the system will be much harder work, for them and for all of us interested in the EU policy sphere. We live in interesting times.
Nicholas Whyte is Senior Director, Global Solutions at APCO Worldwide Brussels office and Visiting Professor at the Faculty of Social Science of Ulster University