The political make-up of the European Parliament is critical to future policy-making in the European Union. It must also approve the choice of the next European Commission president. Across a large swathe of EU legislation, it has the power of co-decision with the 28 EU member states.
In the event, the ideological fog is likely to linger. Policy-making will go on hold until a new Commission is appointed.
There is a real danger of inter-institutional deadlock on the question of Commission president, as David Cameron leads a rearguard action to block the nomination of Jean-Claude Juncker, former Luxembourg prime minister, as excessively federalist. He thinks that is precisely what voters (especially in the UK) rejected.
The UK prime minister will have his work cut out to succeed, and the key person he has to persuade is Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. For behind the spat lies a deep division between British and German attitudes to the whole European democratic process.
In the UK, the European elections are widely seen as a quinquennial exercise in irrelevance, on the grounds that national elections provide more genuine democratic legitimacy. In Germany, the European poll is seen as an essential element in closing the ‘democratic deficit’ in the EU, and ensuring that the Commission and the European Council are answerable to directly elected parliamentarians.
Merkel is not a great personal fan of Juncker, who is the Spitzenkandidat (lead candidate) for the Commission presidency backed by the European People’s Party (EPP), the centre-right group in which her own Christian Democrats are the biggest national faction.
The chancellor crossed swords with the Luxemburger during the eurozone crisis, when he argued furiously that France and Germany were stitching up deals without consulting their partners. But her party is determined to back him as the democratic choice. She has agreed, without much obvious enthusiasm, that his name should be first in the ring.
The EPP is the largest group in the new parliament. If the Socialist group backs him, as it has promised, Juncker has a good chance of winning a parliamentary majority. But party discipline in the EP is notoriously weak.
The new EP is supposed to vote on the candidate proposed by the Council at its inaugural session in mid-July. But if neither Juncker, nor any other Spitzenkandidat, gets the endorsement of EU leaders, there could well be no decision until September at the earliest.
A hung parliament
In ideological terms, the election has produced a hung parliament. Only a grand coalition between the EPP and the Socialists and Democrats will have a clear majority.
That is a political outcome Merkel is familiar with – she heads a grand coalition in Berlin. But if the two big families dominate decision-making, it will fuel accusations in the UK that the ‘federalist elite’ is ignoring the eurosceptic trend among voters.
Merkel is one of two European leaders to emerge from the elections with their reputations enhanced. The other is Matteo Renzi, the new and youthful Italian prime minister. His centre-left party won an unprecedented 40 per cent, seeing off the challenge of comedian Beppe Grillo’s populist Five Star Movement.
In contrast, both President François Hollande and Cameron will be weakened by the poor showing of their ruling parties, both in the Council and in the parliament, where their supporters are much reduced in number.
While the four biggest pro-EU party families control 70 per cent of the 751 seats in the parliament, assorted eurosceptic, nationalist and anti-establishment parties – if one includes the British Conservative party – will have 30 per cent of the seats. But the anti-establishment parties are from opposite ends of the political spectrum. The rebels from the north are right-wingers, hostile to immigration and the EU. The rebels from the south are largely leftists, hostile to austerity and economic reforms, but not the EU as such.
In eastern Europe, a quite different trend was in evidence. Pro-EU parties dominated in all the ex-communist member states. The crisis in Ukraine was an important factor in persuading voters that former Soviet satellites are much more secure inside the EU than outside it.
The ‘earthquake’ that was cited by Manuel Valls, French prime minister, in the wake of his Socialist party’s dramatic defeat by the far-right Front National in France was more of a series of violent national earth tremors than a coherent Europe-wide phenomenon.
There is little love lost between Marine Le Pen of the Front National and Nigel Farage of UKIP, in spite of their common determination to disrupt legislation. Farage accuses Le Pen of leading a racist party. She retorts that he is slandering a neighbour. So they are competing to form rival parliamentary groups, a process which requires them each to find allies from at least six other countries. They may make a lot of noise, but have little political effect.
So what does it all mean for policy-making?
The outcome could spell problems for the negotiations on a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, a priority for both Merkel and Cameron. There could well be a hostile majority in the EP if the nationalist groups combine with the left and far-left to oppose it. The parliament could prove as troublesome as the US Congress in approving any deal.
Attempts to curb free movement of workers across EU borders, or at least their access to welfare benefits – something Cameron wants to answer the surge in UKIP support – are likely to prove deeply divisive. Freedom of movement is not only enshrined in the EU treaties. It was the single most popular reason for the new member states joining the EU after the end of the Cold War. In Germany it is seen as both essential to a properly functioning internal market, and as vital to promoting labour mobility inside the eurozone.
One issue on which there is likely to be a big majority in the parliament across party lines is data protection. There is support both on the right and left. That is potentially uncomfortable for a UK government committed to defending the right of its intelligence services to continue the mass collection of data from private citizens.
MEPs have divided loyalties: sometimes they vote on ideological grounds, sometimes according to national interest. But the new nationalists, if they vote at all, are most likely to oppose the interests of their governments. It will make the parliament more unpredictable than usual. But it cannot be ignored.
Quentin Peel has joined Chatham House as Mercator Senior Fellow in the Europe Programme.
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