By Eike Radszuhn
Will the European elections in May mark the end of the European Union as we know it? Certainly not. According to recent polls, pro-European parties will comfortably defend their position as the strongest bloc in the European Parliament. Although right-wing forces are likely to strengthen their base in Europe, they will remain in opposition.
Yet concerns regarding the vote's outcome are justified. The polls also suggest that, for the first time, the grand coalition of Christian and Social Democrats will not form a majority in the Parliament. That means that passing most legislation at European level will require the approval of at least a third group, for example the Liberals or the Greens.
In other words, the Union itself may not be in danger, but its capacity to act is.
This is a worry for industry, too. Firstly, it limits the EU's ability to play its part in global politics. If there is no broad consensus in Parliament, the next Commission will find addressing challenges such as globalization (for example trade relations with the US and China) and climate change (ensuring global implementation of the Paris Agreement) much more complicated.
Secondly, fragmentation in Parliament will hamper further European integration and progress on important domestic matters in the EU. An example from the past is the free trade agreement TTIP. As negotiations progressed, parliamentarians and member states with differing views on the agreement's goals and priorities drew more and more red lines. The Commission was left with barely any wiggle room, which contributed to the ultimate failure of negotiations.
Suffering from lack of interest
The frustrating aspect of this development is that few European citizens consciously decide against a strong EU and decision-making at European level. In truth, too many seem unaware of the importance of the EU. Turnout has fallen in each of the eight European elections since 1979, reaching a new low five years ago, when only 43% of eligible voters showed up at the ballot box. In Germany, for example, turnout for the last national election was 76%, but significantly lower at 48% for the last European election.
VDMA has frequently stressed the importance of European politics in general (for example through the social media campaign #europeworks) and elections in particular. The Association encourages its member companies to follow suit and make sure their employees are aware of the elections and their chance to have a say in European politics. What counts is not who people vote for, but making sure that Europe does not sink into a coma by default.
But of course, which political groups attract voters' support also makes a difference. Although the lines between political groups in the European parliament are fluid (given that there are currently parliamentarians from 160 different national parties, organized in eight political groupings), there are some clear differences with respect to industrial policy:
- EPP (European People's Party): The EPP is currently the strongest group in the European Parliament and is expected to defend this position in the upcoming elections. Its leader is the German Manfred Weber, an engineer who has served as a Member of the European Parliament since 2004. Regarding economic and industrial policy, the group represents liberal-conservative views, with the German Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the French Les Republicans, the Polish Civic Platform and the Spanish People’s Party its biggest members.
- S&D (Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats): The S&D's group is likely to remain second largest group of the next European Parliament. Its leader, the Dutchman Frans Timmermans, currently serves as first Vice-President of the Juncker Commission. The group has a more social emphasis in some aspects of industrial policy, for instance regarding protection of workers against the social implications of artificial intelligence. Its largest members are currently the German Social Democrats (SPD), Italy’s Democratic Party and the British Labour Party.
- ECR (European Conservatives and Reformists): This group is currently the largest Eurosceptic bloc in the European Parliament. It will remain of some significance after the elections in May, although Brexit and the departure of 20 MEPs from the Conservative Party will lessen its impact somewhat. The British withdrawal from the EU also serves as example of the group’s political views standing in the way of pursuing industrial policy suited to the challenges of a globalized world.
- ALDE (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe): The liberal group is a big unknown in this election. In late 2018, it declared an alliance with the French government party En Marche, despite the fact that Emmanuel Macron's movement has not joined the group and in fact seems to harbor limited enthusiasm for the partnership. The group also torpedoes the lead candidate approach by not nominating a front runner for the election. However, it could be decisive in organizing majorities in the Parliament after the election.
- Greens-EFA (Greens - European Free Alliance): Just like the ALDE group, the Greens' support will become more important in forming agreements at a European level. In recent years, the group has been skeptical regarding aspects of comprehensive free trade agreements such as TTIP or CETA. On the other hand, the Greens will be a loud voice in the process of pushing Europe towards the further use of efficient technologies, electromobility and sustainable energy.
Other groups, though with currently limited impact, are the populist EFDD (Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy), the right-wing alliance ENF (Europe of Nations and Freedom) and the left-wing GUE-NGL (European United Left – Nordic Green Left).
Will everything stay the same?
There are, however, some more question marks regarding the election. The first is whether the groups will stay more or less the same or evolve according to the election result. Right-wing parties fantasize about building one strong anti-EU bloc, although first attempts suggested that such an alliance might be symbolic at best (or worst) and without a clear political agenda. However, the more organized extreme forces in the Parliament become, the more other groups will need to collaborate to achieve constructive European policies.
Finally, the elections affect not only the Parliament, but also the Commission. Although its next president will be proposed by member states in the European Council, the outcome of the election must be "taken into account" (Article 17 of the EU treaty) and the candidate must be approved by a majority in Parliament. This might make things complicated after May as, although Manfred Weber's EPP is likely to win the public vote, it is less certain that (or under which circumstances) his nomination as next Commission President will have a majority in Parliament.
In that case, it might be months before the election’s consequences for the future of Europe and European industry become clear.