Comments about the European Parliament election results are predictably all over the place, and typically reveal more about the commentator than anything else. To get a clearer sense of direction, it may be useful to compare the outcome not only with recent opinion polls, or the previous election, but also with all the other ones before.
My own perspective is affected by the fact I did exactly that after the previous round in 2014, when I published a chart and brief post arguing that the then-observed increase in votes for what I dubbed ‘non-mainstream’ parties was significant, but did not bring them to historically unprecedented levels.
In this post, I take my own 2014 methodology as a commitment device to analyse the results of the 2019 election. This was the 2014 chart:
The emphasis on methodology is important, because the devil is in the labelling. ‘Populist’ or other similar monikers are often in the eye of the beholder. There is a widespread sense that some parties are more disruptive than others, but such perceptions are easily distorted – not least since some of these ‘insurgents’ have been firmly in power for some time, such as Fidesz in Hungary since 2010. Similarly, my choice to label UK conservatives as ‘non-mainstream’, except during the long decade of their membership of the European People’s Party (EPP) group, may be questioned from a British perspective, but makes more sense from an EU perspective both before and after the Tories-in-the-EPP parenthesis (the green line in the chart refers to the group now named European Conservatives and Reformists [ECR], and its predecessor the European Democrats in the late 1970s and 1980s). That same choice arguably makes even more sense today.
In 2014 I produced the chart in late June, when the respective national parties’ membership in EU-wide parliamentary groups had coalesced. In the 2019 cycle we are not yet there, and indeed there are more uncertainties than usual as to the respective perimeters of these pan-European groupings. There is an additional and large uncertainty related to Brexit, to which I return below.
But thankfully there are many projections based on current affiliations, declarations, and opinions. In the chart below, I use the one by Simon Hix and his colleague Kevin Cunningham of the London School of Economics. Cunningham’s and Hix’s projection has the advantage of minimising the number of unaffiliated MEPs, i.e. they allocate more of the elected MEPs to specific party groupings than most others, including when these MEPs ran under the banner of parties that were not represented in 2014. That gives more precision to the result. Other projections however were not drastically different when consulted on May 28th, such as those by Europe Elects, The Guardian, Politico, or on Wikipedia. For 2014 and earlier rounds, I just kept the numbers from my 2014 post, even as some MEPs or parties have changed their group affiliation between 2014 and 2019.
The implications are quite clear. The strength of the far right in 2019 is notable and unprecedented, even though in 2014 it was partly masked by the fact that France's National Front MEPs were labelled 'independent' (they only joined a group in 2015). So is the fall in the traditional Volkspartei combination of centre-left and centre-right, namely EPP and the Socialists & Democrats (S&D). For the first time ever, these two no longer command a majority together. But these trends are offset by others: respectively, the sharp erosion of the far left, and the rise of the Greens and liberal centrists (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe [ALDE], to which the 2019 projection adds presumed allies especially in France and Romania).
As a consequence, the broad grouping which in 2014 I labelled ‘EU mainstream’ has a near-identical share of total MEPs, close to 70%, and so has the ‘non-mainstream’ at around 30%. Viewed through this prism, the disruptive election was 2014, not 2019. This round is one of stability along the mainstream/non-mainstream divide, even as each camp gets internally reshuffled.
In my 2014 post I concluded on what was then a contrarian note, namely the possibility of “another trend reversal” – by which I meant some recovery of the mainstream camp in 2019. As the above chart suggests, this has not happened: the mainstream share, as I defined it, declined slightly this year – and will decline further if, as could well happen, parties such as Fidesz and Romania’s PSD leave the EPP and S&D groups respectively.
But another event may intrude, if the UK confirms its stated intention to leave the EU. In that case, the 73 just-elected British MEPs will lose their seats and will be partly replaced by 27 MEPs from 14 other member states, which were also elected last week but are currently in limbo (one of these is Sandro Gozi, former Italian undersecretary for European affairs and number 22 on the centrist LREM list in France.) A full list of these 27 ‘extra’ MEPs was not found while researching this post, but it can be expected to be broadly similar in party composition to the 678 MEPs of the EU27 member states – i.e. excluding the UK. Since the just-elected UK MEPs are comparatively less ‘mainstream’ than the EU28 average under the convention used here (52% mainstream to 48% non-mainstream, to be precise), that simulation would actually result in a very slight trend reversal, all things equal.
Needless to say, all things are not equal, and further rejigging of the party groups is to be expected – some of it presumably affecting what is presented here as the mainstream/non-mainstream boundary. But the broader picture is likely to hold. Viewed from a long-term EU perspective, the new European Parliament may be unprecedentedly diverse, but is not exceptionally radical.