There is little doubt that the previous European Parliament, elected in 2014, had a clear majority that did not feel much sympathy for the current leaders of Poland and Hungary. It is therefore not surprising that both Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland and Fidesz in Hungary tried to mobilise their electors by stressing the importance of the May 23–26 elections to choose the new European Parliament. In both countries, as in most parts of the EU, these elections were presented as a crucial battle between conflicting visions of the future of Europe: whether it should resemble more and more some kind of multicultural United States of Europe, or whether it should preserve the identities of its component nations.
What was at stake
The higher-than-usual level of participation in these European elections in most countries – not least in Poland and Hungary – reflected the feeling of many people that this time they were being presented with a real choice, and that the future composition of the European Parliament would be of importance to them. In Poland, the turnout reached 45.68%, compared with 20–25% in all previous European elections. The turnout in Hungary was 43.36%, compared with less than 29% in the 2014 election and 36–39% in the previous elections in 2004 and 2009. In Poland, the greatly increased turnout is said to be partly due to the strategy of the opposition European Coalition, formed by liberals and the left, with an unequivocally pro-LGBT, anticlerical, progressive agenda. Thus, PiS was able to present itself as the protector of Polish identity and traditional, Catholic values in a country where some 92% of the population are baptised Catholics, and almost 40% of them regularly attend Sunday mass. A week before the May 26 election, PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński promised voters that his party’s MEPs would struggle in the European Parliament against the “oligarchic drift” of the European Union, in favour of equal status for all member states and the freedom to say “that homosexual unions cannot have children”. He stated that PiS would deal in the EP with questions linked to ideology, religion and social matters, because “there is an offensive going on today in this area”. At the same time, Hungarian leaders stressed the question of immigration and the preservation of the Christian identity of Europe. With Fidesz-KDNP MEPs still being members of the European People’s Party group (EPP), though having been temporarily suspended and having withdrawn their support for the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat for the presidency of the next European Commission, Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán said: “I want the EPP to win the European Parliament election, but afterwards there will be a debate on the direction it takes.” Orbán has made it clear that Fidesz’s continued membership of the EPP will depend on the European centre-right’s stance on immigration. In the eyes of the Hungarian PM, allying with socialists and liberals could only mean voting for open borders, and Fidesz should not be part of such a coalition in the European Parliament. For Hungarian leaders, mass immigration to Europe is an instrument used by the liberal left in its fight against nation states and traditional values. This has been explained many times by leading figures within Fidesz, such as parliamentary speaker László Kövér, who said shortly before the European elections that: “those who want to see the end of Europe’s Christian and national era” have deployed in their struggle “astounding weapons such as, for example, the mass migration wave thrust onto Europe”.
However, although both the Hungarian Fidesz-KDNP coalition and the Polish United Right – led by PiS – did very well in the elections (with respectively 52% and 45% of the vote, the highest shares of votes obtained by political parties in the whole of the EU with the exception of Malta), one may wonder whether the new Parliament will be much different from the old one, and whether its approach to Poland and Hungary, and to Central Europe in general, will change in any way. In fact, the new European Parliament can hardly be relied on to make the EU modify its course, and changes would have to happen in more member states for the EU to take the direction advocated by Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński at the Krynica Economic Forum in 2016, when they talked about the need for a cultural counter-revolution in Europe.
The new balance of forces in the European Parliament after May 26
Indeed, the main change in the new European Parliament after the May 2019 elections concerns the fact that the two groups who had shared power between them since the first direct elections in 1979, namely the leftist Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), have lost their joint majority for the first time, since they now hold a total of 332 seats out of 751, which is far short of the 376 MEPs required for an absolute majority. The EPP saw its total number of MEPs reduced from 221 to 179, which still makes it the largest group in the Parliament, while the S&D lost 38 seats, from a total of 191 before the last elections to 153 today. Thus, although president Macron’s party (LREM) lost by a thin margin to Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) in France, with only 22% of the vote for LREM, the progressive, euro-federalist French president was named as the potential king-maker in the aftermath of the elections. The EPP and S&D will indeed now have to co-opt the centrist Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) into their grand coalition, and the ALDE has now been renamed ALDE&R to cater for the arrival of Macron’s “Renaissance” list, whose 21 MEPs will constitute the largest national representation within the group. Thanks mainly to LREM and to the good results of the British Liberal Democrats, the ALDE&R group now has 106 MEPs, while Guy Verhofstadt’s ALDE previously had only 67. The entry of ALDE&R into the grand coalition can only reinforce its generally progressive, pro-immigration and euro-federalist nature, and the new European Parliament should therefore not be expected to change the course taken by EU institutions in past years, or to become more sympathetic to conservative right-wing governments such as those of Viktor Orbán and Mateusz Morawiecki.
A side-effect of the co-opting of ALDE&R will probably be that Fidesz MEPs leave the EPP and join one of the three existing groups to the right of EPP which are usually referred to as being “populist” and “Eurosceptic” in the mainstream liberal media: the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) and Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF). In France, LREM leaders were already making this a condition for ALDE&R to negotiate with the EPP the day after the May 26 elections. Even without Fidesz, such a tripartite coalition would still have a comfortable majority of 425 seats. Such a majority would only be threatened in case of a major schism between liberals and conservatives within the EPP itself.
During the campaign, some, such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán as well as Italy’s Matteo Salvini and Silvio Berlusconi, called for a broad right-wing coalition encompassing the EPP and the three groups on its right (the ECR, ENF and EFDD), on the model of the right-wing coalitions functioning at local and regional level in Italy and, until recently, at national level in Austria. However, given the losses suffered by the EPP and by the British Tories, who now have only four MEPs in the ECR group compared with 19 previously, such a coalition, even if it was realistic, would be 21 seats short of the necessary majority of 376. In any case, if we look at the votes cast by a large majority of EPP MEPs in the previous legislature, we can only conclude that such an alliance is much less likely for the EPP than one with the ALDE&R liberals and S&D social-democrats. At the other end of the political spectrum, a left-wing alliance between the centrist ALDE&R and the far-left GUE/NGL, together with S&D and the Greens/EFA, would be only five seats short of a majority.
The so-called “populist” right did nonetheless make significant gains in these elections from its previous 2014 standings, which were already at record levels. The three groups to the right of the EPP now total 176 MEPs compared with 155 previously. Excluding the Tories, who are members of the ECR but are not generally considered “populists”, and including Fidesz MEPs, who are still members of the EPP but are generally regarded as right-wing “populists”, there are now 185 such MEPs (one fourth of the total number), compared with 148 in the previous Parliament. To achieve a blocking minority for resolutions requiring a two-thirds majority (such as the European Parliament’s required approval for Article 7 proceedings against Poland, Hungary, Romania or others), it would still be necessary to find 66 more votes among “Non-attached Members” and “Others” or in other groups. Moreover, if the UK finally leaves the EU (the new deadline being October 31), the right-wing “populists” will lose 29 MEPs from the Brexit Party (out of a total of 73 British MEPs).
It is also to be noted that not all members of the groups right of the EPP share the vision of PiS and Fidesz for the EU. Some simply want their country to leave the EU. Apart from the Brexit Party, this is the case, for example, with the Dutch Forum for Democracy (FvD), which has three MEPs in the ECR group. Furthermore, many of those who do not call for total dissolution of the European Union or for their country to leave the EU would like to abolish the European Parliament (like the German AfD) or the European Commission (like the French RN), or the Schengen borderless zone (like the Belgian Flemish Vlaams Belang, French RN, German AfD, and so on). These are not goals pursued by the Polish PiS and Hungarian Fidesz, which consider the existence of the European Union to be of strategic importance for their countries, but question its drift towards a European superstate and would like to redefine the balance of powers in favour of member states and national parliaments, with a stricter application of the Lisbon Treaty. The EFDD group also includes left-wing “populists” such as the 14 MEPs from the Italian Five Star Movement (M5S), who are not so much against keeping borders open to mass immigration as in favour of the compulsory redistribution of immigrants, which is opposed by the Visegrád Four. Furthermore, while Salvini’s League and Le Pen’s National Rally are struggling to create one large right-wing “populist” group in the European Parliament, and while they have expressed their desire to see Hungarian MEPs from Fidesz and Polish MEPs from PiS eventually join them, the latter are reluctant to work with parties which they view as too pro-Russian and Putinist. This applies especially to Le Pen’s RN, with whom a leading PiS MEP, Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, ruled out any kind of cooperation when asked about it just two days after the election. On June 5, when interviewed on Radio Wnet, PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński said that he saw no chance of an alliance with Matteo Salvini as long as the leader of the Italian League sought to form a broader group together with parties which PiS “can by no means accept”. Among such parties Kaczyński named Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) and the German Alternative for Germany (AfD). About the French RN, he said that it is a party “which is very clearly pro-Russian and whose origins are difficult for us to accept – and I am talking here not about Mrs Le Pen herself but about her father and about the things he has said during the last decades”. This might change with time, however, since the RN’s “pro-Russian” stance has never differed much from that of the League, and both PiS and Fidesz leaders now seem keen on cooperating with Salvini and his League.
Some in the EPP would actually rather see an alliance with the “populist” right, with the aim of replacing today’s “Europe of bureaucrats” by a Europe of nations. This is a position defended by former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi in an interview with La Stampa on May 12 and also advocated by other MEPs elected on the Forza Italia (FI) list in order to, among other things, defend the traditional family model, which has been attacked many times in votes held in Strasbourg since 2014. However, because of its poor results on May 26, the FI, of whom current President of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani is a member, now has only six MEPs.
The overall conclusion should therefore be that a continued progressive, liberal, euro-federalist, pro-immigration coalition in the European Parliament is the most likely outcome of the May 23–26 elections, in spite of the progress made by parties holding views closer to those of Fidesz and PiS on the question of values, immigration and the balance of power between Brussels and member states. Moreover, French president Emmanuel Macron, who Matteo Salvini and Viktor Orbán called “the leader of those parties who back migration to Europe” when they met in Milan in August last year, will have much influence in the new Parliament, since his LREM party is the main force in the ALDE&R group which holds the key to a new grand coalition.
Much will now depend on the choice of the next President of the European Commission. It is for EU leaders to agree by qualified majority on their candidate, who will then have to win the approval of the European Parliament. Once approved by the Parliament and the European Council, the new Commission President will have a say in the appointment of future commissioners proposed by member states. This is one more reason why the choice of the President of the EC is now so important for the next five years and for the future of the European Union.