What’s at Stake in the EU Elections?
from Europe Program

What’s at Stake in the EU Elections?

Members of the EU Parliament sit during a plenary session in Strasbourg, France.
Members of the EU Parliament sit during a plenary session in Strasbourg, France. Yves Herman/Reuters

The European Union’s governing bodies could see a significant shake-up as millions of voters head to the polls across the twenty-seven-member bloc, with consequences for transatlantic ties.

May 31, 2024 4:56 pm (EST)

Members of the EU Parliament sit during a plenary session in Strasbourg, France.
Members of the EU Parliament sit during a plenary session in Strasbourg, France. Yves Herman/Reuters
Article
Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

What are Europeans voting on?

Polls will be open across Europe on June 6-9 as voters from all twenty-seven European Union (EU) member states elect their representatives to the European Parliament. Nearly 373 million voters are eligible to elect the 720 lawmakers who will make up one of the EU’s three main institutions for the next five years. Each EU member state elects a slate of parliamentarians commensurate to its population size. Germany and France have the highest number of members of the European Parliament (MEPs), at ninety-six and eighty-one, respectively, and Cyprus, Luxembourg, and Malta have the least with six each.

More From Our Experts

The European Parliament alternates its meetings between Brussels, Belgium, and Strasbourg, France. MEPs are organized into political “families” comprising national-level parties with similar political orientations. The parliament has long been dominated by the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D). Five years ago, smaller groupings garnered more power, with the liberal, centrist Renew Europe and Greens/European Free Alliance groups and the Left in the European Parliament (GUE/NGL) both seeing an influx of seats. However, the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and populist, far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) are poised to increase their total number of seats by a significant number in the 2024 elections.

More on:

European Union

Elections and Voting

Ukraine

Italy

France

Low turnout has long plagued EU elections, which many voters view as “second order” elections—less important and impactful than national-level elections—underscoring the technocratic EU’s “democratic deficit.” Voter participation reached an all-time low of 42.6 percent in 2014 after decreasing every year since 1979. However, an uptick in 2019—voter turnout reached 50.7 percent—could indicate the beginning of an upward trend. If turnout in June is above 50 percent, it could be interpreted as a positive sign for the EU’s legitimacy and a signal that its citizens are becoming increasingly aware of the impact EU lawmakers have on their daily lives. If turnout reverts to the mean, however, it will highlight that a lot more work is needed to bring the EU closer to the people.

What do the opinion polls say?

Compared to the outgoing European Parliament, and according to seat projections by Politico, both EPP (with 170) and S&D (with 144) are on track to maintain roughly the same number of seats. Renew (with 76) and the Greens (with 41) stand to lose about 25 and 30 seats, respectively, to ECR and ID. Without a doubt, this would signify a marked shift to the right in the European Parliament, even though the three centrist forces would maintain a working majority of 390 seats.

The makeup of the European Parliament will be complicated, however, by the shifting alliances within and between the political groupings as they jostle for influence. That is especially the case on the right and the far right. Brothers of Italy, which is part of ECR, stands to gain a significant number of seats compared to 2019. This is the party of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who is looking to increase her influence in EU decision-making by either joining the EPP or seeking closer alignment with ID. The National Rally party of French lawmaker Marine Le Pen, recently decided to kick out the German far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party from the ID grouping after one of AfD’s leaders made outrageous remarks about the Nazi era. Le Pen is hoping to continue the process of “de-toxifying” her brand nationally and increase her impact on EU policymaking.

More From Our Experts

That said, efforts toward a major realignment on the far right will be complicated by the significant differences within and between both right-wing groups, especially when it comes to supporting Ukraine against Russia and the groups’ commitment to fundamental EU values. So, while adding up all far-right seats—including the ones from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, Germany’s AfD, and the Reconquest party of France’s firebrand populist Eric Zemmour, all parties that are currently unaffiliated with a political family—could well result in far-right groups winning a higher seat tally than the EPP, this wil be politically meaningless; the groups will not function as a cohesive faction because there are many more issues that divide than unite them.

What does this mean for the European Commission, Council, and Parliament?

One of the first tasks for the newly elected European Parliament will be to confirm the 27 members of the European Commission, including its presidency, a position currently held by Ursula von der Leyen. (The commission and the council constitute the EU’s executive.) Von der Leyen, who is the lead candidate for the EPP, is running for a second term. She is widely expected to get the nod from EU leaders serving on the European Council, as her center-right political family will almost certainly maintain the most seats in parliament.

More on:

European Union

Elections and Voting

Ukraine

Italy

France

This could happen as early as June 27-28, when the EU Council meets in Brussels; informal discussions will likely begin on the sidelines of the Group of Seven (G7) summit in Puglia, Italy, in mid-June. At the same time, EU leaders will choose a new president of the council, with the social democratic family expected to claim the post. The favorite to succeed Charles Michel is former Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa. The final significant post to be filled is that of EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, for which Estonia’s liberal Prime Minister Kaja Kallas is the favorite.

Von der Leyen is facing an uphill battle. Unlike the council president, the commission president needs to be confirmed by a majority of MEPs. For that to happen, von der Leyen’s EPP will need to form a coalition with at least two other groups in the parliament. While a continuation of the current pact would seem straightforward, not all MEPs of the EPP, Renew Europe, and S&D are expected to support von der Leyen in what is a secret ballot. Indeed, in the previous elections, in 2019, von der Leyen had only nine votes to spare. Back then, she needed the support of the eleven MEPs from Orbán’s Fidesz party, which has since been kicked out of the EPP. This time around, she could be forced to rely on votes from Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, but both S&D and Renew Europe have made it clear that they will not support Von der Leyen’s candidacy if she makes a deal with the Italian far right.

Parliament’s vote for the European Commission president will take place in mid-September. (Hence, von der Leyen will probably have to forego a long European holiday. Instead, a busy summer of lobbying awaits.) The president-elect will be tasked with forming a new commission. This exercise could prove just as hard as winning the presidency, if not harder, as national governments each get to propose one commissioner. The newly installed commission will skew to the right or far-right, as there are very few social democratic leaders left in the EU (Denmark, Germany, and Spain are the exceptions). However, the commissioners will still need the votes of a more-centrist coalition to pass through the parliament. There will also be a serious debate on which commissioner gets which portfolio, with certain portfolios—such as competition, trade, internal market, environment, finance, and migration—being more powerful and important than others.

How could EU policy change after the June 2024 elections?

Europe is facing a daunting slate of challenges: an ongoing war in Ukraine, the need to transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy, and continued flows of illegal migration will all be priorities on the next parliament’s agenda. While the parliament is often considered the weakest of the EU’s three main institutions, significant changes to its makeup will impact what is included in EU policies and what legislation ultimately gets passed.

The outgoing parliament, led by a coalition between EPP, S&D, and Renew Europe, produced the historic European Green Deal, which lays out the goal of becoming climate neutral by 2050, and it has steered European efforts to support Ukraine against Russian aggression. A rightward shift in the parliament could push the EPP to ask for changes in the EU’s climate and agriculture policy (in part in response to ongoing farmers’ protests), lead to a harsher approach toward illegal immigration, and more skepticism towards free trade agreements. The outcome will also test the durability of the Western coalition that is backing Ukraine against Russian aggression. The question remains whether the EU can provide the lion’s share of military and economic aid to Ukraine in the case that no further U.S. aid will be forthcoming because Donald Trump is back in the White House in January 2025 (and assuming he would not have a change of heart on the matter).

Beyond day-to-day policy, the new European Parliament will have to cope with another triple challenge soon after entering office. The EU is in the process of undertaking comprehensive institutional reform to address enlargement needs and reduce bureaucracy, which is sure to be an arduous and contentious process. Additionally, several EU candidate countries—including Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Ukraine—are currently enacting far-reaching domestic reforms in pursuit of joining the union, and the EU needs to tread carefully in offering those candidates both carrots and sticks to move them along in that process. Lastly, the next budget, for the 2028–34 period, needs to be negotiated. The planning, negotiation, and passage of every seven-year budget is widely known to be one of the trickiest political exercises in Brussels. The makeup of the parliament and the commission will determine the direction, and ultimately the results, of these processes.

Why should Americans care?

Current EU Commission President von der Leyen and U.S. President Joe Biden have collaborated effectively on several issues. If both leaders are reelected in 2024, it could lead to an even closer alignment of the United States and the EU on issues including climate change, industrial policy, geopolitical competition with China and Russia, and the transformation of Europe’s security capabilities within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The failure of either of these leaders to be reelected could lead to much more discord in the transatlantic relationship. Under different leadership, the traditional Western allies would likely diverge on issues including energy and trade policy, and a joint China strategy, among other matters. Even the future of NATO could be in doubt.

Regardless of what happens in June, the EU should start preparing itself for life after Biden. As soon as January 2025, but definitely in January 2029, the EU will have a new dance partner, likely a U.S. president who will be a lot more focused on Asia and more transactional vis-à-vis Europe. With this change approaching, the EU needs to start making strategic autonomy less of a catchphrase and more of a reality. “Our Europe is mortal,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wrote in a joint Financial Times op-ed, “and we must rise to the challenge.” Ideally, Europe will be able to rise to the multiple challenges of the twenty-first century in close cooperation and coordination with the United States. But Europe will have to proceed with or without its traditional transatlantic ally and protector and show that it can stand on its own feet.

Creative Commons
Creative Commons: Some rights reserved.
Close
This work is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) License.
View License Detail
Close

Top Stories on CFR

 

NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)

The war in Ukraine marks a new era of instability in Europe. Countering Russia’s efforts will require a stronger, more coordinated NATO.

China

After the rise of Chinese power during the 2010s and failed U.S. policies in the Indo-Pacific, the United States should renew the Pivot to Asia and place the region at the center of its grand strategy.*