The 2019 European Parliament elections, which ran between 23 and 26 May across 28 member states, confirmed some expectations but also came with some surprises. Turnout was remarkably high at over 50%, surpassing the 2014’s 42%. Greater diversity and higher turnout demonstrate a Europeanisation of political life around big societal issues like the environment, migration, external threats and European integration. Innovation and digitalisation were also popular topics among electoral campaigns. As 751 seats are now finally in the process of being filled, and elected MEPs return or head for the first time to Brussels, it is time to take stock of yet another fascinating election by addressing the critical changes and uncovering how these may affect EU digital policymaking.
A More Diverse Parliament
As predicted, mainstream political groups lost the absolute majority in Parliament for the first time in 40 years. The European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialist and Democrats (S&D) conceded 39 and 37 seats respectively. Their combined total of 322 fell short of the 376 needed for an absolute majority. The two main groups will need to compromise with parties on the left and right to continue business-as-usual.
The 3rd and 4th European groups may opt for alliances but not without struggle. ALDE/Renaissance, heavily dominated by the French En Marche, is the kingmaker with 105 seats, a number which could increase considering the current momentum if delegations within the S&D decide to join. Macron’s influence will be crucial, his party’s manifesto advocating for “buy European” policies, greater control on foreign investment and a European Agency for Digital Trust to regulate online platforms.
The real surprise over the weekend came from the Greens with 69 MEPs (up 17 seats from 2014) and hence another key interlocutor for the EPP and S&D. Their heavier presence will likely result in additional climate and pollution issues to be reflected in legislation over the next five years.
On the Eurosceptic front, the populist and far-right wave has been partially contained. Matteo Salvini’s League and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally gain of 22 seats each boosts the ENF (Europe des Nations et Libertés) to 58 MEPs, but still far from the 100 they were hoping for. By contrast, Nigel Farage’s 29 seats counting for the EFDD (Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy) make his Brexit Party the largest national party in the European Parliament in terms of seats together with the German Union parties, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU). The European Conservatives and Reformist (ECR), suffered heavy losses due to the British Conservatives’ historic defeat. Although the Eurosceptic narrative has gained ground within individual member states, a combined result of 171 MEPs, or 25% of seats, shows that this strategy has limited success on the aggregate European level.
While a clear Eurosceptic/Pro-European divide is already identifiable, the distribution of power among and within the various groups remains unclear. The predominance of several national delegations within a political group may greatly influence its strategic orientation and priorities. The EPP and S&D have traditionally been dominated by the mainstream parties from Germany, France, Italy and Spain in a rather balanced way, but this will change. For instance, in the EPP, the German centre-right CDU/CSU and the Polish European Coalition are the clear winners and will lead the group. Similarly, Spain’s Socialist Party and its 20 seats will have greater influence in the S&D, possibly imposing a stronger social agenda, while Italy’s Democratic Party and Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) are licking their wounds. By contrast, the centre-right Forza Italia (six MEPS) and the centre-left French Socialist Party (five MEPS), traditionally strong in the EPP and the S&D respectively, will struggle to be heard. With the same lens, it will be interesting to see how ALDE, beyond its new pivotal role in parliament, will also manage internal bargains considering that Macron’s En Marche constitutes a substantial national presence with 22 seats. The German Green Party with its 22 seats will possibly dominate the scene within the Green group.
The fragmentation of European politics and the outlined shifts in power balances within European groups will be reflected into committees and therefore in the practical day-to-day work in Brussels. While negotiations have started for chairs, vice-chairs or membership positions in committees, new dynamics will emerge when real work resumes after the summer. Previous rapporteurs or shadow rapporteurs on specific files will not necessarily be confirmed on the same policy areas, making it more uncertain for stakeholders to rely on trusted relationships built over the past years. Close attention will therefore need to be given to these processes until key profiles emerge.
Returning and new tech MEPs
A number of returning MEPs will continue to work on unfinished digital files. Birgit Sippel for the S&D is expected to continue her work on ePrivacy and e-Evidence and Angelika Niebler from the EPP will likely continue overseeing the implementation of the Cybersecurity Act for which she was rapporteur. Other digital policy heavyweights winning a seat in Brussels are Andrus Ansip (ALDE), the Commissioner for the Digital Single Market, and Mariya Gabriel (EPP), the Commissioner for the Digital Economy. It remains unclear, however, if they will continue their work as commissioners or MEPs.
A pool of first-time MEPs is also making its way to Brussels with some likely to become key players in digital policy. Among them is Katarina Barley from Germany. Her work on competition and transparency for online platforms as Federal Minister of Justice and Consumer Protection is highly regarded within the wider tech sector.
Despite the clarity of some outcomes of these elections, the functioning of the 9th European Parliament and the shape of the new policies are still to be understood. With both inter- and intra- group power relations being redefined in Brussels, the next five years will differ greatly from the previous parliament. The EPP and the S&D will not only have to compromise to find a majority, but will have to share the top jobs in parliamentary committees with ALDE and the Greens after having dominated these positions during the last legislature.
Beyond Parliament, much will depend on the next European Commission’s composition, the Council’s political mandate and the legislative proposals put forward by directorate-generals (DG). For the moment, negotiations have already started to elect the next European Commission President. Manfred Weber, the EPP candidate previously in the lead might have to be sacrificed for the sake of compromise considering the power reshuffle emerged among the groups. Under pressure from France, Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans (S&D), Commissioner Margarethe Vestager (ALDE) and the European Parliament’s Chief Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier are among the contenders.
The European political landscape is changing at a fast pace and this will determine the substance of policy outcomes in the future. Now more than ever, stakeholders must pay close attention to these developments.
Haude Lannon, Senior Manager, International Public Policy, Access Partnership
Julian McNeill, Policy Analyst, Access Partnership