What will more populist MEPs mean for the new European Parliament?

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Cicero’s updated polling figures show that populist parties are set to come first or second in five Member States in May’s European Parliament elections. This blog explores the impact this could have on the current balance of power within the chamber and what it could mean for policy-making in the European Parliament over the next five years.

Polling predictions

Our polling (conducted before the latest Brexit extension requiring the UK to participate in the elections) suggests that populist parties will take first or second place in five Member States: Italy (28 and 18 seats for the governing La Lega and 5 Star Movement respectively), Poland (28 seats for the governing  Prawo i Sprawiedliwość), France (21 seats for Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National), Hungary (13 seats for Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz), and Austria (5 seats for national coalition partner Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs). In Germany, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland is expected to come fourth, taking 12 seats.

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This would mean that of the top eight biggest national party representations within the Parliament, more than half will be populist or far-right parties. Three of these parties are already members of the far-right groups in Parliament, Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) and Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD). Fidesz is currently a member of the European People’s Party (EPP) but was suspended last month over alleged violations of EU rule-of-law principles.

A changing balance of power

The two biggest groups, the centre-right EPP and centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) together currently make up an informal ‘grand coalition’ that has dominated the elected European Parliament for much of its existence.

The EPP and S&D are expected to remain the two biggest groups in May but will sustain significant losses. The latest polling published by EuropeElects indicates that the S&D group will be the biggest winner if the UK participates in the European elections, as Labour is projected to win 29% of the votes. The right-wing ECR group will also retain an important part of its membership thanks to an estimated 14 Conservative MEPs which will mean the ECR remains a middle-sized group, on a par with the Greens.

Significant losses for the EPP and S&D would benefit the smaller groups, putting one or more of them in the position of kingmaker. With a potential increase of up to 22 new French MEPs from Macron’s La République en Marche, the liberal ALDE group could find itself in the crucial position of being able to make or break majorities.

While our projections place new populist MEPs within existing European Parliament groups, Italian Deputy Prime Ministers Luigi di Maio (5 Star Movement) and Matteo Salvini (La Lega) are leading the charge on discussions to forge new Eurosceptic alliances. Di Maio has created an informal alliance with ‘like-minded’ parties from Croatia (Zivi Zid), Finland (Liike Nyt), Greece (Akkel) and Poland (Kukiz ’15). He has also expressed support for the French Gilets Jaunes candidates, although they are unlikely to ally with a particular group.

Matteo Salvini (La Lega) marked the start of his election campaign with MEPs from the German AfD, Finland’s True Finns and the Danish People’s Party in Milan on 8 April. Although key figures such as Marine Le Pen were notably absent, Salvini’s ambition is to establish a new ‘European Alliance for People and Nations’ that will attract enough MEPs from existing groups under a single banner to become a real governing force. No doubt he will also be making overtures to Nigel Farage’s newly-launched Brexit Party in the coming weeks, which according to a recent YouGov poll is currently expected to take 15% of the UK vote.

Eurosceptic parties have often failed to remain united within the European Parliament, as demonstrated by the creation of the ENF in 2015 and the current split in UKIP MEPs between the EFDD and ENF. New anti-EU groups could struggle to achieve the minimum threshold of 25 MEPs from 7 Member States to form an official political group and receive EU funding unless they subsume existing groups.

While we do not know exactly what the political groups will look like in the next term, we can predict with some certainty that the changing balance of power will have an impact on policy-making within the chamber.

Impact on policy-making

The grand coalition, and the EU’s consensus-driven approach to policy-making, tends to result in European legislation being endorsed by very large majorities. Our projections suggest that the EFDD and ENF will together control around 14% of the seats in the Parliament if the current groupings remain unchanged. Even with an added boost of UK Eurosceptic MEPs this is unlikely to challenge the overall position of the S&D and EPP but will be enough to influence the direction of EU policy or even block legislation.

Eurosceptic MEPs have tended to be less engaged in the legislative process than their more mainstream peers. Neither the EFDD nor ENF currently chair a parliamentary Committee but may be able to leverage their increased presence to gain a Committee chair position in the next term. An increase in numbers could also see more MEPs from these groups being allocated important rapporteur roles, embedding them more firmly in policy discussions. It remains to be seen how well these groups, united by their anti-EU ideology rather than their approach to policy, will be able to corral their members into voting together on policy issues.

The increased presence of Eurosceptic views in the chamber means we are likely to see more confrontational discussions over the next five years. What impact this has on the direction of European policy, and perhaps the future of the EU itself, will depend on whether far-right groups can overcome the rivalries that have so far prevented them from speaking with a cohesive voice in Parliament.