Countdown to the 2019 European elections – the outlook so far

Niamh Griffin, Cillian Totterdell

The next European elections are set to take place in just under twelve months’ time. Currently, the EU is having to prove its value to many of its members and assert its importance to its neighbours. The European project always seems to feel under threat to some extent and probably more so now than ever. Therefore, we need to ask ourselves what this uncertainty means for citizens, businesses and clients and how will it be represented in the institutions.

A lot can happen in the next twelve months, but at this point, what do we expect the new parliament to look like? To answer this, we have made a projection of seats for the next mandate using data from public opinion polls on national parties across EU countries as a proxy for votes for European parties in the European Parliament. There are a number of issues with using such data to project seats and where public opinion polls were not available, we used votes from general elections to fill in the gaps.

We calculated seats based on proportional representation in a national list style of voting, however, some countries elect MEPs through constituencies, for example in Ireland, or through electoral colleges in Belgium. This would make a difference in the actual outcomes in elections as parties are not necessarily competing for the same share of the vote in these cases. We were also unable to attribute some national parties to European parties and therefore we have classified them as NI/other.

The projected percentage of actual NI (non-attached members) seats is around 3-4%. Similarly, many MEPs are independent of national parties but are members of European ones and we have not been able to account for those seats using public opinion polls on national parties.

The first difference between these two elections is the reduction in seats as the UK will not be taking part. The UK currently has 73 seats in the European Parliament, 27 of these will be redistributed to other countries.

Read also: “European Elections 2019: What can we learn from the past”

The second difference is the potential flattening out of the centre and further fragmentation of party support. From looking at the data, we can predict that the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) will still be the largest party, as it has been for the past 20 years. The real battle lies between the centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and the centrist Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) to be the second-largest party and the main opposition to the EPP.

However, this battle is dependent on Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche maintaining their momentum and aligning themselves with ALDE. This is still uncertain as Macron’s approval rating has been waning among his electorate, despite his idealistic visions for reform both at home and in the EU.

What does this mean for future EU policy?

The loss of 18 British MEPs from the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group will make a big difference to their party strategy and threatens their very existence. They may not be able to achieve the requirements to maintain their status as a party in the European Parliament. The Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) party faces a similar threat with the loss of 18 UKIP MEPs.

This potential fragmentation of the right might result in like-minded MEPs from the ECR, EFDD and the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) to form a new party which could to threaten the centre-ground.  But a right-wing Eurosceptic group like this would probably be too much for many moderate MEPs in the ECR who might consider joining the EPP to avoid this.

The S&D group faces losses not just from British Labour MEPs but also from social democrats in France, Italy and Germany, if they follow the trend of parliamentary elections in those countries over the past year. This will make it harder for agreements to be reached and for new alliances to be formed between the EPP, ALDE and S&D.

All of this fragmentation and instability causes uncertainty for policy-making in the next mandate, therefore voting this time round is even more important.

Voter behaviours in European elections

European Parliament elections are generally considered second-order elections. This means that compared to national elections, they are characterised by lower citizen interest and media attention, lower turnout, less support for government parties and more support for smaller fringe parties.

There are many reasons for this, including that it is perceived that there may be less at stake by voting for fringe parties. There is also less of a need to vote strategically in European elections and it could be argued that these votes are more representative of voters’ actual preferences when compared to votes in national elections.

Will 2019 be different?

The 2014 election was already different to previous years. It took place in the context of the economic crisis, with many citizens living under austerity policies and some countries in bailout programmes. Voters were unhappy with government parties and were more distrustful of national and European institutions. It was also the first election where the Spitzenkandidaten process was used, linking the nomination of the president of the European Commission to party support in the European Parliament.

A lot has happened in the EU since 2014. European policies and the EU itself have become national issues, the consequences of which can be seen in France, Italy, Poland and Hungary. One outcome of the UK’s vote to leave the EU is that the debate and negotiations since then have been a sort of revision lesson for us all on how much EU policy affects our daily lives.

Read also: “2019 European elections ‘could be the most decisive yet’ on future of EU”

The European Commission is engaging in citizens’ dialogues on different policy areas and ‘Future of Europe’ debates are taking place across Europe encouraging us think about what we want from the EU.

The European Union has never been a more salient issue for its citizens. Perhaps the 2019 elections will be fought on European issues and could be the most decisive election yet on the future of the Europe.

Thanks for reading this far. Feel free to read more on our Year of Change video series which will bring you closer to the changes happening in 2019.