A Message to Brussels from the European Elections: We Accept the European Project but the Union Has to Change

European elections are a fundamentally democratic exercise, the second-largest (after India) democratic manifestation of the will of some 450 million eligible voters. There were attempts to interfere, manipulate, and even falsify, but there can be no doubt about the legitimacy of the process. It speaks for Europe that voter turnout increased substantially from 42.6 percent in 2014 to around 50 percent in 2019. Now that the results are in, Europe has a better sense of what the state of the Union looks like and what direction the European Project should take in the future.

The elections took place under the cloud of a number of serious economic, social, political, and cultural issues—conflicts might even be the better term, because that’s what the struggles over immigration and the appropriate economic and monetary policy to combat the negative impact of the worst financial crisis in the history of the European Union looked like in reality. Pressure from inside and outside of Europe threatened to pull the Union apart. The challenge of ethnic nationalism, populism, and a recourse to authoritarianism appeared to win the upper hand over Europe’s liberal values and democratic aspirations. There were fears that Europe would have to face a fundamental paradigm shift, handing over the “cultural hegemony”—as Gramsci would say—to populism and nationalism, ultimately ending the European Project. These fears did not materialize. Anti-European parties control roughly one-fifth (or some 20 percent) of the seats in the European Parliament, not enough to be influential in Brussels. The problem is that the strong showing of Euro-skeptic and/or anti-European parties in Eastern Europe (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Bulgaria) as well as in Italy and France will increase political polarization in the European Union.

The reassuring overall message from the 2019 European elections is that together, the political forces supporting the European Project still captured two-thirds of the 751 seats in the European Parliament.

The fight over Europe’s identity is not over yet. The European Project still needs to be completed. But the reassuring overall message from the 2019 European elections is that together, the political forces supporting the European Project still captured two-thirds of the 751 seats in the European Parliament. With 504 seats, pro-European center-right, center-left, liberal, and pro-European Green parties still control a decisive two-thirds majority in the European Parliament. They will play a crucial role with regard to the EU’s overall political and economic direction in the future as well as in filling the key positions of EU institutions with the most promising leaders. The challenges for Europe are enormous and the demands on the quality of leadership commensurate with the dimensions of the task are also extraordinary. One must hope that the pro-European majority of the European Parliament will meet the challenge and put leadership quality above party affiliation.

Immediate Challenges

First, there is a need of winning the battle of values defining European identity as a Union committed to democracy, pluralism, human rights, and the principle of open societies. Authoritarianism is not a sustainable form of governance. As much as European borders need to be protected and migration controlled, Europe has to remain a pluralistic and open society. The divide between liberal and illiberal concepts of governance must be bridged so that there will be no need for virtual walls inside the Union.

The divide between liberal and illiberal concepts of governance must be bridged so that there will be no need for virtual walls inside the Union.

Second, Europe still suffers from sluggish economic growth and high unemployment, particularly youth unemployment. In spite of rising debt levels, the Union needs a growth initiative as a combined effort on the national level as well on the level of the European Union in order to fight off a potential economic downturn. In key sectors of technology such as quantum computing, 5G technology, and artificial intelligence, Europe is not well positioned to remain competitive on the global level. This needs to change for the benefit of each and every EU member state and it has to be a whole of government as well as a whole of society and community initiative.

Third, there are geopolitical challenges to meet from Russia and China, as well as from the United States, in combination with Europe’s economic and technological modernization needs. This, too, calls for a comprehensive renewal effort. The election results show that in spite of a nationalist challenge, the European project still offers the best prospect for winning the future for each and every European member state that—left to its own devices—would not be able succeed under the conditions of technical and cultural change with such a dramatic speed.

Although Euro-skeptic, populist, and nationalist political movements gained strength in the context of Europe’s financial, economic, and migration crises, together they control just one-fifth of the seats in the European Parliament. They represent countries with a still-solid majority of people accepting the European Union as the best hope for their future. They should be able to put up a fight about Europe’s identity and its democratic future. The pro-European parties in the European Parliament need to live up to the challenge posed by the new nationalist populism and they can rely on the European voter to have their back.

Staffing Europe

The immediate task and mandate resulting from the elections is to fill three key positions of the European Union. The most important one is the future President of the European Commission, which exercises substantial powers over issues such as trade, global warming, and the regulation of the tech industry. The Lisbon Treaty stipulates that the European Council proposes a candidate—taking into account the results of the European elections—and that the European Parliament elects the new President of the European Commission. The Lisbon Treaty does not mention the concept of a party’s Spitzenkandidat, or lead candidate, but the European Parliament adopted this concept as a way to align the Office of Commission President more closely with the majority of the European Parliament.

In the past, the European People’s Party (EPP), a center-right group of political parties, and the center-left group of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) together controlled two-thirds of the seats of the European Parliament. Acting together as a de facto Grand Coalition, they were always able to secure a majority for their candidate as Commission President, and they also always prevailed on substantive votes in the European Parliament. With a loss of more than 90 seats, EPP and S&D lost their 54 percent majority in the European Parliament and now control only 43 percent of the seats. The Christian Democratic EPP lost 50 seats and the center-left Socialists and Democrats lost 47 seats, whereas the pro-European Liberal Democrats (ALDE) gained 40 seats and the Greens added 25 seats to their group. EPP and S&D now have to share power with either the Liberal Democrats (ALDE) or the Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA) in a broader, but also more fractured, coalition. Therefore, the new President of the Commission might well come from the centrist ALDE or Greens, a group that also receives support from Emmanuel Macron’s French movement La Republique En Marche, with 22 seats in the European Parliament. This means that the EPP Spitzenkandidat Manfred Weber, the German CSU politician supported by Angela Merkel, is far from a shoo-in. The loss of votes as well as seats for the EPP in the European Parliament put a big question mark behind his candidacy. The same is true for Frans Timmermans, the Dutch Socialist Spitzenkandidat who campaigned impressively for his party, leading the Dutch Labor Party to electoral victory in the Netherlands.

Finding a majority in the European Parliament will be more difficult also because of the weak showing of the German SPD in the European elections.

Finding a majority in the European Parliament, however, will be more difficult also because of the weak showing of the German SPD in the European elections. The SPD won only 16 percent of the vote in Germany, 11.5 points below its 2014 result, and is now critically wounded. Either Weber or Timmermans would need support from other political groups to win the Commission presidency. It is entirely possible, however, that the European Council might propose a third candidate with a better chance of securing a majority in the European Parliament. One name mentioned in this context is Michel Barnier, a French Member of the European Commission who won much respect in Europe as the main Brexit negotiator. Margrethe Vestager, the current Commissioner of the EU for Competition, also showed ambitions to serve as Commission President. At this point, the outcome of the European Council’s considerations and negotiations among 28 member states is wide open.

Equally important—and in the future an even more crucial institution—will be the President of the European Council, a position currently held by Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister. His term in office is expiring and the European Council has to find a new President. The Council represents the intergovernmental arm of the EU and, given the strong showing of populist and right-wing nationalist parties such as Italy’s Lega under the leadership of Matteo Salvini, it will play a more important role. Lega scored a big electoral victory with 34 percent of the vote, making it the strongest party in Italy.

One clear message from the European elections is that a lot of dissatisfaction among European voters on the nationalist right was targeted against too much influence from Brussels and the EU’s executive branch.

More decision-making power will now move to the Council. One clear message from the European elections is that a lot of dissatisfaction among European voters on the nationalist right was targeted against too much influence from Brussels and the EU’s executive branch. As a result of the elections, Europe will have to go back to its future and remember the original mission of European integration: The Union was created to support its member states rather than concentrate power in Brussels.

The intergovernmental process—although more cumbersome and complicated—has been used quite successfully since the Maastricht Summit in 1992 and will play a more prominent role again in the future. With this method Europe successfully managed the introduction of the Monetary Union and the euro, the enlargement process, and the integration of Central and Eastern Europe states.

Today, in spite of Brexit, the European Union needs a similar push forward to be ready for a multipolar world of political and economic competition. After the completion of the internal market, the introduction of the euro, and a predominantly successful enlargement, a new vision and a new narrative carrying the EU into the future of a vastly more complex economic, technological, and political world will be necessary. And here the new Commission President and even more importantly, the European Council President together with the Commission, need a compelling concept of leadership into the future.

Finding Balance in Leadership

The third crucial position to fill is the future President of the European Central Bank (ECB) and to find a successor for the outgoing Italian ECB president Mario Draghi. The decision will have to be made by the European Council. A key factor here is to avoid too much influence of the more powerful European member states. Since Manfred Weber, the leader of the European People’s Party and a German CSU politician supported by Angela Merkel, is a candidate for the Commission presidency, it is unlikely that—if he wins—the ECB presidency would also end up in German hands. The German candidate for the ECB presidency is Jens Weidmann, currently Bundesbank President and Board Member of the ECB. His handicap is that his economic orthodoxy is not shared universally in European capitals. There are also other candidates for this position from France, the Netherlands, and Finland. Weidmann would only have a chance if Manfred Weber does not become Commission President. Germany must now weigh its options very carefully in order to remain relevant in Brussels.

No Exits

President Macron’s La Republique En Marche and its vision of a European Renaissance might have suffered a setback in France, narrowly losing out to the nationalist agenda of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, the renamed Front National. The struggle for the future of France as a pillar of the European Union is not over yet. Brexit and the chaos that followed the catastrophic British referendum is certainly a warning signal, but indirectly, the British lesson is not necessarily emulation. It is confirmation of a project worthwhile to support on behalf of every single European nation-state. The continental political parties proposing Brexit as a model, such as the Dutch Forum for Democracy Party, did not fare well Europe-wide. Leaving the Union is not a successful proposition in the future.

Jean Monnet, together with Robert Schuman both founding fathers of the European Union, used to say that European integration always moves forward from crisis to crisis. With the most recent election results for the European Parliament, it seems that the European Project is still on this trajectory. There are also hopeful signs of a European public sphere, or potentially even a European polity, starting to emerge.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Dieter Dettke

Georgetown University

Dr. Dieter Dettke is a Non-Resident Fellow at AICGS and Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University.

Dr. Dettke served as the U.S. Representative and Executive Director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Washington from 1985 until 2006 managing a comprehensive program of transatlantic cooperation. In 2006, he joined the German Marshall Fund of the United States as a Transatlantic Fellow and from September 2006 to June 2007, he was a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His most recent book is “Germany Says ‘No’: The Iraq War and the Future of German Foreign and Security Policy,” published by theWoodrow Wilson Center Press and The Johns Hopkins University Press, Washington, DC, and Baltimore, 2009.

Dr. Dettke is a foreign and security policy specialist, author and editor of numerous publications on German, European, and U.S. foreign and security issues.

He studied Law and Political Science in Bonn and Berlin, Germany, and Strasbourg, France and was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1967/68.