No earthquake, but some tectonic shifts will influence the conduct of public affairs
While the result of the elections does call for changes in the way ‘establishment’ parties have traditionally approached priority-setting, consensus-building and engagement with their voting base, the advance of Eurosceptic and populist parties in the European Parliament turned out not to be the landslide that was feared.
Based on available results, both of the largest political groups, the centre-right EPP and the centre-left S&D, have suffered substantial losses of 36 and 39 seats to reach 180 and 146 members, respectively. The liberal family of ALDE alongside French President Macron’s Renaissance list and its allies won 109 seats, up from 69, establishing themselves as the third largest group and a political force to be reckoned with.
Meanwhile, the Greens/EFA group beat expectations winning 69 seats from an existing 52, making them the fourth largest political force in the new parliament. The right wing, Eurosceptic group ENF coalescing under Italy’s Matteo Salvini and France’s Marine Le Pen added 22 members to its contingent to reach 58 seats.
The rest of the chamber will be composed of balanced blocs with widely differing and sometimes-incompatible ideologies: the conservative, “soft” Eurosceptic ECR (+/- 59 from 77), the 5-Star/Brexit group (+/- 54 from 42), the left wing GUE/NGL (+/- 39 from 52) and approximately 37 seats going to new parties or unaffiliated MEPs rounding out the final total.
In sum: pro-EU parties have held up relatively well despite an undeniable decline; Eurosceptic parties have fared well, but sometimes not as well as expected; the Ecologists have had a remarkable run in several national elections and the left is overall plunging in electoral support. Finally, with some exceptions (e.g. France, Greece), incumbent/government parties have won the European election in most member states.
Major political unknowns at this point include the extent to which pro-European political groups can agree on a common policy platform, how far Eurosceptic and populist groups can align their agendas in practice, possible cases of individual and party switches from one political group to another, and of course the fate of British MEPs.
Indeed, pending the materialisation of Brexit, the 14 member states who stood to gain additional representation from the redistribution of UK seats will remain at their former number of MEPs, a loss for France and Spain in particular.
Just like the outgoing European Commission was construed as “more political”, so does the new European Parliament look set to be more political than its predecessor due to the complex majority-building game on the horizon. The two largest political groups no longer have an absolute majority on their own, which should cause others to explore how ambitious they could be in seeking a kingmaker role.
Indeed, communications from the ALDE group already demonstrate their intent to position themselves as prominent kingmakers in the next term, with most, if not all, “pro-European” coalitions needing ALDE participation to reach a majority.
It is expected that in keeping with long-established practice, the pro-EU camp will do its utmost to remain aligned on essential dossiers in Parliament. This is also bearing in mind that pro-EU forces will continue to lead the Council, and like-minded candidates will dominate the pool of candidates for key European institutional posts over the summer. Nevertheless, given the size of the combined Eurosceptic and populist group, pretending we are in a business-as-usual scenario would potentially seem disingenuous.
In this context, interest representatives will more than ever need to consider broad political arguments in addition to economic and technical ones to infuse their public affairs engagement. Such common concerns as the effective delivery of public policy, the safeguard of European interests on the global stage or the protection of citizens’ interests in a globalised world could become fundamental in dialogues with the European Parliament. Moreover, the traditional, albeit unspoken, “cordon sanitaire” around extreme right wing representatives may have to be pragmatically reconsidered, as members of these delegations will be expected to undertake more reporting and policy-making mediation work in the chamber.
Politics by numbers and national leadership
If politics by numbers means anything, then looking at the national composition of the various groups born out of the elections is a worthy exercise. German members seem set to dominate both the EPP and the Greens. Spain, Germany and Italy hold an advantage towards jointly leading the S&D group (noting that the Italian socialist contingent dropped by over 40% since the last term). France (along with the UK for the time being) seems in a relatively strong position to put a claim towards driving ALDE. On the further right-hand side of the spectrum, Poland largely commands to the destiny of ECR, and ENF is to some extent a European vehicle for French and Italian populist parties.
It is not clear at this stage how far this geographic division will play out (particularly with regards to the importance of nationally driven arguments) but shifts in the national makeup of the political groups, coupled with a more fractured chamber as a whole, illustrate the extent to which engaging with the European Parliament could change.
Broader considerations for effective input into EU policy-making
The large contingent of first-time MEPs (estimated 60%) and the loss of a number of experienced and knowledgeable veterans will increase the demand for technical expertise and evidence-based dialogue. In addition, greater “horizontality” in policy-making and the diffusion of influence are likely to be key political drivers to watch.
Providing input into the legislative process, including feeding into the European Commission’s thinking as the initiator of policy proposals, will require attention and resources dedicated to a broader number of stakeholders spanning multiple committees and departments as well as external actors that are invested in particular initiatives.
One example of this might be seen in the new industrial strategy, which will draw heavily from policy areas such as climate, energy, competition, digital and international trade. This cross-sector approach will require non-traditional alliances between those seeking to influence the legislative process, and new constellations of common interest will bring more breadth and nuance to what in the past might have succeeded as a targeted, single-issue campaign. Aligning these imperatives with those of engaging Parliament on terms that reflect its composite political nature will require foresight and agility.
In the future, effective dialogue within the EU institutions will require both greater engagement and greater flexibility. With more ground and a larger number of stakeholders to cover in a more crowded field, public affairs activities will need to embrace a more fluid, issues-conscious approach that reflects the multifaceted, more political and big-picture nature of the new EU policy-making landscape.
By Laurent Chokouale Datou, Chairman, EU Public Affairs, Anna Tobur, Account Director and Adrián García-Esteve, Senior Associate at Weber Shandwick Brussels