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Wider Europe Briefing: Unpacking The European Parliament Election Results


The current European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, poses at the European People's Party headquarters in Brussels on June 9.
The current European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, poses at the European People's Party headquarters in Brussels on June 9.

Welcome to Wider Europe, RFE/RL's newsletter focusing on the key issues concerning the European Union, NATO, and other institutions and their relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe's Eastern neighborhoods.

I'm RFE/RL Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak, and this week I'm drilling down on the results of the European Parliament elections.

The Briefing: The Center Holds For Now

Despite all the headlines about the surge of the populist right, the main takeaway from the European Parliament elections is that the three biggest political groups in the chamber are unchanged.

After EU citizens went to vote across the 27 EU member states between June 6 and 9, the center-right European People's Party (EPP) came in first -- as they have done in every European parliamentary election since 1999 -- with a projected 185 lawmakers in the 720-seat chamber.

(The results are still provisional and being updated throughout the day. For the latest numbers, check the European Parliament website.)

The Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) came in second with a projected 137 members of the European Parliament (MEPs). And the liberal-centrist Renew Europe has come in third with an expected 79 MEPs.

Together, those three leading parties have an estimated 401 MEPs, a majority, albeit a small and shrinking one, down from 417 MEPs in the smaller 705-seat parliament. (The chamber is gaining 15 more seats in these elections, held every five years, distributing some but not all of the seats vacated when the United Kingdom Brexited in 2020.)

The EPP was actually the only major political group that gained in popularity; all others lost support compared to the previous elections in 2019. So, the center holds -- just.

The Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA) made big gains in the 2019 elections, and in the outgoing parliament they held 71 seats. In these elections the party has seen its support drop, now with only 52 seats, making it the second-smallest group in parliament. The smallest group is the far-left group in the European Parliament (GUE/NGL), which got 36 seats.

The Populist Right Gains, But Are They Winners?

The populist right has certainly made gains. The European Conservatives And Reformists (ECR) group -- home to Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy, the Polish Law and Justice (PIS) party, the Sweden Democrats, and the Spanish Vox party -- has gained four seats and now has 73.

And the political group even further to the right, Identity and Democracy (ID) of Marine Le Pen and the Austrian Freedom Party (FPO), would have likely increased their share as well if it wasn't for the fact that they had kicked out Alternative for Germany (AFD) a few weeks earlier after a leading member of the far-right German party had downplayed the role of the SS during the Nazi period.

In some individual member states, the populists did really well. Le Pen's National Rally party triumphed in France, finishing over 15 percentage points ahead of French President Emmanuel Macron's coalition of centrist/liberal parties. FPO also topped the polls in Austria.

Yet, here's the thing: Combined, the ECR and ID will have around 130 parliamentarians, which is around what they had in 2019. There is always the possibility the two groups could merge and form a populist-right supergroup that potentially would be the second largest in the chamber and give them dibs on several important committee chairs and rapporteur positions. In that regard, there have been talks behind the scenes and out in the open for years, but nothing has come of it so far.

As seen with the ejection of AFD from the ID group, collaboration is not always easy. The parties making up the populist right certainly agree that Brussels has too much power, but that is where the similarities end. For example, the ECR tends to be very hawkish on Russia, led especially by the Polish PIS but also surprisingly Meloni, who has been pivoting to the center, leading to speculation that she wants to join the EPP.

On the other hand, the ID group is openly pro-Russian and doesn't tend to be keen on compromise in the European Parliament. (The ECR will quite often vote with the mainstream groups, notably on foreign policy issues.)

The Great Unknown

The wild card is the approximately 100 nonattached members in the new European Parliament who don't belong to a political group -- at least not yet. In fact, in terms of electoral gains, the nonattached MEPs saw the biggest increase, gaining nearly 40 seats. (For some of these MEPS, being nonattached might just be a temporary state of affairs, as joining a group significantly increases their influence.)

The question then is which, if any, groups are willing to mop up some of the nonattached -- or if a new group of these political strays can be formed. (A minimum of 23 MEPs from at least seven EU countries is needed to form an official parliamentary group in the European Parliament.)

Some of the nonattached members and their domestic political parties have already burnt their bridges. For example, Viktor Orban's right-wing Fidesz party parted ways with the EPP; Robert Fico's populist leftist Smer party was suspended from the Socialists and Democrats; and, as mentioned above, Germany's AFD were recently pushed out of ID.

These nonattached members will now start horse-trading. For political groups open to take in new members, it is not an easy choice. On the one hand, every political group wants to grow, but, on the other, letting a controversial national party under its wing can end up tainting the entire group.

The Conference of Presidents, a key decision-making body that consists of the president of the European Parliament and the leaders of all the political groups in the chamber, will convene on June 12 in Brussels to take stock of the situation and set out a road map. Members have until July 16 to negotiate the composition of the political groups, when the new European Parliament meets for its inaugural legislative session in Strasbourg.

Beyond Brussels

Emmanuel Macron did not have a good night. His drubbing at the hands of Le Pen has already prompted him to call for snap parliamentary elections, with the first round expected to take place by the end of June. The result was an embarrassment for the French president, with the far-right winning in every region in the country.

Yet there are some mitigating factors. First, this is hardly a surprise. Polls have for months predicted such a result. It is not uncommon that European Parliament elections, which see lower turnout than national elections, are used to punish those in power. Macron has been in power since 2017, so a certain fatigue is understandable.

The decision to call for national elections in France could be a rather smart gamble for Macron to move the conversation away from his humiliation and Le Pen's triumph. His alliance has 249 seats out of 577 in the National Assembly, France's lower house of parliament, compared to Le Pen's 88. He already lost his majority there back in 2022 and risks losing more now.

France has a presidential system, however, so even if Macron does have to cohabit with the opposition, he still gets to call the shots.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is also under pressure. The main opposition party, the Christian Democratic Union of Germany/Christian Social Union in Bavaria, received 31 percent of the vote, twice as much as Scholz's Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). As votes were being counted, Scholz's party was neck-and-neck with AFD for second place.

The next federal election in Germany is due in the fall of 2025, but there will likely be political pressure to hold them earlier. Either way, the leaders of the EU's two biggest and most important member states have been politically undermined by this vote.

What Impact Will The New Chamber Have In Brussels?

It is likely that the tilt to the right will have an impact on some areas of policy going forward. For example, the European Parliament might become less ambitious on environmental issues and stricter on questions of migration.

It is worth bearing in mind that the European Parliament is different to national parliaments in that MEPs don't propose laws themselves. In the EU, it is the executive branch, the European Commission, that has the right of initiative and starts the initial drafting of a potential new law. The European Council, which consists of EU heads of state or government, is also involved with amending proposed laws.

In terms of lawmaking, the European Parliament is the weakest of these three institutions, rarely getting much of what it wants. Haggling over laws between the parliament, the commission, and the council in so-called trialogues can take months or even years before anything is actually agreed and becomes law.

On foreign policy, it is not expected that the newly elected European Parliament will change much. Support for Ukraine and further EU enlargement will still be the majority positions. And while there might be MEPs holding pro-Kremlin positions, they are more likely to use the chamber as a platform to parrot Kremlin talking points rather than doing significant legislative work.

Besides, the European Parliament does not dictate EU foreign policy. This is the exclusive domain of EU member states. So, while MEPs consider and write plenty of foreign policy reports and resolutions, all of these are nonbinding.

What Happens Now?

One cautious winner is European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. As the lead candidate for the first-place EPP group, she is now expected to get another five years in charge of the EU's executive arm. Even though she was triumphant on the night, von der Leyen still needs the leaders of the 27 EU member states and a simple majority in the European Parliament to secure her nomination.

The leaders will assemble in Brussels on June 17 to have an initial discussion about the three top EU jobs: the president of the European Commission, the president of the European Council, and EU foreign policy chief. They will then meet again in Brussels on June 27-28 to finalize the candidates.

Under the "lead candidate" system, von der Leyen would take the presidency, as she is the candidate from the party that got the most votes. This is what happened in 2014, when Jean-Claude Juncker was selected. However, EU leaders went against the "lead candidate" system in 2019 when they ignored the German center-right candidate from the EPP, Manfred Weber, and opted instead for von der Leyen, then a little-known German defense minister.

But with the EPP's especially good results on election night, it will be hard to overlook von der Leyen. Macron was reportedly considering the idea of putting forward former Italian Prime Minister and European Central Bank President Mario Draghi as an alternative, but with the French president taking a drubbing, that idea is unlikely to gain much ground.

"It was a good day for the EPP. We won the elections," von der Leyen told journalists late on June 9, adding that she was confident that member states would back her. "We are by far the strongest party. We are the anchor of stability."

The question is what will happen in the European Parliament when they are due to confirm her nomination, most likely in July.

Speaking to the press, she mentioned the word "responsibility" several times and added that she hopes to strike a deal with the S&D and Renew Europe groups, with whom she said she had worked well with in the last five years to form a "pro-European, pro-Ukraine, pro-rule-of-law center."

The incumbent needs a majority of 361 votes and, taken together, the EPP, the S&D, and Renew would have 401 MEPs.

However, it wouldn't take much to blow her off course. In 2019, after some social-democrat and liberal MEPs decided to vote against her, she survived by just nine votes. She could try to get the Greens or even the ECR on board this time, but working with the latter -- the populist right -- would risk alienating leftists and liberals alike.

That's all for this week. Feel free to reach out to me on any of these issues on Twitter @RikardJozwiak, or on e-mail at jozwiakr@rferl.org.

Until next time,

Rikard Jozwiak

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.

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About The Newsletter

Wider Europe

The Wider Europe newsletter briefs you every Monday on key issues concerning the EU, NATO, and other institutions’ relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe’s Eastern neighborhoods.

For more than a decade as a correspondent in Brussels, Rikard Jozwiak covered all the major events and crises related to the EU’s neighborhood and how various Western institutions reacted to them -- the war in Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, the downing of MH17, dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, the EU and NATO enlargement processes in the Western Balkans, as well as visa liberalizations, free-trade deals, and countless summits.

Now out of the “Brussels bubble,” but still looking in -- this time from the heart of Europe, in Prague -- he continues to focus on the countries where Brussels holds huge sway, but also faces serious competition from other players, such as Russia and, increasingly, China.

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