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Unpacking the EU election results – ‘Europe is an afterthought’

Mainstream European political groups – led by the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) – remained in power after this weekend’s European Parliament elections. But even as the European center seemed to be holding, far-right parties made waves in France and Germany and increased their number of seats in the European Parliament.

In a post-election interview for ParliamentAlberto Alemanno, professor of EU law at HEC Paris Business School and founder of the advocacy group The Good Lobby, reflected on the implications of the result and what the new balance of power means for the coming term.

While noting that the traditional parliamentary majority in the EP will remain largely intact, Alemanno highlighted what he sees as the main flaw of the European elections: “No one takes them seriously. “Every national political leader and party is instrumentalizing the European elections to strengthen their power in the country.”

Before the elections, there was a lot of talk about a right-wing wave. Has this materialized? How do you interpret the results?

Numbering around 400 seats, the traditional parliamentary majority that has governed the European Union for 30 years – that is, the EPP, the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group and Renew Europe – has a quite secure base on which to base itself in the new legislative cycle. As for the Greens and the Left (groups), there are at least 450 of us.

Overall, there was not a huge rise for the far right, although it did gain a few seats. The unaffiliated will have influence, but this does not necessarily translate into political power. Power will remain in the hands of ordinary political parties.

There will be no blocking majority. This concept makes no sense in parliament. A blocking minority exists in the European Council, in the Council of Ministers, but not in the European Parliament, where every Member of the European Parliament has freedom of mandate. They may change their mind. They don’t have to stick to what their party says. That’s the beauty of parliament.

Do you expect any major policy changes in the new term?

Of course, the next political priorities will differ from those set by the outgoing (European) Commission. We’ve already had a taste of this with the shift away from the Green New Deal towards industrial, security and defense policy. We will see a rebalancing of the European political agenda away from decarbonization as the main imperative of the new Commission and the variety of policy objectives that will be taken into account. The question is how significant these returns will be. It would be much easier for (Commission President Ursula) von der Leyen to ensure some continuity than for any other candidate.

On Sunday, Von der Leyen celebrated the election results after big gains for the EPP. Will the results guarantee her a second term?

It emerges from the European elections strengthened not only because the EPP performed well in Germany, but also throughout Europe. So he has power – also because France is going through its own political changes. This may reduce the incentive for (French President Emmanuel Macron to find an alternative candidate, but I would still say it is not a done deal yet, as many observers suggest).

So we actually have a general tendency for the European Parliament to move towards the centre-right. However, this does not automatically translate into a second term for Von der Leyen. The jury is still out. If it goes through, it’s going to be very, very fierce. And if it gets rejected, it’s a completely different game.

As for France, is Macron risking the future of France and Europe by calling early national elections after a landslide victory in the National Assembly?

The European elections failed in their purpose of defining Europe’s political priorities because they turned into 27 simultaneous elections. They had a huge impact on national political systems, and France is a bit of a caricature of this pathological transformation of the European elections into referenda on the current government.

In a sense, this is the revenge of the European elections, when we saw that some national leaders had no choice but to react. However, this is definitely an overreaction. This is a risk, the French constitution does not require it. I think Macron is looking for a moment of truth. He wants to break the system once again and force not only political parties to express their position, but also voters to say: “These will be real elections, not European ones.”

I don’t think he’s questioning the future of France or the future of Europe at all. But it certainly complicates the creation of the next European Commission and the creation of (parliamentary) groups. This will inevitably lead to some delays. Macron prevents the development of the European political game as a result of the elections. This is not necessarily a bad idea, because these European elections did not tell us exactly where Europe should go.

How big a problem is the dominance of national issues in the European elections?

This is a huge problem because the European elections should allow the European electorate to identify common priorities of a European nature. Should the European Union create an army? Is it worth increasing your budget? Should this be balanced? It’s competitiveness and the goal of decarbonization. None of these issues were up for debate in this election because they focused on domestic issues. Therefore, there is a gap between the content of the European elections and their result. And amidst these disagreements, some (national leaders) were surprised, like Macron, and some felt pressure, like (German Chancellor Olaf) Scholz.

The European elections should enable the European electorate to define common priorities of a European nature.

These are all unintended consequences of not taking the European elections seriously. And no one takes them seriously. Neither on the left, nor on the right, neither in the pro-European camp nor in the anti-European camp. Every national political leader and party is instrumentalizing the European elections to strengthen power in their own country. Europe is an afterthought. Europe doesn’t matter. No one dreams of contributing to greater political integration.

In short, what is really holding us back is the lack of European political integration.

Could pan-European parties like Volt propose a solution?

Since the late 1990s, I have personally advocated transnational lists and the creation of truly European political parties. Europe definitely needs this. It is inconceivable that after 70 years of absolutely unprecedented socio-economic integration in Europe, the political game would not be able to keep pace with this level of integration. Nowadays, this disproportion is becoming more and more visible.

Are the national successes of far-right parties related to skepticism towards the European project?

NO. People supporting far-right and anti-system parties did so for national reasons. They were basically voices of protest against a government they did not like at the moment. There were very few Europeans in these elections. In 2019, and even in 2014, every European political family tried to shape this pan-European political agenda by claiming that these were European elections. And indeed, they succeeded. This is how our sentiment towards the climate and social Europe was born. It’s all gone in 2024.

What does the new balance of power in the European Parliament mean for the upcoming term?

A clarifying moment came on Monday when the EPP Secretary General clearly said what I have been saying for the last two months, which means that in the European Union, the newly elected President (of the Commission) does not have to create a permanent parliamentary majority but can actually rely on a flexible one.

We will have a changing majority. I expect that in the political fights – dealing with social issues, migration, industrial policy and national interests – we will see these traditional parliamentary majorities move to the right and look for (Italian Prime Minister) Meloni or Marine Le Vos Pena (of the French National Assembly) . While on other issues, such as climate and environmental sustainability, they will rely more on the left and the Greens.

This would be a new game that we need to look at, and the election of the Commission President should reflect this. Who is the person capable of controlling this situation? Is Von der Leyen the right person, or is her legacy actually a big burden that holds her back?