Shortcuts / 20 June 2024

The European Parliament

What is the European Union?
Countries in Europe haven’t always gotten along, and so after the devastation caused by World War II, the European Union (or the EU) was formed to promote peace as well as closer social, financial and political ties between nations while also working towards economic growth and military security as a whole.

Are all European countries part of the EU?
Nope. The United Nations counts 44 countries in Europe, but only 27 belong to the EU. They range from major players like France, Italy and Germany to smaller ones like Bulgaria and the Republic of Ireland. The UK used to be part of it but its citizens voted to leave in 2016 – and after working out the finer details, “Brexit” finally happened in 2020. 

How’s that working out for the UK?
It’s had big consequences for the UK’s struggling economy post-Covid and it means UK citizens miss out on some of the perks of EU membership – things like free trade, visa-free travel and working between countries, greater security, a single currency (although the UK has always had its own currency, the Pound), and also access to monetary aid…

How is a big entity like the EU run?
The EU is governed by an elected parliament of representatives from member countries who are voted in through the European parliamentary elections every 5 years. And just to be clear, those elections are separate from the national elections in individual countries.

Sounds like a big vote…
It sure is. In most nations, it’s not compulsory to vote but there are still 373 million registered voters, making it the world’s second-largest democracy outside of India. And with just over 51% of eligible people voting, the turnout this time around was the highest in 30 years.

How does the European Parliament work?
Each country elects a number of Members of the European Parliament (or MEPs) based on their population size. For example, Germany has the most with 96 MEPs, while Cyprus, Luxembourg and Malta only elect 6. All up, there are 720 MEPs.

What’s their role?
The parliament oversees the laws and budgets for the EU as well as setting its policy agenda for the term. One other thing to note is that the MEPs are categorised into like-minded “groups” or “blocs” rather than by nationalities. Voting in groups like this gives them greater influence.

What were the big issues in the recent election?
Reports say voters were concerned about the cost of living, high levels of immigration and the impacts of climate change. But another biggie was Russia’s war in Ukraine, which has seen Europeans dealing with gas shortages and high grocery prices.

And what were the results?
The results delivered a major shakeup of the parliament, with a large swing to the conservative right side of politics, away from centre-left and greens groups. The centre-right European People’s Party (known as the EPP) had a clear victory as it increased its share of seats to 186, making it the majority group in the parliament. 

Got it. Anything else?
There was also a surge in support for nationalist and far-right wing parties, who won nearly a quarter of the seats, and if they were all part of the same group, they’d be the second largest force in parliament – so the results have really caught the world’s attention.

Got any examples?
That swing can be seen clearly in the results from Italy, where Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s far-right “Brothers of Italy” party increased its share of votes from 6% to 29%. And also in France, where the far-right group National Rally (aka the RN), led by Marine Le Pen, won nearly a third of the electorate with 32%, up from 23% in 2019. That was more than double what French President Emmanuel Macron’s Renew Europe party achieved with just 15%.

Ouch… How’s Macron taken that?
Not well. In what was a shock announcement on the same weekend as the results came in, Macron called a snap national election for 30 June and 7 July.

So, he could lose his job?
No, it’s not a presidential election. Macron will stay President until at least 2027 when those elections are due. The French have a secondary tier of government with a National Assembly and a Prime Minister – they look after most domestic policy – and that’s what he’s called a vote for.

What are his reasons?
Macron said he wanted to give the French people a chance to “take back control” of their parliament which has been hampered by an uncooperative lower house since he lost his majority government in 2022. He said “France needs a clear majority to act in serenity and harmony” and he’s giving people the chance to vote for a hard-right government if that’s what they really want. But he says he has confidence they’ll “make the best choice for themselves and for future generations.”

That’s risky… What happens if it backfires?
If RN wins a majority of seats, Macron will effectively have handed power over all French domestic policy to a far-right-wing party. He’ll be leading a government with an RN majority, headed by an RN prime minister – which is likely to be 28yo RN party president and Le Pen protégé Jordan Bardella. That would render Macron almost powerless to pass legislation… 

What could that mean for France?
It could have big ramifications… Experts say an RN government that takes a hardline on immigration and crime and gives preference in contracts and education to French companies and citizens could spell complications in France’s relationships with its African and European neighbours, as well as a change in climate direction and the withdrawal of support for Ukraine’s plight, which Le Pen has been ambivalent about in the past. 

Sounds like a lot is riding on the result…
It is, and that’s why the world will be watching the outcome of the French election so keenly.

What impact will the new European Parliament have?
If, for instance, the centrist parties are forced to negotiate with the far-right bloc to get things done, experts are predicting it could result in climate targets being watered down, immigration being tightened, trade being restricted, and support for Ukraine in its war with Russia could waver.

How have the centre parties reacted?
Renew Europe President Valérie Hayer, whose party lost 22 seats, said, “The rise of the far-right in some countries is an alarm that must be taken seriously if we want to preserve Europe”. But European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen was heartened that the 2 centre parties still hold a majority, which she said “ensures a level of stability.”

What happens now in the EU?
The new European Parliament will begin forming alliances – with far-right groups having the potential to exert real influence for the first time since the EU was formed. 

And what about in France?
While that happens, the eyes of the world will be turned towards France to see if Macron’s big gamble pays off.

Squiz recommends:
Reading: This article published in The Conversation gives a good overview of the European Parliamentary election and what the results could mean.

Listening: The Guardian’s Full Story: How a far-right push in Europe triggered a shock election in France podcast episode gives a great summary of the upcoming French election and why Emmanuel Macron has “bet the farm” in such a dramatic way.

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