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European Parliament: what ever happened to the “nationalist winds”? Figures speak for themselves

A month after the May 23-26 elections the EU Parliament is now preparing for the Constituent plenary sitting of July 2-4 in Strasbourg. At first glance, election results and the new hemicycle’s composition would appear to disprove electoral projections, while the EU’s future is more about questions than certainties

foto SIR/Marco Calvarese

The “populist avalanche”, the “nationalist tsunami”, and the “new face” of the European Parliament. Those were the watchwords and expectations for some, while constituting a threat for others. The elections of 23-26 May were expected to mark a watershed between the “old” and the “new” Europe: the shelving of the political integration plan of the founding fathers Schuman, De Gasperi and Adenauer, was due to be replaced by a new chapter in the “Europe of the States” as perhaps has been envisioned by De Gaulle and Mrs. Thatcher. It was to be driven by leaders such as Le Pen, Orban and Salvini under the banner of a rediscovered “national pride”, which, by raising barriers and walls, intended to give more powers to national governments – despite major global challenges –thereby leaving the European Union a marginal role to play. “Once in Brussels and Strasbourg we will modify the Treaties, we will change this Europe…”, warned nationalist leaders in all European countries. But the outcome was not as expected…

A light breeze… The composition of the new EU Parliament provides some insights into assessing the political scenario. But it should be said that 

Figures and seats alone cannot illustrate the complexities of European politics

nor the countless small and large parties and national political groups whose representatives have been elected to the hemicycle, converging into a few European “families.” It must also be conceded that while nationalist winds were blowing over EU elections, the final results were poorer than had been suggested.

How it was before … Let us start with the composition of the European Parliament in April 2019, namely before the May elections. The European People’ s Party Group (EPP, with the elected members of Forza Italia) comprised 221 seats, the Socialists and Democrats (S&D, with the members of the Democratic Party) 191, and the Liberals (Alde) 67. These three groups, traditionally considered to represent the “great, pro-European coalition” held 479 seats out of a total of 751, i.e. 63% of all seats. Adding 50 Greens who were also, in their own way, in favour of Community integration, there were 529 MEPs representing a 70% Europeanist majority (albeit a very articulated and diversified one). It should also be noted that after the election of President Antonio Tajani (January 2017), in the last legislature the Europeanist “great coalition” had given way to a convergence between the EPP, Liberals and Conservatives (ECR, with Fratelli d’Italia), shifting the axis of the parliamentary majority to the right. By April 2019, the Eurosceptic groups in the Assembly ( diverse and divided with regard to the defence of the interests of their respective States) included 70 members of the ECR group, 48 members of EFDD (Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy, that included Italy’s Five Star Movement) and 37 members of ENF (Europe of Nations and Freedom, with the representatives of the League), totalling 155 deputies (21% of the hemicycle). The remaining seats were held by 52 members of the Unitary Left ( GUE, 7%) and 15 non-attached members.

The situation today. What has changed in the new hemicycle? Less then expected, at least in terms of overall numbers. The EPP, downsized by the vote, dropped to 182 deputies (-39); the Socialists and Democrats decreased to 153 (-38); the Liberals changed their name to include the elected members of the French movement led by President Macron, now called Renew Europe, with 108 deputies (+41). The Greens, successful in various countries, from Germany to France to the United Kingdom, won 75 seats (+25). Thus today, a possible coalition, or convergence, of the four groups considered to be pro-European would supposedly include 518  MEPs, only – so to speak – 11 less compared to the previous legislature, representing 69% of the hemicycle. 

What has changed in the Eurosceptic and nationalist groups?

Worth noting is the success of the ENF group (mostly due to the increased share of seats of the League), now known as Identity and Democracy (ID), with 73 seats (+36); ECR has fallen to 62 (-8); EFDD dropped to 43 (-5 seats). The three groups advocating “nationalist claims” – which today have 23 more deputies compared to the previous parliamentary term- total 178 MEPs all together, 24% of the Hemicycle. GUE still has a package of 41 deputies (5%), while 14 include non-attached members (some MEPs have yet to be affiliated to a political group and can do so until the plenary session of 2-4 July).

Country by Country. A quick calculation shows that, compared to the past hemicycle, 102 deputies have moved from one group to another, distributed in more or less equal numbers between those in favour and those against increased EU integration, thereby substantially confirming the political balances of the previous legislature. This picture is drawn from European data and the new composition of the European Parliament. However, it should be noted that Member Countries saw dramatic shifts in voting behaviour, in some cases in favour of the Eurosceptic movement (Italy, Hungary, United Kingdom), balanced by other results supporting the pro-European front (especially Germany and Spain), while other results reflect national events requiring interpretation against a complex backdrop (to name a few: France, Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Portugal, Sweden…).

A non-monotonous legislature. In these days, the EU is confronting the game of candidacies at the helm of EU institutions: Parliament will choose its president next week in Strasbourg, while heads of State and Government will meet on Sunday, June 30 in Brussels to discuss the potential presidents of the EU Commission (requiring Parliament’s approval of the Parliament), Council, ECB and the High Representative. 

The race is still up for grabs and in all likelihood it will take time to finalize the process.  

In the new Euro Chamber the issue is whether European political forces will come together for a sort of “parliamentary pact “, reaching an agreement not only on names but also – and above all – on a medium-term program to reform the EU, or whether instead, when all’s said and done, the pro-EU front will melt with the summer heat. Euro-sceptic groups, on the other hand, will have a common mission: to hinder all further forms of integration and slow down the pace of reforms and decisions which, according to the Treaties, are the responsibility of the EU. Nor can the formation of variable majorities during the parliamentary term be ruled out, depending on the items on the agenda. For sure, the 2019-2024 legislature is far from being a monotonous one.

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