The Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade hosted a roundtable discussion on the results of the elections to the European Parliament on June 6, 2019. Nikolett Garai, Tamás Levente Molnár and Barnabás Szabó, all research fellows of our Institute, apart from drawing up general conclusions from the elections, gave detailed analysis of the results from the Visegrad countries, the Iberian Peninsula, the United Kingdom, Germany and Austria, and exchanged their views on the most important challenges facing the new legislature. The discussion was moderated by Dr. Máté Szalai, senior researcher of the Institute.
Nikolett Garai started by drawing attention to the rise in the participation in last May’s European elections as a positive tendency. Average participation level has been the highest in the EU since 1994, and as many as nine member states registered record participation. This tendency applied even to the Visegrad countries, although Slovakia reached once more the lowest level of participation, 22.74%. According to Ms. Garai, factors behind the increase in voters’ activity could have been linked to themes like migration, Brexit, the future of the EU or environmental protection, issues that helped parties to address voters more efficiently. According to Barnabás Szabó, the results of the European elections did not confirm expectations of overwhelming victories by Eurosceptic forces. While the two biggest parliamentary group in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialists&Democrats (S&D) lost a significant number of MEPs, their erosion is to be attributed mostly to the good performance by other traditional formations of the EP, the liberals (ALDE) and the Greens. In the assessment of Tamás Levente Molnár, the election results will have a significant impact on political dynamics inside the EU, as they project the end of the dominance of the two biggest groups, EPP and S&D for the first time since 1979. They will need the partnership of at least one more political group, most probably ALDE, for a parliamentary majority. A more fragmented European Parliament might become synonymous with increasingly difficult compromises and slower decision making. Selecting the new President of the European Commission and approving the EU’s next budget will put this to the test.
After a general assessment of the results of the European elections, the researchers went on to analyze the results in the regions of their expertise. Tamás Levente Molnár started by presenting the situation in Germany, where the parties of the governing coalition came out of the election with grave losses: the conservative Union parties and the Social Democrats (SPD) lost decreased their share in the votes by some 18% since 2014. According to poll data, voters left these parties mostly in favor of the Green Party, which came in first place in 9 out of the 10 biggest German cities. Anti-immigration AfD fared especially well in the Eastern states, increasing its votes by 4% since the previous European elections, and consequently becoming the other clear winner of the contest. European elections made an impact on domestic politics as well: SPD leader Andrea Nahles resigned from her position because of the party’s weak performance, casting doubt on the future of the grand coalition. Turbulent events had surfaced in Austria before the European elections as a consequence of “Ibizagate,” the ensuing scandal making its impact on the Austrian results. Former chancellor Sebastian Kurz can now face this fall’s national elections with confidence. His ÖVP increased its share in the votes by 8 percentage point since 2014, and the conservatives will send 7 MEPs to the the European Parliament. The FPÖ, Kurz’s former coalition partner provided something of a surprise by not collapsing as a result of its leader’s scandal; it only lost 2.5% compared to 2014. Other Austrian parties did not alter significantly their 2014 results.
Barnabás Szabó went on to point out the good results of leftwing parties in the two Iberian member states, Spain and Portugal. In Portugal, a low turnout (around 30%) produced results similar to the 2014 elections. The election campaign was largely used by the parties to prepare for the national parliamentary elections in the fall. In Spain, European elections were held on the same day as municipal, and, in some autonomous communities, regional parliamentary elections, which could be one factor behind the high turnout (more than 60%). These elections basically confirmed the results of the April 28 national parliamentary elections, acting Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s socialist party (PSOE) finishing in the lead. Podemos, the potential coalition partner in the next Sánchez government, fared rather poorly on May 26, which might alter its positions in the upcoming negotiations on forming a government. In Catalonia, results were atypical compared to the rest of the party, due to the significant share of the vote obtained by pro-independence formations. The European elections brought victory to former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont’s list, who currently lives in Belgium in order to avoid detention in Spain as a consequence of his protagonism in the 2017 independence referendum and declaration of independence in the Parliament of Catalonia. As such, despite having led his parties European list, it might result extremely complicated for him to get his official nomination as MEP from the King of Spain. Oriol Junqueras, president and lead MEP candidate of the leftwing republican pro-independence ERC party, which also had good results in both the municipal and the European elections, is in a similar situation, except he is currently in preventive detention in Spain. In the United Kingdom, the results show that the electorate attributed a “second Brexit referendum” function to the European elections: Nigel Farage’s new Brexit party, in combination with UKIP, another party formally led and currently made insignificant by Mr. Farage, won the most votes (35%), while categorically anti-Brexit parties (Lib Dems, Greens, SNP, etc.) cumulatively got around 40%. The remaining votes went to the seriously underperforming big parties, the governing Conservatives and the Labour Party. Mr. Szabó drew special attention to the fact that the anti-Brexit and pro-Scottish independence Scottish National Party obtained 3 out of the 6 Scottish European mandates, which made European elections a success for the SNP.
Nikolett Garai completed the picture with the presentation of the Czech, Polish and Slovak results. She observed that the general trends of the 2019 European elections have already been present in Czech politics for some time. Traditional right and leftwing centrist parties have started to lose ground before anti-establishment parties or political formations focusing on specific policy issues. Prime Minister Andrej Babiš’s ANO 2011 (a member of ALDE) won the elections as expected, obtaining 6 out of the 21 Czech European mandates. As a special feature of the Czech results, the local Pirate Party won its way to the EP for the first time with 3 MEPs. Meanwhile, the junior partner in the governing coalition, the social democrat ČSSD lost all of its four MEPs as a result of their internal political difficulties. In Poland, the wide opposition coalition created against the governing PiS party could not break through as the winner. With a 43% turnout, PiS got some 45% of the votes, compared to the opposition coalition’s 38.5%. This is quite disappointing for the opposition, as the European elections were widely perceived as the rehearsal for the national parliamentary elections due in November. The results suggest the opposition might drop the idea of running in a coalition in the upcoming elections. The new liberal party Wiosna (Spring) and the Polish People’s Party will probably run independently in the hope of better results; this means significant difficulties for the main opposition force PO (Civil Platform). Results from Slovakia reflect the political changes that have started in the country after the murder of investigative reporter Ján Kuciak in February 2018. Robert Fico’s SMER, the leading party in the government coalition, suffered significant losses compared to its 2014 results (a decrease of 8 percentage points). The coalition of the freshly founded liberal opposition formation, Progressive Slovakia and the SPOLU party, on the other hand, did very well obtaining about 20% of the votes. As for the Hungarian parties, neither Híd-Most, nor MKP managed to get over the 5% threshold. Just as in Poland, European elections in Slovakia might be indicative of the results of the upcoming national elections in 2020.