As Europe moves towards its 2019 political handover, it is an appropriate moment to look back and take stock of the last European Parliamentary elections in 2014 and to take a closer look at the lessons learned. As a reminder, these elections were then characterised as a ‘political earthquake’ – where the anti-EU sentiment and movement has been, in many ways, a precursor to the Brexit vote. This piece is the first in a series FH will be writing on the 2019 political handover. We wanted to begin by asking what may seem an obvious question: do the elections really matter to Brussels stakeholders, and if so, how?
An austerity Parliament
Looking back one of the key outcomes from the elections was the continued mandate for austerity policies in Europe. A policy that has that has driven much of the agenda in the past 4 years, but which now has become less present as the EU is moving out of the financial crisis and is experiencing growth again. However, without dwelling on the politics of the issue, it seems reasonable to think that an S&D led Parliament may have managed the Greek debt crisis in a different way. Indeed, the fact that the EPP became the largest parliamentary grouping in many ways renewed commitment to austerity as the key instrument of managing economic recovery at the European level.
That is not to say that the EPP had a clear mandate to follow its policies to the exclusion of all else. The popularity of Eurosceptic parties translated into some electoral success, leading to the continuation of the informal ‘Grand Coalition’ of the EPP and the S&D at European level. With this in mind, the position of the S&D Group as the second party enabled both the re-election of Martin Schulz as EP President (for half of the term), and also a more ‘social’ approach to many policies, than the EPP might have supported outright. It could even be argued that this influence spread further – among President Juncker’s five strategic priorities was a reform of the Monetary Union with a social dimension in mind. Furthermore, the informal ‘G5’ grouping of Jean-Claude Juncker, Franz Timmermans, Gianni Pitella, Manfred Weber and Martin Schulz – 3 of whom are aligned with the S&D Group – was seen as a key forum for discussing high level political issues between the EU’s leadership.
Common grounds still drive major policies
Beyond the higher politics, there was a significant cross-over in the Parliamentary Groups’ manifestos. Energy policy, digital policy and TTIP were all consistent themes across manifestos, even if the approaches varied. At least on these issues, the Parliament could find common grounds for discussions if not solutions. The synergies are possibly one of the reasons why these areas have been the focus of some of the most intense legislative activity during this mandate. The landmark Clean Energy Package, which has set the framework for energy and climate policy for the coming decade, and the ongoing building of the Digital Single Market have both dominated activities in their field, going farther than was perhaps possible without strong Parliamentary support and focus.