The European elections this year will be like no other. A rag bag alliance of anti-establishment, far-right, nationalist and populists are set to gain huge numbers of seats across Europe on the wake of a huge anti-European tide. The EU project will certainly shudder to a halt, as the pro Europeans are routed.
Well, that’s the anti-EU narrative, but the reality is very different. There is a risk we will easily fall into the trap of going along with it as the election results emerge during on Sunday night and Monday morning. Not least because the final results and exact group formations, and above all the alliances between them, may take some weeks to emerge. In the intervening period it is likely that the anti-EU narrative will fill the information vacuum.
We may see a small shift in the direction of the anti-Europeans. However, the evidence, and past practice, suggests the overall outcome will be a European Parliament that will be more inclined to see Europe as part of the solution not part of the problem.
Looking at the latest forecasts, in such a way that is generous to the anti-Europeans, it looks like we will see a swing of just 66 seats from pro-EU MEPs to anti-EU MEPs. Out of a Parliament of 751, it’s significant but not exactly huge. On a less generous assessment, there is hardly any swing at all.
So how can you on Sunday night and Monday morning objectively analyse the results and avoid falling into the anti-EU trap? There are the three key questions to ask.
The 217 MEPs in the Christian Democratic European People’s Party Group (EPP) and 186 MEPs in the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats Group (S&D) MEPs combined give the current grand-coalition an overall majority of the European Parliament. It’s been this way for 40 years. The magic number is 376, and if they win more seats than this then the EU project is well and truly the winner. If, as the polls suggest, they fail to win this many seats, then change is on the way. The anti-EU narrative will say it is in the anti-EU direction. But is it? To answer that we turn to the next question.
Driven primarily by the success of Macron’s group in France, ALDE may well be completely rebranded, as a strong a pro-EU force. The forecasts suggest they are likely to almost double in size, and may well recruit other national delegations as they build their new political grouping. It is likely to team up with the EPP and S&D, at least in some sort of coalition. It may be formal or informal but in practice they will work together. If we add the new and improved ALDE grouping to the EPP and S&D, the new coalition may be even bigger than before. It is also important to factor in that if the European liberals act as king-maker then the Parliament as a whole will be pushed into a more pro-EU direction. The number to look out for is 403 MEPs. And that’s without including the Green Group, or the Confederal Group of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left. Whilst they both want to radically reform the EU they remain unashamedly committed to the EU project. On the pro-EU side will also be a number of independents, possibly a record number, but it will be very hard to accurately assign them to one side or the other before they become active in the Parliament.
If you add the S&D, EPP, ALDE you produce, for the reasons explained above, a very conservative estimate of the number of pro-EU MEPs. There combined numbers are currently 471. If we repeat that exercise on Sunday night, you will have a figure currently forecast to be around 405. Deduct the new figure from 471 and you have the swing in terms of seats to the anti-EU MEPs. That’s forecast to be 66 seats, but I believe it could be a lot less, and certainly not a huge-anti EU tide.
The effect of a swing, albeit a perception or even a small one, to the anti-Europeans may actually for the first time create a ‘government and opposition effect’ in the Parliament. This, together with the kingmaker role of the European liberals could embolden the new pro-EU coalition, and impose greater discipline in the face of the populist challenge, particularly on the the big policy questions that require pan-European action, including greater Eurozone cohesion, climate, migration, security, industrial and equality policies.
At the age of 40, maybe the directly elected European Parliament has at last come of age.