Unpacking the EU election results: ‘Europe is an afterthought’

THE PARLIAMENT – Alberto Alemanno discusses the EU election results in an interview.

‘People supporting far-right, anti-establishment parties were doing it because of national reasons,’ Alberto Alemanno argues in a new interview.

Political party posters for the EU elections in Paris, May 2024.

Mainstream European political groups – led by the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) – held onto power following this weekend’s European Parliament elections. But even as the centre at the European level appeared to hold, far-right parties made waves in France and Germany – and increased their number of seats in the EP.   

In a post-election interview with The Parliament, Alberto Alemanno, professor of EU law at the HEC Paris Business School and founder of The Good Lobby advocacy group, reflected on the implications of the outcome and what the new power balance means for the upcoming mandate.  

While he noted that the traditional parliamentary majority in the EP will remain largely intact,  Alemanno highlighted what he sees as a major flaw of the European elections: “Nobody is taking them seriously. Every single national political leader and party has instrumentalised the European elections in order to strengthen power at home.”  

There was a lot of talk about a right-wing wave before the elections. Did it materialise? How do you interpret the results?  

With approximately 400 seats, the traditional parliamentary majority that has been running the European Union in the past 30 years – meaning the EPP, the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) and Renew Europe groups – has a pretty safe base to build on in the new legislative cycle. With the Greens and the Left [groups], we’re at at least 450.  

Overall, there hasn’t really been a huge surge of the far right, although they gained some seats. The unaffiliated are going to be an influence, but they are not necessarily translating it into political power. The power will stay in the hands of the usual political parties.  

There won’t be a blocking majority. This concept makes no sense in a parliament. The blocking minority exists in the European Council, in the Council of Ministers, but not in the European Parliament, where each individual MEP enjoys freedom of mandate. They can change their minds. They don’t have to stick to what their party is saying. That’s the beauty of a parliament. 

Do you expect major policy changes in the new mandate?  

Obviously, the next political priorities will differ from the one of the outgoing [European] Commission. We already got a foretaste of this with the shift away from the Green New Deal towards industrial policy, security and defence. We’re going to see a rebalancing of the European political agenda away from decarbonisation as the main imperative of the new Commission, and a variety of policy objectives that will enter into the picture. The question is how significant these turns will be. It would be much easier for [Commission President Ursula] von der Leyen to ensure some continuity than for any other candidate.  

Von der Leyen celebrated the election results after the EPP’s big gains on Sunday.  Do the results ensure a second term for her?  

She walks out of these European elections strengthened, not only because the EPP did well in Germany, but also across Europe. So, she’s in a position of power – also because France is undergoing its own political transformations. This may reduce incentives for [French President Emmanuel Macron to find an alternative candidate, but I would still say that this is not a done deal like many observers are suggesting.

So, we do have the overall trend of this European Parliament shifting a bit to the centre right. But this does not automatically translate into a second mandate for Von der Leyen. The jury’s still out. If she goes through, it’s going to be very, very tight. And if she’s rejected, this would be a whole other ballgame. 

Regarding France, is Macron gambling with the future of France and Europe by calling a snap national election following the National Rally’s landslide win?   

The European elections didn’t deliver on their goal, which was to identify the political priorities of Europe, because they transformed themselves into 27 parallel elections. They had a major impact on the national political systems, and France is a bit of a caricature of this pathological transformation of the European elections into referenda on the current government.  

In a way, it is the revenge of the European elections to see that some national leaders have no choice but to react. But this is clearly an overreaction. It’s a gamble, the French constitution does not require this. I think what Macron is looking for is a moment of truth. He wants to disrupt, once again, the system, and force not only the political parties to say where they stand, but also the voters, saying: ‘These are going to be real elections, not like the European ones.’ 

I don’t think he is putting into question the future of France or the future of Europe at all. But he’s certainly complicating the formation of the next European Commission and the formation of the [parliamentary political] groups. It will inevitably lead to some delays. Macron is pre-empting the European political game from unfolding as a result of the elections. This is not necessarily a bad idea because these European elections didn’t tell us exactly where Europe should be going forward.  

How big of a problem is the dominance of national issues in European elections?  

It’s a huge problem because the European elections should allow the European electorate to identify common priorities that are of a European nature. Should the European Union set up an army? Should it increase the budget? Should it rebalance? It’s competitiveness versus the decarbonisation goal. None of those issues have been debated in these elections because the elections were centred around domestic questions. Therefore, there’s a mismatch between what the European elections are about and what they delivered. And amid these misunderstandings, some [national leaders] got surprised, like Macron, and some are feeling the pressure, like [German Chancellor Olaf] Scholz. 

These are all unintended consequences of not taking the European elections seriously. And nobody is taking them seriously. Not on the left, not on the right, not in the pro-European, nor in the anti-European camp. Every single national political leader and party has  instrumentalised the European elections in order to strengthen power at home. Europe is an afterthought. Europe doesn’t matter. Nobody has a dream of contributing to more political integration.  

So in a nutshell, the lack of European political integration is really what is holding us back.  

Could pan-European parties such as Volt offer a solution?  

I’ve been personally advocating for transnational lists and for the creation of genuine European political parties since the end of the 1990s. This is definitely what Europe needs. It is inconceivable that after 70 years of socio-economic integration in Europe, which has been absolutely unprecedented, the political game has not been able to keep up with this level of integration. This mismatch is now becoming more and more evident.  

Are the national successes of far-right parties connected to scepticism over the European project?  

No. People supporting far-right, anti-establishment parties were doing it because of national reasons. They were basically protest votes against the government they didn’t like at the moment. There was very little European about these elections. In 2019, even in 2014, every single European political family was trying to shape this pan-European political agenda and saying these are European elections. And, actually, they managed.  That’s how we got this sentiment around climate, around the social Europe. All of this was gone in 2024.  

What does the new balance of power in the EP mean for the upcoming mandate?  

A clarifying moment happened Monday when the secretary general of the EPP clearly said what I’ve been saying in the past two months, meaning that in the European Union, the [Commission] president-elect doesn’t need to form a permanent parliamentary majority but can actually rely on a flexible one. 

We’re going to have shifting majorities. What I expect is that on policy fights – dealing with social issues, with migration, with industrial policy and national interests – we’re going to see these traditional parliamentary majorities shifting to the right and looking for [Italian Prime Minister] Meloni’s or Marine Le Pen’s [of France’s National Rally] vote. Whereas on other issues like climate, environmental sustainability, they’re going to be relying more on the Left and the Greens.  

This would be the new game, that we need to be looking at, and the choice of the president of the Commission should reflect that. Who is the person capable of keeping this situation in control? Is Von der Leyen the right person, or is her legacy actually a big liability preventing her from doing so?