international analysis and commentary

Participation, outcome, issues: why the European elections were notable


The European public has voted a new parliament at the European elections from the 23rd to the 26th May and the results of what had been called a crucial election are now being digested.

Whilst there are many findings and novelties after this vote, two major outcomes stand out: For the first time the two blocs of the center-right (European Peoples’s Party – EPP) and center-left (Socialists&Democrats – S&D) no longer have a combined majority. Secondly, the continuous decline of voter turnout since the Parliament’s first election in 1979 has not only been stopped, but significantly increased to an overall 51%, the highest in twenty years.

The new European Parliament


There are several reasons for this and major implications for the new parliamentary term. Yet it is important to look back in order to understand the current situation. After the Lisbon Treaty came into force in 2009 and the powers of the European Parliament were extended and strengthened, MEPs were determined to make the democratically elected institution more visible to its citizens and took concrete measures.

One of them was that each parliamentary group would have a joint lead candidate for the following presidency of the European Commission at the European elections of 2014. As this system of heading party lists for elections is common in democracies with a proportional voting system like Germany, the German term Spitzenkandidat was eventually adopted throughout the EU.

European Election turnout by year
2019 European Election turnout by country


In the first run of this process in 2014, personalities of political weight in Europe such as the German Martin Schulz (S&D), then President of the European Parliament and Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker (EPP), then Head of the Eurogroup, aiming for the top job, they merely managed to stop the trend of declining voter turnout, stabilizing the figure at 43%. As the EPP eventually came out first in the elections, Mr. Juncker was nominated for the position and his Commissioners were approved by the European Parliament.

This time, the process was confirmed, the main contenders being the Dutch Frans Timmermans (S&D), former member of Juncker’s EU Commission and previously a popular foreign minister in his country as well as the German Manfred Weber, the leader of the EPP in the European Parliament. Both were slightly less known to the European voters as they had lower-profile roles in public. Since their parliamentary groups do not hold a majority in Strasbourg anymore after this election, new alliances may be formed when it comes to putting forward a candidate for the position of President of the Commission. There are talks of a “progressive alliance” comprising S&D, the Greens and the ALDE (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) supporting the Danish liberal Margrethe Vestager instead.

As commonly happens in electoral campaigns, personalizing the choice of a handful of candidates for voters instead of focusing on a political manifesto helps to increase attention and eventually getting the people to the polling stations.

Nevertheless, there are reasons to doubt of the impact of the European Spitzenkandidaten on the actual electoral results. In the German poll DeutschlandTrend Manfred Weber and Frans Timmermans achieved nearly the same popularity scores in early May 2019. However, Conservatives and Social Democrats in Germany fared rather differently, the CDU/CSU obtained 29% of the vote whereas the SPD fell to below 16%. Further proof of their lack of impact is the fact that the Bavarian CSU obtained almost exactly the same percentage of votes than in 2014 although this time the candidate for the presidency of the EU Commission was Manfred Weber with the slogan “A Bavarian for Europe.”

Yet, by personalizing the campaign, MEPs as well as potential candidates for heading the EU Commission were able to emphasize the importance of these elections and also set the issues on the political agenda, which ultimately lead to a higher turnout. The main concerns for the voters differ from country to country. However, examples from each country show some of the deciding factors for their electoral results.

In Germany for instance, the most important issue was by far how to tackle climate change, expressed by 48% of the German voters in May 2019. According to the same poll, the Green Party is the most credible party in this area. This is one of the reasons why they are the clear winners in Germany scoring around 21%.

One of the concerns that gained most importance compared to the previous elections for German voters was immigration, being the most pressing issue for 25% of the electorate. Although this did not translate automatically into a victory for the anti-immigrant AfD, it was the main reason why the German far-right obtained over 10% of the votes.

The importance of this issue can be seen across Europe as many winners can be found on the right side of the political spectrum, from eurosceptics like the Polish Law and Justice Party (PiS) to far-right nationalists like Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France or Matteo Salvini’s Lega in Italy, not to mention EU villains like Nigel Farage with his Brexit Party or Viktor Orban with his Fidesz party who had been outlawed by his former parliamentary group, the EPP.

Their victories all need to be understood in a national context. Since the European elections are organised in each member state, they cannot be detached from their national specificities.

In France, both President Macron and Marine Le Pen turned the election into a plebiscite between the two of them, European openness on the one side and national pride and an inward-focused society on the other. With the French President under fire since the protests of the gilets jaunes and only recovering very slowly, the National Rally was able to capitalize on the discontent of many voters with the French government.

The Italian minister of the Interior and leader of the nationalist Lega, Matteo Salvini, was the initiator of a new anti-EU alliance, hosting joint events with other nationalist parties from Europe. His intention is to form a new parliamentary group in Strasbourg, to the right of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). In this role he is perceived by many Italian voters as a leader of European weight and influence. As both involved in the European electoral campaign and arguably the most visible minister in government he was credible to many Italian voters achieving the highest result in the country with 34%.

Thus, due to a variety of factors these elections to the European Parliament enjoyed a higher attention than in the previous elections. On the one hand this is positive for European democracy since the democratically elected institution regains importance and legitimacy through an increased overall turnout from 43% in 2014 to 51% in 2019. On the other hand, the elections were (again) exploited for national purposes by many parties in the aforementioned countries.

Therefore, it is to be hoped that with the unprecedented composition of the new European Parliament, the parliamentary groups of the center and the progressive spectrum will not ignore or simply block the strengthened anti-EU forces, but breathe new life into the procedures of the Parliament and honor the concerns of their electorate.