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Mar 22, 2024

The European Parliament Does More than You Think

European voters are in the habit of treating the European Parliament elections every five years as inconsequential protest votes based on national issues not related to the EU. But if they vote for the far right, it will have major economic, environmental, and geopolitical consequences.

Flags of the European Union and its member states fly in front of the building of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France June 30, 2017.
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When the European Parliament was founded in 1952 as the Common Assembly of the European Coal and Steel Community, it was justifiably considered little more than a “multi-lingual talking shop,” as University of Manchester Professor David Farrell famously called it. For two decades it was made up of MPs from national parliaments who took turns occasionally coming to Strasbourg, sitting in the borrowed hemicycle of the Council of Europe (a different body altogether), and talking about pan-European subjects they had not been following very closely.

But since then, it has gone through several rounds of major changes—the most important of which took place in 1979 when it became a directly-elected institution with dedicated Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and 2009 when the Lisbon Treaty gave the parliament major new powers over legislation. All along the way, the European Parliament has had to fight against the other two EU legislative institutions, the “executive branch” European Commission and the “upper house” of the legislative branch the European Council (which brings together the governments of the now 27 EU member states), for relevance and influence. It has been an uphill battle, and the parliament remains the least-powerful of the three. But that does not mean it does not have power.

No Talking Shop

The European Parliament may have been set up as a talking shop, but today it is a powerful “lower house” of the EU’s legislature through which all legislation must pass in order to become law. MEPs do not merely look over European Commission proposals and give them a yes or no, they add amendments and, in some cases, completely change a piece of legislation (sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse). The problem is that, because of the EU’s gradual evolution, the public has not got the message that this is now a powerful institution. 

This is especially true in Western Europe, where education systems seem to have not updated their curricula about what the EU is since 1992 when the European Union was created out of the old European Community. In Eastern Europe, where countries joined in 2004, 2007, and 2013 (the year Croatia became the EU’s newest member), there is much more awareness of the European Parliament’s importance because it was already important when they joined.

Catching the Protest Vote

This year, polls are predicting the very real possibility that the public will vote so overwhelmingly for far-right MEPs that they could become the largest bloc in the European Parliament. The parliament has always had a strong contingency of far-right MEPs due to the usual “protest vote” element, with many voters using the election to vent frustration with their national usually centrist governments. They often do so not because they want far-right policies enacted at the EU level, but because they are trying to send a message about national issues to the national government and view the EU election as an inconsequential way to do that.

The higher vote for extremes compared to those for national parliaments is also due to the fact that people who don’t want to cast a protest vote are less likely to turn out. The turnout for European Parliament elections is usually around 50 percent (51 percent at the last election in 2019)—relatively lower than turnout for most national elections in Europe, but higher than the average 40 percent turnout for the US Congress midterm elections. 

Turning Far Right?

The far right doing well in EU elections has been an increasing phenomenon for two decades. Since 2014, the largest French party in the European Parliament has been Marine Le Pen’s Front National, renamed Rassemblement National (RN), and from that year until the UK left the European Union following the Brexit vote in 2016, the largest British party was Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independent Party (UKIP). Group-affiliated far-right MEPs currently make up 18 percent of the European Parliament, but this is not counting the numerous unaffiliated far-right MEPs. The difference is that this year, an expected surge of 36 additional seats would make the far right kingmakers in the next term.

The far right in the European Parliament is split into two groups: the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group of Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni and the further-right Identity & Democracy (ID) group of Le Pen and the German Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). ECR includes some of Europe’s biggest heavy-hitters on the far right: the recently-ousted governing party of Poland, Law & Justice (PiS), Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, which is the largest party in the Italian governing coalition, the Sweden Democrats, who are propping up the center-right government in Stockholm, the True Finns, who came second in last year’s election in Finland, Vox, which came close to forming a governing coalition with the center-right after Spain’s election last year, and the Flemish nationalist N-VA, the largest party in the Belgian parliament.

The smaller Identity & Democracy group, which has struggled since losing Nigel Farage’s UKIP MEPs after Brexit, combines Le Pen’s RN, which is expected to once again be France’s largest party in the European Parliament, and the AfD, which is currently polling second in Germany. Politico’s poll of polls predicts ECR and ID will win a combined 164 seats, putting them well ahead of the center-left Socialists & Democrats with 139 seats and tantalizingly close to the center-right European People Party’s predicted 176 seats. 

With the S&D and the liberal Renew Europe group losing support, it is possible that there may not be enough seats to form the traditional centrist coalition between EPP and S&D, even with the addition of the liberals as has happened in the past. This could necessitate control of the parliament going to a right-wing coalition of EPP and ECR, with ID included or acting as outside-coalition support. Three ID parties—Matteo Salvini’s Lega in Italy, the Danish People’s Party and Austria’s Freedom Party (FPÖ)—have already allied with center-right EPP member parties at the national level in the past.

Von der Leyen on the Brink?

The first consequence of so many European voters choosing to vote for the far right could be the appointment of a hard-right European Commission president in July, preventing the reappointment of Ursula von der Leyen. Unlike in parliamentary democracies, in the EU the government is not selected by the parliament based on its majority. The president of the executive branch, the European Commission, is appointed by a majority vote of the 27 national leaders in the European Council. But that selection must be confirmed by a majority vote of the European Parliament. 

Even if national leaders want to nominate von der Leyen, who the EPP has adopted as their Spitzenkandidat, or lead candidate, for a second term in July, it is unclear whether she could be confirmed in a majority vote in a newly-constituted European Parliament with a right-wing majority. What is clear is that she would need to tack hard to the right during the campaign over the coming three months, and she is already laying the groundwork to do that, for instance by quickly offering major concessions to farmers following their violent protests across Europe last month, stripping environmental provisions out of the Common Agricultural Policy.

It is also possible that von der Leyen tacking to the right at the last moment would not be enough to satisfy right-wing MEPs. That would mean the European Council would need to appoint someone further to the right, either after a parliamentary rejection of von der Leyen in the fall after confirmation hearings or anticipating one and choosing someone different in July. 

National leaders will not want to appoint someone who cannot survive a parliamentary confirmation vote, and von der Leyen only squeaked by her 2019 parliament confirmation vote by nine votes, because of anger over the European Council not appointing someone who had actually run as a Spitzenkandidat in the election (even though the European treaties are clear that this is not a requirement). It is inconceivable that the leaders would nominate a far-right politician from the ECR or ID, but they could lean toward someone from the right wing of the EPP in the mold of Friedrich Merz, the leader of the German center-right CDU (which is also von der Leyen’s party). 

Flexing Its Muscles

The 26 European Commissioners in the president’s college, nominated by the national governments, must also be confirmed by the European Parliament this fall. After every election the European Parliament demonstrates its power by rejecting some of them. A right-wing majority in the parliament would reject candidates because they are not right-wing enough, which in the end would result in a more right-wing European Commission.

Even if von der Leyen can survive the coming months to win a second term without making promises to tack to the right, a right-wing parliament will make passing climate laws and progressive social and economic legislation very difficult if not impossible. If history is a guide, they could in fact make passing any EU law difficult to impossible. 

In the past, when Europe’s far right advocated for their countries to leave the EU, the traditional pattern was for them to either not show up to parliamentary sessions or to vote no on everything. That has changed since Brexit, with almost all far-right parties abandoning the idea of leaving the EU and instead now working to push it to the right from the inside. It remains to be seen, however, if they would be able to effectively do this because they’ve never done it before. It could be that, with the guidance and experience of the EPP helping them, the far right will be able to effectively push EU policy to the right.

Subverting Climate Goal?

A huge amount of climate legislation has been passed this term under the rubric of von der Leyen’s Green Deal, and will thus be protected from European Parliament lawmakers as it enters the national transposition and implementation phase. But a right-wing parliament will make passing new climate legislation difficult. For instance, the recommendation von der Leyen issued last month for an EU 90 percent emissions reduction target for 2040 may never be followed up with a legislative proposal in the next term if it becomes clear it cannot pass parliament—or if the commission does propose it, it is likely to be rejected. This would leave the EU with no interim target between 2030 and 2050. The big defeat expected for Europe’s Green group, with polls predicting they will fall from 73 to 44 seats, will leave climate legislation with few defenders in the parliament.

The European Parliament may not be able to initiate legislation, but it has power over selecting the makeup of the commission, which does. And once that legislation is initiated, the parliament has the power to reject it, or completely transform it. A protest vote for the far right may make voters feel good in June. But it may not feel so good in a year’s time. The biggest legacy of the far right in the European Parliament thus far has been an inability to coordinate or govern. The far more likely outcome of a right-wing parliament will be chaos and dysfunction rather than concrete right-wing policy wins.

Dave Keating is an American journalist based in Brussels covering European politics for France24.

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