News & Insights

All change as Europe goes to the polls?

Beyond the high-stakes battle for European Commission president, with Ursula von der Leyen fighting to retain her post amid a projected rightward lurch, the European elections will cast a long shadow over national politics and Brussels’ policy agenda.

BRUSSELS & LONDON – Over four days from this Thursday, 373 million people across 27 European countries will have the opportunity to elect 720 representatives for the 2024-29 term – the 10th Assembly – of the European Parliament. 

This is the first ‘Brussels’ vote since the pandemic, which signalled the current economic downturn, and the first since the Russia invasion of Ukraine which only made the cost of living crisis worse and heralded a new era of security concerns. But, numerous national and local elections over recent months have suggested that voters are likely to shift away from liberal and centre-left parties, with the centre-right, ultraconservative and far-right parties expected to make big gains. 

Whilst the European People’s Party (EPP) looks set to remain the largest and most powerful group in Parliament, and the Socialist and Democrats (S&D) will likely hold on to second place, everything else is up for grabs. President Macron’s centrist/liberal Renew Europe (RE) is expected to lose seats, as are the Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA), and the numerous and various parties of the right and far-right are set to be the beneficiaries of a disenchanted electorate. The European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR), led by Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni, or even the most right-wing group, the Identity and Democracy Group (ID), could overtake RE as the third largest group in Parliament.  

We won’t know the final make up of the parliament until early next week, and even then there will probably be last minute manoeuvring as some new MEPs make late decisions on which grouping they will join. But we can be almost certain that the new parliament will be more fragmented and this in turn will make coalition-building even harder, and have implications for the EU policy agenda over the next five years. 

For example, a possible partnership between the EPP and ECR could lead to a significant rightward shift in public policies and not necessarily in the pro-business sense. This would likely also include issues prioritised by the far-right, such as migration and, to a lesser extent, the environment.

If Ursula von der Leyen is reappointed for a second term as Commission President, she will likely be hesitant to make dramatic changes to climate policy, as the Green Deal is the hallmark achievement of her first term and is frequently cited by her as Europe’s growth strategy. However, the EPP’s manifesto already indicates a willingness to reconsider parts of the strategy designed to make the EU climate neutral by 2050, emphasising “pragmatic solutions, not ideological ones” – very much the language of politicians seeking to dilute not strengthen policy measures. So even if the election results don’t fully match the polls, and the current three-way de facto governing coalition – EPP, S&D and the liberal Renew Europe group – survives, the perceived threat from the ECR and ID Groups has already led to a rightward shift in the mainstream policy agenda. 

 

That leaves the biggest question to be answered by this weekend’s elections: will von der Leyen be reappointed for a second term as Commission President? Of course, the decision is not for the new MEPs alone. They only get a vote to approve a candidate nominated by the European Council (the heads of the 27 member states), but the makeup of the Parliament will be critical in her ability to secure the support of a majority of MEPs. The latest polling indicates that the three mainstream groups – the EPP, S&D and Renew Europe – will win between 390 and 395 seats. With a 10% or so attrition rate in support for von der Leyen expected, this drops to the mid to low 350s, potentially 10 votes below the magic 361 she needs to be confirmed.   

Until recently, many believed Ursula von der Leyen’s reappointment as Commission President was a foregone conclusion. However, rising tensions over key legislative proposals, the prospect that she may not be able to command a majority in the Parliament, discontented member-state leaders, and a surging far-right have cast doubt on the nomination process. Remember, she was only confirmed in 2019 by just nine votes. Supported by a coalition of MEPs from the EPP, S&D and Renew Europe, she also secured the support of Hungary’s Fidesz and Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) parties. She will have no such luck this time round – Fidesz and PiS MEPs have not forgiven and are unlikely to forget how she penalised both their countries over ‘rule-of-law’ failings, hindering their access to much needed EU funds in the process.  

Von der Leyen has even had to deal with some national delegations within her own EPP expressing doubts – the French Les Republicians, expecting to win 6 seats, have said they will not vote for her. Although she was renominated unopposed at the EPP’s March conference in Bucharest, about one-third of eligible voters abstained. In an attempt to mollify these frustrations, von der Leyen has been quietly shelving green and progressive Commission files. 

Against this backdrop von der Leyen has been courting Giorgia Meloni and her ECR Group to secure additional votes. Yet, in seeking right-wing support, she risks alienating the centre-left; the S&D has pledged to entirely withdraw support for a Commission that depends on the “far right and radical partiers at any level.”  Meanwhile tensions between the Commission President and certain member-state leaders persist, particularly over accusations she has overreached on foreign policy matters. This has prompted talk of alternative candidates and contingency plans, with former Italian leader Mario Draghi most frequently mentioned as a potential successor. The European Council is due to meet informally over dinner on Monday 17 June, which may be the first opportunity to get a feel for what the member states will decide to do. 

Beyond the high-stakes battle for European Commission president, with Ursula von der Leyen fighting to retain her post amid a projected rightward lurch, these parliamentary elections will cast a long shadow over national politics and Brussels’ policy agenda. BOLDT’s analysts, in Brussels and in the member states, will be monitoring every twist and turn, and helping clients navigate this pivotal juncture with insights from our unparalleled network on the ground.

Contact

John Duhig, Partner at BOLDT: [email protected]

Jon Rhodes, Partner at BOLDT: [email protected]