University of Chicago

2019 EU Elections: Is this the Beginning of the End for Democracy? by Thomas McLees

On May 26th polls for the European Union’s ninth parliamentary elections closed all over Europe. As votes were counted and results were posted, it became more and more apparent that there was a major shift happening in continental European politics. Many saw this as a harbinger of the End Days, and pundits are pointing at this elections as the Big Red Flag marking the spot of Imminent Democratic Erosion™. But is that the case? Let’s find out.

To understand the implications of the election, we need to understand how both the EU and the elections work. The European Union is comprised of seven institutions:

  • The European Council:
    • Comprised of heads of state of EU countries and the President of the European Commission (below), who are led by the President of the European Council who is the political face of the EU
    • Provides the EU with political impetus/power and policy goals.
  • The Court of Justice of the European Union:
    • The judiciary branch of the European Union
    • Ensures the uniform application and interpretation of EU law
    • Settles legal disputes between member states, the institutions, businesses and individuals
  • The European Central Bank:
    • Determines the monetary policy of the Euro-zone
    • Ensures price stability in the EU zone by controlling money supply
  • The Court of Auditors:
    • Is what it sounds like, audits all things EU finance
  • The European Commission:
    • The executive branch of the EU
    • Submits proposals for new legislation to the Parliament and Council (below)
    • The acting, boots on the ground body of the EU; implementing policies, administering the budget, ensuring compliance with European law and agreed upon treaties, and negotiating international agreements
  • The Council of the European Union (known as “the Council” ~spooky~):
    • Part of the legislative branch of the EU, the ‘Senate’ of the EU
    • Composed of twenty-eight national ministers (one per state)
    • Shares budgeting power with the Parliament
    • Main purpose is the finalization of international agreements
  • The European Parliament:
    • Part of the legislative branch of the EU, the ‘House’ of the EU
    • Shares budgeting power with the Council
    • Main Purpose is to approve Commission members and be the democratically elected overseers of the EU

The Parliament itself is comprised MEPs (Member of the European Parliament) who come together to form eight parliamentary groups. MEPs tend to fall along existing party line of their country, and therefore the groups become de facto international political coalitions parties already present in the 28 member countries. To be recognized by the Parliament, a group must have at least 25 MEPs who come from at least seven different countries. This structure makes the EU elections extremely important as they are not only the only directly democratic involvement EU citizens have in their government, but also a great measure of the political trends of the continent as a whole. As the election came closer and closer, many scholars and pundits saw the 2019 elections as being the final deciding factor of the fate of European politics, and though exaggerated they aren’t necessarily wrong.

So the groups chose their candidates, parties campaigned in their respective countries for MEPs that would add numbers to their parliamentary groups, polls open on the 23rd and close on the 26th, ballots are counted, votes are tallied, and the results come out. What happened?

Centrists lost. Hard. Before the elections the Parliament was lead by a coalition of two groups, the EPP (European People’s Party, liberal-conservatives right of center) and the S&D (the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, centre-left), who collectively held a slim majority, holding 54.8% of the seats. However both groups lost seats to parties further away from center from their respective positions, and the coalition ultimately lost the necessary majority, in their largest loss since the establishment of the Parliament in 1979.

If you’re looking for the red flags of democratic erosion, nihilists and doomsday-ers need look no further than the astonishing success of the  European Alliance of People and Nations (EAPN) and the Euroskeptics. Led by Italy’s Lega party leader Matteo Salvini, this party is comprised of proud right-populist parties from around Europe. Many of these parties left previous groups who weren’t conservative enough for them, and other parties won new seats in contested races. Overall, they won 73 seats, doubling their position and becoming the fourth biggest group in the Parliament.

However, other winners of the election are the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) and the Europe Free Alliance (the Greens). Though very different, these are both parties left of center that drastically increased their seat count. ALDE, a liberal conservative group, grew by 40 seats to land at 109 (14.5%), whereas the Greens, the bigger progressive group of the EU, gained 21 seat to land at 73 total seat, tied with Salvani’s EAPN group.

Therefore, the elections aren’t as much of a red flag as some might be saying. For multiple reasons. First off, most are highlighting the Salvani squad’s wins without giving the overwhelming context of the elections as a whole, which would show that their relative power position is still quite small. Secondly, unlike the other groups, the EAPN is ideologically isolated from the rest of the Parliament, and will have difficulty with coalition forming. Which leads to my third point, tj ALDE and the Greens have a much better chance of mutual understanding with the current coalition of the EPP and S&D, and might ultimately pull EU politics further to the progressive left and more democratic tendencies and away from Salvani’s populism.

Ultimately, none of this really has any bearing on the real world. Though important, the EU has little influence over the inner political workings of its member countries, and this election only defines the composition of EU politics. It is a great way to find the pulse of the state of Democracy in Europe, but in no way is it a good indicator of the potential erosion of democracy on the continent.

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