What Will the Future Composition of the European Parliament Look Like?

Politics - January 31, 2024

A recently released European study reveals a major change that could take place in the composition of the future European Parliament. According to the study’s authors, centre-left parties and the Greens could lose seats and, for the first time, a populist coalition of Christian Democrats, conservatives and radical right MEPs could emerge in the European legislature. This is at a time when the populist phenomenon has been slowly but surely growing in Europe in recent years.

According to a study by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), based on opinion polls in each EU member state, European populists could finish in the top two places in two-thirds of EU countries in April’s European parliamentary elections.

ECR Party to overtake Renew Europe to become third largest MEP group

Thus, according to the ECFR study, in nine countries – Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Slovakia – far-right parties are likely to come first, and in nine others – Bulgaria, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Portugal, Romania, Spain and Sweden – second. In such a case, about half of the seats in the European Parliament could go to radical right-wing parties. The study estimates that, compared to the last elections, these parties could gain an additional 90 to 100 seats and that there is a high probability that either the radical right-wing Identity and Democracy (ID) or the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group could end up in third place in the EP (dethroning Renew Europe, which is in third place after the EPP and S&D in the current parliamentary term). Such a sudden shift to the right will have important consequences for European policies, especially environmental policies, the study’s authors predict.

“The results indicate that the European Parliament will probably take a sharp right turn after June 2024. While parliament is not the most important EU institution when it comes to foreign policy, the way political groups align after the elections and the impact these elections have on national debates in member states will have significant implications for the ability of the European Commission and the Council to make foreign policy choices, especially in the implementation of the next phase of the European Green Pact,” the study says.

The huge costs of these policies have driven farmers in almost every EU country from the Netherlands, Germany and France to Poland and Romania into the streets in recent years. And populist parties have empowered these grievances, just as they have profited from the wave of migration, which hit record highs for the first time since 2015, just after the outbreak of war in Ukraine.

Far-right parties have made slow but steady progress in recent years, amid the energy crisis and rising inflation, the seizure of the engines of almost all national economies, and anguished debates on reforming migration and asylum laws. Europe’s political landscape has been reshaped by last year’s general elections in several European countries. In Europe’s great Western democracies – from Germany, where far-right parties have taken over some of the Länder, to the Netherlands, where Geert Wilders’ anti-system party won the elections (but, has so far failed to form a governing coalition) and Spain – where socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has co-opted Carles Puigdemont’s Catalan secessionist party into government to keep himself in office – the populist, radical, extremist right has come to power, completing a landscape that has been in flux for several years. The situation is no different in the east and centre of the continent. After the Slovak elections, the populist Robert Fico – whose rhetoric is strikingly similar to that of Budapest leader Viktor Orban, both of whom do not want to see Ukraine in the EU and NATO – took over as head of the government in Bratislava, and whose priorities include a series of “reforms” such as abolishing the prosecutor’s office.

The changes began in previous years

In France, despite the coalition of all political forces to prevent far-right leader Marine Le Pen from winning the presidential seat in 2016 and 2020, her political party, the National Front, has become the largest opposition group in parliament. And the influence of the National Front grows with every protest against Emmanuel Macron’s government. Giorgia Meloni’s government, installed in 2022, is further to the right than any political party that has ruled the country since World War II. In Finland and Sweden, far-right parties support governing coalitions. In Germany, the far-right alternative – AfD, has climbed to third place in the party rankings since 2017. Viktor Orban – one of Europe’s longest-serving prime ministers and one of the European Union’s biggest critics – has been returned to office for a fifth time in 2022. In Poland, pro-European politician Donald Tusk has succeeded in ousting the populist right-wing Jaroslaw Kaczynski from power, but his government has been besieged since the early days by protests from the new opposition, which has declared support in President Andrzey Duda. In Austria, the influence of neo-Nazi groups has grown systematically. The populist wave has been growing for the last 6-7 years in Europe and beyond – the same wave has been seen in the UK and the US. But while in the UK it led to Brexit, and the US propelled Donald Trump to power, European voters have resisted this wave. At least so far.

There is a widely accepted theory that majoritarian electoral systems – such as those in the US and the UK – which operate on a winner-takes-all basis, make it easier to exclude extreme views, while proportional systems – common in Europe – help them develop. Even so, until recently, the rise to power of extremist parties in Europe has been almost impossible because of the reluctance of the main political players to co-opt them as coalition partners. This, however, has changed. With this change, even the line separating the centre from the far right seems to be getting thinner.

The rise of populism can also be put into the supply-demand equation. With the rise of economic discontent or social problems – such as migration – among the population, the supply of anti-system parties has naturally increased, and without necessarily having concrete solutions to problems, they have channelled these discontents and given them a common voice. The early 2020s seem to offer even better conditions for the development of this populist trend than the previous decade, with the return of stifling inflation and rising living costs, increased defence spending and unresolved immigration issues. Last but not least, this major change in the European political landscape comes with a number of challenges for the EU, as public enthusiasm for its values wanes.

The risk of another Brexit is one of them. Geert Wilders, the leader of the far right in the Netherlands, is defined by his antipathy to Islam and the EU, and says he is prepared to manifest this sentiment until his country leaves the Union. In his general election campaign, Wilders proved to be the most Russia-friendly politician. Thus, ultranationalists in Moscow hailed his election victory and dedicated “odes” to him in their homegrown publications, as noted by analysts at Politico.

Romania has not been spared by this populist wave either. According to a poll conducted by The Center for International Research and Analyses, 40% of voters would vote for a centre or right-wing party and only 13% for the left. The latest opinion polls, conducted in January and showing small differences, put the nationalist AUR party, which was set up before the 2020 elections, in either third or second place in voter preference.