Europe Voted: Anti-EU And Protest Parties Take Nearly A Third Of All Europarliament Seats

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For those pressed for time, here is the one-chart post-mortem of what happened in yesterday's elections for European Parliament: the malcontents block, or the anti-EU and protest parties, soar and now control nearly a third of all seats, up nearly by 33% from a fifth currently, in the parliament they all predominantly loathe.

And for everyone else, here is the full analysis of the results courtesy of Open Europe.

Open Europe Flash Analysis

Anti-EU and protest parties across Europe on course to win almost a third of all seats in new European Parliament

Open Europe has today responded to the preliminary 2014 European Parliament elections results. Please note that these figures are based on a combination of final results and some projections so could still be subject to change. However, we do not consider any substantial swings likely. 

Open Europe Director Mats Persson said:

“The rise of anti-EU and protest parties on the left and right will make European politics more unpredictable but, paradoxically, it could also strengthen the resolve of the three mainstream groups to continue to vote for more Europe in the European Parliament, in order to freeze out the anti-EU contingent.”  

“The temptation in Brussels and national capitals will be to view this as the peak of anti-EU sentiment as the eurozone crisis calms down and the economy improves. This would be a huge gamble. The make-up and reasons for the rise of these parties are complex, but it’s clear that the best way to cut off their oxygen is to show that the EU can reform itself and respond to voters. These elections are a clear warning: offer voters a polarised choice between more Europe and no Europe and sooner or later they will choose the latter.”

“David Cameron now faces a seriously tricky week. He has two main challenges. First, he will try to muster enough allies to block Jean-Claude Juncker, the front-runner for European Commission President, although it’s not looking overly promising. Second, he faces the dilemma of aligning himself with more nationalist parties to secure his party’s standing in the EP, which comes with the risk of alienating his natural allies on the centre-right who will be crucial in his bid to achieve EU reform.”

“Domestically, the strong anti-incumbency showing could strengthen the legitimacy of many of these parties. In many countries, voting for an anti-establishment party in the European elections serves as a gateway drug – it crosses a border that allows you to vote for them in a national election as well.”

Key points:

  • Share of anti-EU and anti-establishment vote is slightly higher than expected with such parties collectively on course to win 229 out of 751 seats in the new European Parliament (30.5%), up from 164 out of 766 seats in the current parliament (21.4%).
  • European Parliament politics are set to become more unpredictable though the anti-EU and anti-establishment block remains incoherent and the two main groups will continue to dominate.
  • The share of MEPs dedicated to free market policies drops, from 32% to 28.1%.
  • Compared to 2009, overall turnout stayed flat despite more powers for MEPs in the Lisbon Treaty and the EU becoming a high-profile issue in the wake of the Eurozone crisis.
  • Several anti-incumbent parties in the EP for the first time, ranging from Feminist Initiative in Sweden to Spain’s new leftist movement Podemos, founded as late as March 2014.

Below is the European Parliament’s own projected make-up of the political groups - we expect no major changes.

1. Turnout remains low

Across the EU, average turnout is projected at 43.09% – up from 43% in 2009. Turnout was highest in Luxembourg and Belgium at 90% (where voting is compulsory) and lowest in Slovakia at 13%. These were the first European elections since the Lisbon Treaty, which gave MEPs another batch of new powers. In addition to the Eurozone crisis making the EU a front page issue, we should have expected an increase in voters’ interest. Though technically reversing the trend of declining turnout, this still doesn’t inspire confidence in pan-European democracy. 

2. Surge in anti-EU vote in several countries

The table outlines how well the various parties that occupy the populist, anti-establishment, anti-EU and/or anti-immigration vote in several countries did. Note that we do not claim that these parties can be lumped together – in many cases they are very different. However, it’s still a barometer of dissatisfaction in these countries and across Europe.

Below is a table showing the performance of a number of left-wing, anti-austerity and alternative parties:

In terms of the most notable results, Marine Le Pen's Front National achieved a clear victory with around 25%, exceeding most expectations. In Denmark, the strongly EU-critical Danish People's Party won the elections with about 26.7% of the vote.  In Greece, the anti-austerity SYRIZA – that, it should be noted, does not advocate withdrawal from the EU or euro, came top with 26.5% of the vote, while the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn came third with 9.4% of votes.

However, in some countries insurgent parties did less well than expected; in Finland, the (True) Finns only scored 12.9% compared to the over 20% they were polling in the run-up, while in Italy, Beppe Grillo’s 5 Star Movement also underperformed as the governing centre-left PD party unexpectedly surged to around 40% (although Grillo still came second on 21.2%). Some of these parties even lost support such as Belgium’s Vlaams Balang – down from 9.85% in 2009 to around 4.31%.

In Germany, despite easily coming top overall, the CDU and CSU performed relatively poorly by its recent standards, while the SPD enjoyed its best result for a long time. However, the anti-euro AfD looks set to win 7 MEPs and, due to the Constitutional Court ruling to drop the 3% threshold in Germany, a number of smaller parties have won seats including the neo-Nazi NPD.

In Spain, the result has dealt a blow to the country’s traditional two-party system. Together, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s Partido Popular (PP) and the opposition Socialist Party (PSOE) won 80.9% in 2009. Yesterday, their combined score was 49.06%. Interestingly, a new leftist movement called Podemos (We Can) – officially established only two months ago – came from nowhere to win almost 8% of the vote and secure five seats in the next European Parliament.

3. Reformers risk getting crowded out  

Using the same criteria employed in our pre-election briefing[1], we have divided these parties into several different groups consisting of a ‘Malcontents block’, ‘Critical Reformers’, and parties that overwhelmingly back the status quo or further integration.

While this looks like an impressive amount, these parties are not a coherent group, ranging from parties with experience of government through to fringe protest parties to outright neo-fascists. They also have widely differing views on a range of issues such as the eurozone, immigration and economic issues. As such, these parties will struggle to work together to put forward an alternative agenda for the European parliament, although they could well club together on certain issues such seeking to block the EU-US free trade agreement.

In order to distinguish between the ‘Malcontents Block’ and parties that reject the status quo but have a constructive reform agenda, Open Europe also included a distinct ‘critical reformers’ category which contains the bulk of the Conservative MEPs, alongside parties like the Dutch VVD and the German CSU. This block has been squeezed by the Malcontents’ block on one side and the status quo/more integrationist parties on the other.

We also estimate that the share of MEPs explicitly committed to free trade in the next parliament will fall to 28.1% compared with 32% in the current parliament while the share of MEPs hostile to free trade will increase to 23.8% compared with 23% at present. This means that the success or otherwise of free trade agreements will depend on the key block of ‘swing voters’ which will go up to 47.9% compared to 46% at present.

Despite the substantial increase in support for the parties making up the ‘Malcontents’ Block’, this needs to be kept in the context of the low turnout. When looking at their vote share among the whole eligible electorate, this looks less impressive. However, the low turnout also underlines that the European Parliament has failed to capture the public’s imagination.

4. Expect a major scramble to extend and secure political groups

To maintain or create a political group in the European Parliament – which gives individual parties access to important positions and more money – requires 25 MEPs from at least 7 countries.

All eyes will be on whether Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders will be successful in establishing a new far-right group. A set-back for this potential group was the very poor showing by Vlaams Belang and the failure of the Slovak National Party to win any seats. This leaves the new ‘Alliance for Freedom’ group one member state short for the time being.

David Cameron’s European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) will survive but looks set to lose MEPs. To extend the group, the big question is whether Cameron will reach out to more nationalist parties, including the Danish People’s Party that could offer 4 new MEPs, AfD that could potentially offer 7 MEPs, and the Finns Party which could offer 2. The trade-off is that this could potentially alienate possible reform allies on the liberal centre-right.

5. Race for Commission President: Juncker the front runner

The proposed Spitzenkandidaten or European Parliamentary families’ candidates for European Commission President – the centre-right EPP’s Jean-Claude Juncker and the centre-left Socialists’ Martin Schulz – are set to make the post-election horse-trading and politicking more fraught than usual. EU leaders retain the power to propose an alternative candidate, but the European Parliament’s veto over the appointment could lead to a stand-off and protracted negotiations.

The centre-right EPP’s victory in the elections means that the next Commission President will have to come from this side of the political spectrum. The European Parliament will demand that the EPP’s lead candidate, former Luxembourg PM Jean-Claude Juncker, is selected. EU leaders, with the strong support of the UK, are likely to try to pick their own alternative candidate.

Senior German politicians including the CDU’s David McAllister, a close Merkel ally, another senior figure in the CDU Volker Kauder and the SPD Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel have all said that the most popular candidate in the European Parliament should become Commission President. This will put Merkel under pressure to go for Juncker, with Germany likely to be crucial in determining the outcome.

Next steps:

Tuesday 27 May: The spitzenkandidaten will meet and put pressure on EU leaders to pick Juncker, although Martin Schulz could yet try to cobble together an alternative majority within the parliament.

EU leaders meet for dinner – leaders will try to avoid discussing individual candidates but could agree amongst themselves on the process for selecting the Commission President. They may argue they cannot negotiate with MEPs until the exact make-up of the new parliament is known (probably by mid-June).

Mid-June: Exact make-up of party groups in the new European Parliament will be clearer.

26-27 June – summit of EU leaders who are likely to propose their candidate. Centre-right alternatives to Juncker could include Finnish PM Jyrki Katainen, Polish PM Donald Tusk, or Irish PM Enda Kenny.

14-17 July: Parliament decides whether to elect or reject EU leaders’ proposed candidate for Commission President by a majority vote of MEPs. Should EU leaders’ candidate be rejected, EU leaders have one month to propose a new candidate.

Mid-July: potentially another summit of EU leaders in attempt to reach compromise with European Parliament.

6. What does it mean for Cameron?

The new European Parliament will be crucial in determining whether David Cameron can achieve many of the key planks of his renegotiation strategy. The new parliament has the potential to block reforms to EU migrants’ access to welfare benefits, an ambitious free trade agreement with the US, and efforts to reduce EU red tape for businesses.

The results are a double-edged sword for Cameron. On the one hand, the result itself may, paradoxically, make the EP more integrationist by crowding out the reformers in the middle. At the same time, the surge in the anti-EU vote in some countries may serve as a wake-up call for EU leaders: if not reform, voters may soon vote out the baby with the bathwater.