This briefing paper analyses the results of the 2019 European Parliament elections, focussing on both the UK and EU-wide results. It also analyses the repercussions for the EU, in terms of the balance of forces within the new Parliament and its impact on the forthcoming appointment process for the top jobs in the EU, including the European Commission Presidency.
Elections to the European Parliament (EP) were held across the European Union between 23 and 26 May 2019. National delegations of MEPs within the European Parliament sit in Political Groups, the biggest two historically being the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the centre-left Socialists & Democrats (S&D). Both Groups lost seats across the EU, meaning that for the first time since direct elections to the EP began in 1979 these two Groups will not be able to combine to control the EP’s agenda. Greens, pro-EU centrists and liberals and Eurosceptic populists all made gains. Turnout across the EU was 51%, the highest in 20 years.
In the UK, the Brexit Party won most seats in most regions. The map below shows the distribution of seats in each region in the UK.
Article 50 and the European Parliament elections in the UK
When the Government issued the UK notification to leave the EU under Article 50 (TEU) on 29 March 2017, this set a default exit day of two years from this date. One key consideration was a desire to avoid UK participation in the EP elections on 23-26 May 2019.
In seeking two extensions to the Article 50 period in March and April 2019, the Government initially intended that the UK would still leave the EU before the date of the EP elections in order to avoid the UK taking part. Following the third rejection of the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement, the EU agreed a second Article 50 extension until 31 October. The UK would have the option of leaving the EU earlier if the WA was ratified. On 7 May the Government confirmed that the UK would be participating in the EP elections, conceding that it would not be possible to ratify the WA before the elections.
Reallocation of UK seats in European Parliament
The issue of UK participation in the EP elections was further complicated by the envisaged reallocation of UK EP seats after Brexit. EU legislation adopted in 2018 reallocated 27 of the UK’s 73 EP seats to other Member States, with 46 left over for potential new Member States. 14 Member States will be allocated additional EP seats following Brexit. These include France and Spain with five extra seats each, Italy and the Netherlands with three each, and Ireland with two.
The new allocation will only be implemented once the UK’s withdrawal from the EU become legally effective. Given that the UK would now be participating in the EP elections but was still expected to leave by 31 October (or possibly later if there is another Article 50 extension) the Member States in line to get additional seats were expected to hold the elections as if the new allocation applied. Candidates elected to the 27 additional seats will have to wait on standby, and will only become MEPs when the UK and its MEPs depart the EU.
The EP elections in the UK
The elections featured two new national parties in Great Britain. These were the Brexit Party, led by former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, and Change UK set up by former Labour and Conservative MPs who wish to remain in the EU. Change UK, along with the Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party of England and Wales published manifestos supporting a People’s Vote (another referendum) on proceeding with Brexit, in relation to which they would support the remain option.
The Labour Party said it would back a public vote if there was no agreement on its alternative plan for Brexit and a general election could not be held. The Conservative party did not publish a manifesto but said it was the only party that could get Brexit done. The Brexit party advocated leaving the EU on ‘WTO’ terms.
The Brexit Party came first in the UK, winning 32% of the popular vote in Great Britain, and taking 29 seats. The Liberal Democrats came second with 20% of the vote in Great Britain, and 16 seats.
The Greens won seven seats, the most they ever held. The Conservatives and Labour won the fewest seats since the UK joined the EU, four and ten.
The chart below shows the number of seats each party won in the eleven regions in Great Britain.
In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein won most first preference votes, taking one seat. The DUP held on to its seat. The third seat went to the Alliance Party for the first time.
Turnout was 37%.
EU wide results
Turnout in 2019 across the whole of the EU was 51%. This was higher than at any election in the last 20 years, although it remained lower than in the earliest elections to the European Parliament between 1979 and 1994.
The two largest Political Groups in the European Parliament, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the centre-left Socialists & Democrats (S&D) both suffered losses across the EU. These two Groups had hitherto between them mustered an absolute majority in all previous European Parliaments enabling them to control the EP agenda. This majority was lost in 2019, meaning they would need to work with other EP Political Groups to form a majority. EPP parties had a declining vote share in Germany, Italy, France and Spain, while S&D parties suffered losses in Germany, Italy, France and the UK (the Labour party).
The Conservative ECR Group also suffered losses, related mainly to the loss of seats of the UK Conservative Party. The ruling Polish Law and Justice Party (PiS) which sits in the ECR Group however performed strongly, winning 45.5% of the vote in Poland. The ruling Fidesz party in Hungary, which has been suspended from the EPP, won 52.3% of the vote. Both the Polish and Hungarian Governments have faced calls for EU-level investigations into their respect for the rule of law and ‘EU values’.
The liberal ALDE Group made gains thanks partly to the inclusion of French President Macron’s En Marche! party and increased vote shares elsewhere, notably the UK (the Liberal Democrats) and Romania. Since the elections, this Group has announced it is changing its name to ‘Renew Europe’. Green parties also made big gains across Northern and Western Europe, notably in Germany where they won 20% of the vote. However, the Greens did not pick up seats in Eastern and Southern Europe.
Radical right populist parties from the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) Group did particularly well in Italy and France, where the League and National Rally were the leading national parties. Their allies in the Flemish Interest party also made gains in Belgium, while the Austrian and Dutch Freedom Parties suffered losses. Former ENF parties announced the formation of a new Political Group in the new EP, the ‘Identity and Democracy’ Group (ID) which will also include the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the Danish People’s Party and Finns Party and new entrants from the Czech Republic and Estonia.
The Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy Group (EFDD) previously involving UKIP and the Italy Five Star Movement, increased its seats due to the strong performance of the Brexit Party. However, it no longer has enough members to form a Political Group following the departure of AfD and loss of seats by other parties. EP rules require Political Groups to have at least 25 MEPs and from at least 25% of (seven) Member States.
The New Parliament
The new EP sits for the first time on 2 July. The chart below shows the changing balance between Political Groups compared to the outgoing EP.
Between them the ‘pro-EU’ Political Groups (EPP, S&D, Renew Europe Greens-EFA) hold 513 seats (68%). A potential centre-left coalition comprising S&D, ALDE, the Greens and GUE/NGL would have 372 MEPs, just short of an absolute majority (necessary for some EP votes) of 376. A centre-right coalition involving EPP, ALDE and the ECR would also fall short at 346 votes.
Populist MEPs from the ID Group, the former EFDD Group and other potential allies including Fidesz, and populist parties in the ECR such as PiS, the Sweden Democrats, and Dutch Forum for Democracy now make up around 23% of MEPs (172 MEPs).
Following the election, the proportion of women MEPs has reached a historic high of 39%. 5% of MEPs come from an ethnic minority background.
Post Brexit EP
Following Brexit the size of the EP will be reduced to 705 MEPs, and the 27 ‘reserve’ MEPs will take up their seats. This will benefit the two Groups without UK MEPs, the EPP and ID Groups, both of which will gain 3 MEPs. While gaining some MEPs from the new intake, this will not make up for the loss of UK MEPs for S&D, Renew Europe and Greens-European Free Alliance (EFA). The ID Group is projected to overtake the Greens-EFA to become the fourth largest Political Group.
Election of Commission President and other top EU jobs
The new EP is expected to elect its President at its first sitting on 2 July. Under Article 17 (7) TEU it also ‘elects’ the European Commission President after the candidate is proposed by the European Council. In 2014, the Spitzenkandidaten process was followed whereby the Political Groups selected a lead candidate for the EP elections with a view to the European Council proposing the lead candidate of the Political Group with the biggest vote share to be Commission President. The EPP candidate, Jean-Claude Juncker, was accordingly proposed and elected in this way. However, this process is not an obligation under the EU Treaties and some EU leaders have expressed opposition to following it again.
In 2019, the EPP lead candidate was German MEP and chair of the EPP Group Manfred Weber. Following the election, the EPP called on the European Council to propose Mr Weber given that he was their candidate and they were still the leading Political Group. The S&D, Renew Europe and Greens-EFA however said that they were not willing to support his candidacy. He is also opposed by President Macron who has referred to the need for the Commission President to have high level executive experience. Unlike previous Commission Presidents (the last four were former Prime Ministers) Mr Weber has not served as a Government Minister.
The European Council met on 28 May and 20 June to discuss arrangements for agreeing candidates for the Commission Presidency and other top EU jobs that will take office before the end of the year. These include EP President, President of the European Council, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security and President of the European Central Bank. President of the European Council Donald Tusk said the distribution of roles would need to reflect political, geographical and gender balance. Having failed to agree on candidates on 20 June, the European Council will convene on 30 June to try again.
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