A voting session at the European Parliament – source: European Parliament (via Flickr)
The 2024 European elections are approaching, both in terms of time and atmosphere across the Bloc. In fact, although the polls will presumably open in late May next year – indeed, the 2014 and 2019 rounds took place around then – the European institutions have already started mobilising the media and civil society in order to spur debate and raise the hype around the electoral event.
Regardless of the voting outcome, the upcoming elections will be remembered as the first ever – at least since the direct election of the European Parliament (i.e., since 1979) – without the United Kingdom. The definitive withdrawal of the British came only in January 2020, hence albeit the Brexit negotiations had been in place for three years, the UK took part in the 2019 elections as formally still a Member of the Union.
The tangible effects of the departing procedures have been a decrease in the total number of seats in the Parliament – from 751 to 705, including the President – and a rise in national quotas, mostly in favour of the bigger countries (e.g., France, Italy, Spain) whose larger demographic bases profit more from the proportional seat-allocation system.
The crisis of traditional parties
Besides the disappearance of one of the major actors in continental politics, the 2024 elections represent an incognita also as to the future equilibria in the European Parliament, due to shifts in public opinion brought about by national and international occurrences throughout the past four years.
The European People’s Party (EPP) – currently the largest formation in Strasbourg – is expected to be severely hit by the end of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mandate in 2021, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) – Mrs Merkel’s former party – having already witnessed a negative swing at the last German Federal elections.
In addition, analysts foresee a significant increase in vote share – at the detriment, amongst others, of the EPP – for the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), the “soft-Eurosceptic” party including Poland’s Law and Justice, Brothers of Italy, the Sweden Democrats, and Spain’s Vox. Especially Brothers of Italy – which has co-chaired the ECR until September 2022 – has substantially increased its national electoral awareness since the COVID-19 pandemic, with their leader and new Italian PM Giorgia Meloni currently seeking international legitimacy through repeated meetings with EU institutions’ representatives.
On the other side of the spectrum, the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) have suffered a major reputational shock following probably the most extensive corruption scandal in the history of the Union: the Qatargate. The controversy arose in December 2022, involving renowned personalities such as Eva Kaili – then-vice-President of the EP – and Antonio Panzeri, both former members of the S&D group. The electoral impact of the investigation is yet to be determined, to the extent that some argue it will affect voters’ overall confidence in the supranational bodies, thus decreasing the turnout. What’s certain is their prominent anti-corruption identity promoted over the years has weakened, and national parties – especially in the countries most closely affected by the scandal (i.e., Greece, and Italy) – will have to fight hard to win back the electorate’s confidence.
And finally, there is Renew Europe, the centrist and liberal formation, as well as the third-largest in the Parliament, after the EPP and the S&D. The group is sponsored – and currently chaired – by another dominant actor in the European arena, the French President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party. Often seen as a multilateral collective for the wide range of parties – in terms of political and geographical origin – associated with it, the party has been playing an increasingly central role since its establishment after the 2019 elections. And given the widespread uncertainty around the more traditional groups, Renew’s position is predicted to become even more pivotal after next year’s election round.
In this sense, the latest polls by POLITICO highlight important trends in the 2020-2023 timespan. The divergence between the two largest parties – EPP and S&D – shrunk progressively throughout the harshest pandemic waves of 2020 and 2021, while widening again – in favour of the EPP – since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Renew remained consistent with its pre-COVID consensus levels. While the ECR has been witnessing a positive swing – surpassing the nationalist Identity and Democracy (ID) group – since late September 2022, remarking the utmost relevance of the Italian national elections and the appointment of a new Executive led by Brothers of Italy’s leader – and former ECR chairwoman – Giorgia Meloni.
Ultimately, what these scores suggest is a potential alliance between the EPP and the ECR might still not be sufficient for the conservative side to retain the majority. Nor are all the EPP Members convinced about such an alliance, undermining Max Weber’s leadership. Hence, once more, Mr Macron’s Renew might realistically become the kingmaker of the game.
Looming shadows on the Eastern front
Another detail worth stressing is the impact of the economic and diplomatic effort put upon the Western countries by the Russo-Ukrainian military confrontation. Indeed, most EU countries – except for Austria, Ireland, Sweden, and Finland – are also NATO Members, thus being directly involved in the supply of weapons to the Ukrainian side.
Moreover, although sharing the same monetary policy, the rise of inflation has not had the same magnitude or economic effects across the Continent. In November, Eurostat released a special report about annual inflation rates in the EU and the euro area, signalling higher levels for those countries depending more on Russian exports and natural resources, such as the Baltic states and Hungary. Whereas amongst the West European “big economies,” the recorded impact was further heterogeneous, with Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands registering increases in price levels well above 10 per cent, while France and Spain presented the lowest scores – around 7 per cent – in the dataset.
The great electoral volatility that emerged through the latest polls is but the mirror image of such asymmetries in terms of political and economic consequences of the conflict, in turn reflecting the disparity of national governments’ diplomatic and policy stances. In a nutshell, since, according to the Autumn 2022 Eurobarometer survey, more than half – 74 per cent, to be exact – of the Bloc’s citizens approved the actions taken to support Ukraine, we should expect harder-line parties to win larger portions of voters’ confidence. Hence the reason for the slight yet ongoing decline in support for the European Socialists (S&D) which have lately been involved in stumbling decisions concerning military support – for instance, concerning the supply of German-built Leopard tanks, which the German Executive had been denying for weeks, before issuing a final approval only in late January.
Now, no one hopes the conflict entrenches further, protracting until next year’s vote, but should this dystopic scenario materialise, the Ukrainian war would have been on for about half of the 2019-2024 legislature time. Things might change (even drastically) again before the elections. Still, it’s safe to say that parties’ positioning will make for a key voting criterion – in one sense, or the other – for many European voters.
A major turning point
In conclusion, the 2024-2029 European legislature will represent a decisive moment in the history of the Union, and a crossroads in widening and deepening integration across the Continent.
The next European Commission (EC) – as the executive branch amongst the EU institutions – will be called to face unprecedented challenges, notably handling the aftermath of the Ukrainian war, completing the environmental and energy transition, and responding to a growing trade competition also from historic partners like the United States.
Who is to lead the works of the EC depends, of course, on the European Council as well as the Parliament, whose utmost accountability – as opposed to the latest corruption affairs – will be essential to achieve the long-term outcomes set by the present and previous Executives. However, a solid majority seems far too uncertain at the moment, mostly due to rapidly evolving internal and international frameworks.
Indeed, the war in Ukraine has taken centre stage in the European political debate since the outbreak almost a year ago, posing yet new questions regarding the solidity and resoluteness of the Bloc. The matter will certainly feature in the upcoming electoral campaign, further constituting a crucial point of divergence across the spectrum.