European elections, European values, and Brexit
Sébastien Platon (Bordeaux University)
The results of the recent European elections have shown a massive reshuffling of the European political landscape. The two European parties which have dominated the European Parliament for decades, the European People’s Party (EPP, centre-right) and the Socialists & Democrats (S&D, centre-left) suffered a significant loss of seats and lost the absolute majority that the two of them previously enjoyed – even though EPP still has the biggest number of seats. Conversely, the Greens, the Liberals (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, including Macron’s Renaissance list) and the Far-Right European parties (Europe of Freedom and Democracy and Europe of Nations and Freedom) made significant gains.
This quite accurately reflects what has happened in various countries, and seems to confirm two trends, first, the decline (to say the least) of traditionally dominating centre-right and centre-left parties and second, the success of the “liberals vs populists” narrative. The results in France and in the United Kingdom are particularly representative of these two trends.
This analysis of the sole European groups is not, however, the full picture because European groups are not as politically homogenous as they seem. Most of the mainstream groups have long been accused of housing national parties that would fit better at the extreme ends of the political spectrum. The best-known example is probably Fidesz, the party of the Hungarian Prime minister Viktor Orbán, whose systematic dismantling of the rule of law, advocacy of so-called “illiberalism”, extreme stance on migration – going as far as starving rejected asylum seekers, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights – and a violent anti-EU campaign targeting fellow EPP member Jean-Claude Juncker with anti-Semitic tropes do not sit well within the Christian-Democrat EPP. In the run-up to the elections, the EPP tried hard to distance itself from its Hungarian enfant terrible, by “suspending” its membership from the party – even though, interestingly enough, the Fidesz MEPs have not been excluded from the EPP group in the European Parliament, legally distinct from the EPP party. This is not the only example, however. S&D and ALDE both have to deal with their own bad apples. For example, the coalition currently in power in Romania, which has been criticised for protecting corrupt politicians and curbing judicial independence, is composed of the Partidul Social Democrat, which is a member of S&D, and the (Romanian) ALDE party, which, unsurprisingly, is a member of ALDE. Just like EPP, S&D and ALDE tried to distance themselves from their Romanian members, but they did not exclude them. The leadership of the European Socialist Party (PES), the party behind the S&D group, has since the 11th April 2019 considered that its relations with its Romanian affiliate shall be frozen until “the Romanian Government clarified its commitment to the rule of law and followed the European Commission’s recommendations.” PES President Sergei Stanishev said in a statement that a formal discussion over PSD’s membership would take place at the next PES Presidency meeting in June. ALDE Group has allegedly “exclude[d] ALDE Romania due to its stances against anti-corruption laws and the lack of the rule of law in Romania” in April (even though MEPs belonging to ALDE Romania still appear as members of the ALDE group on its website). There are other “problematic” national parties within mainstream European parties, as demonstrated by the #Vote4Values tracker designed by NGO Liberties.
The presence of “rule-of-law-problematic” parties within European parties is an important issue. There is a heavy suspicion that the presence of Fidesz within the EPP may be one of the reasons why the EU institutions, all presided by EPP members since 2014, have been so slow to react to the descent of the Hungarian Government into autocracy. If this is true, the EPP would bear a heavy responsibility in the rule of law crisis in Europe, since Hungary is the patient zero of this crisis and also the author of the blueprint that has since been followed by other countries such as Poland. However, the EPP has a strong incentive to keep Fidesz since it provides a lot of seats for the EPP in the European Parliament, and has even gained two more in the last European elections. In the future, if “rule-of-law problematic” parties remain in mainstream parties, they may be able to pressure them to curb any effort from the European Union to better protect itself against further rule of law backsliding – for example by rejecting the proposition of the Commission to link EU funds and compliance with the rule of Law.
Could we hope that the apparent success of the “liberals vs populists” narrative may lead to a massive clean-up within the mainstream European groups? This is where the post-election period can be helpful. Since the EPP cannot make a majority with S&D alone (assuming that S&D would even agree to ally with EPP if Fidesz stays in it), the two of them will have to reach out to ALDE and/or the Greens. The exclusion of Fidesz from the EPP would become much more probable if these new kingmakers were to make it a condition for their alliance. There are already some signs pointing in this direction. For example, Pascal Canfin, deputy leader of Macron’s European parliamentary group, told a French radio that he “[doesn’t] see how [his group] could form a majority with Orbán” and that “the EPP must clarify its position with Orbán in the coming days”. The Greens are also in favour of the EPP expelling Fidesz.
However, when it comes to parties and groups other than the EPP, Brexit might have a significant influence as to whether or not they engage in an important clean-up. According to the 2018 decision about the composition of the European Parliament, as soon as Brexit becomes effective, the 73 British seats will either disappear (46 of them) or be redistributed (27 of them) to under-represented Member States, with France and Spain being the biggest winners (5 more seats). This will have an effect on the balance between the European parties. S&D and ALDE, in particular, benefitted more than the EPP from the participation of the UK in the European elections. Whereas the Labour Party is a member of S&D and the Liberal Democrats are a member of ALDE, the Conservative Party is not a member of the EPP but of the European Conservative and Reformist Group, a Eurosceptic, anti-federalist group in the European Parliament. S&D and ALDE might, therefore, suffer from Brexit more than the EPP. This prospect may, in turn, make them reluctant to diminish their numbers even more. If they don’t get rid of their own black sheep, the EPP may use that as an argument not to expel Fidesz. However, the effects of the redistributed seats must be taken into account. A projection of how the plenary would look without British MEPs, as long as Brexit happens during this Parliament’s term, distributed internally and leaked by Politico, foresees that S&D would lose in number of seats but would make a small gain in proportion to a smaller Parliament, whereas ALDE and the Greens would lose both in numbers and in ratio. If true, S&D would not be deterred from excluding its “anti-values” members. As for ALDE, whether or not it will exclude its problematic numbers in this scenario will depend on how committed it is to European values. Surely, if EPP and S&D do engage in a clean-up, ALDE might have little choice.
The next weeks are therefore going to be crucial. Either the mainstream European parties will opt for a value-based alliance, and so the rule of law crisis may, at least, be contained, or they may opt for an old-fashioned, the-bigger-the-better strategy, and the rule of law crisis might fester.
Sébastien Platon is Professor of Public Law at Bordeaux University and the head of the Master’s degree program in European Law at this University. He specialises in European Constitutional Law, with a focus on EU Fundamental Rights and the EU institutional system.