Source: EFCR (Authors: Susi Dennison and Pawel Zerka)

Published: February 2019

With anti-Europeans on their way to winning more than one-third of seats in the next European Parliament, the stakes in the May 2019 election are unusually high.

While there are significant divides between them on substance, anti-European parties could align with one another tactically in support of a range of ideas: from abolishing sanctions on Russia to blocking the EU’s foreign trade agenda, to pulling the drawbridge up against migration.

The vote could see a group of nationalist anti-European political parties that advocate a return to a “Europe of the nations” win a controlling share of seats in the EP. Among them number many figures who are strongly sceptical of free trade, in favour of pulling the drawbridge up against migration, and supportive of Moscow’s arguments about the need to flout international law in the Russian national interest in Ukraine. They are not currently a unified alliance but, in an EP in which their voices entered the mainstream, and in an EU in which transactional decision-making was commonplace, they could let all these ideas shape European policy in the medium term. And, in the longer term, their ability to paralyse decision-making at the centre of the EU would defuse pro-Europeans’ argument that the project is imperfect but capable of reform. At this point, the EU would be living on borrowed time.

Winning a certain number of seats will give anti-European forces influence over key processes and decisions. Judging by what many of them have campaigned for, anti-European parties could use this increased share of seats to obstruct the EP’s work on foreign policy, eurozone reform, and freedom of movement, and could limit the EU’s capacity to preserve European values relating to liberty of expression, the rule of law, and civil rights.

Winning more than 33 percent of seats would enable them to form a minority that could block some of the EU’s procedures and make the adoption of new legislation much more cumbersome – with a potentially damaging impact on the content of the EU’s foreign policy, as well as on the EU’s overall institutional readiness and its political credibility to take initiatives in the area.

Foreign trade

In the next parliament, trade could become a consensus issue on which anti-European parties display an image of unity, challenge the mainstream’s capacity to seek wider compromises, and influence the EU’s policies.

According to VoteWatch, the balance of power on trade-related decisions is unlikely to change much in the next EP, mostly because several anti-European parties either do not oppose free trade outright (Alternative for Germany) or are among its most stable supporters (Law and Justice, or PiS). But, given the risk that they could seek tactical alliances, and the fact that the current mainstream in the EP – composed of the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) – will no longer have the absolute majority they need to adopt new international trade agreements, nationalists could significantly slow down the EU’s external trade agenda. This would curb the union’s ability to use trade as one of its major instruments for boosting prosperity in Europe and pursuing its foreign policy goals.

The rule of law

One of the key procedural powers that flows from controlling at least 33 percent of EP seats is that to block the EU’s Article 7 mechanism, which is designed to defend the rule of law in member states. With the EP unable to initiate rule of law investigations against member states, and with a rising number of member states in the Council represented by governments that are reluctant to support it either, the EU would have severe limits on its capacity to defend democracy within its borders. And such procedures could even be completely blocked if some anti-European parties successfully translate their gains at the EP election into a position in government at home (as seems possible in Denmark, Estonia, and Slovakia). Aside from its internal consequences, such a development would further erode Europe’s global credibility as a champion of democracy and the rule of law.


The EP has mostly non-legislative competences in migration policy – one of the issues on which anti-European parties focus. That said, the EP can make things difficult for the Council. Firstly, it can refuse to give an opinion – which prevents the Council and the Commission from proceeding. The EP can also delay proposals it does not support by referring them back to committees. Secondly, insofar as the Commission can amend the proposal until the moment of final agreement by the Council, the EP will often aim to exert pressure on the Commission to secure its agreement on amendments the EP supports. The major threat to the EU’s migration policies stemming from the 2019 EP election is that, with many more anti-immigrant MEPs present in the next parliament, their voices would become much stronger than they are today, which could limit the capacity of member states and the Council to seek a humanitarian and solidarity-based approach towards migration challenges – instead of securitising the issue. As on the rule of law and free trade, this would limit the EU’s credibility to contribute to the resolution of challenges in other regions of the world and at the global level.

Foreign policy

Usually, the EP’s activity on foreign affairs takes the form of resolutions that are subject to majority voting. Although they are non-binding, such resolutions are also one of the tools with which the EP can influence the EU’s foreign policy – through both the European External Action Service (EEAS) and the Council. Its other tools for this include budgetary pressure (given that the EP has to approve EEAS budgetary and staff changes) and regular hearings with the high representative for foreign affairs and security policy. Thus, even without holding many seats in the EP, nationalist parties can obstruct processes in this area. For example, given the usual insistence on looking for the widest possible support on the EP’s foreign policy resolutions, they could table a long list of amendments to either delay the process (after which they could still vote against the motion) or water down the final text – a tactic that members of the far-left European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) group have sometimes used.

EU budget

Whoever controls the EP’s majority has significant budgetary tools at their disposal to shape the EU’s priorities, as well as its policies (by, for example, limiting the funds available to various areas of foreign and development policy). MEPs from anti-European parties in the next parliament will be able to exert pressure on the size and shape of the EU’s next multiannual budget. An EP in which nationalists have a strengthened voice may only add an additional hurdle to an already complicated process – even if they pursue contradictory goals such as shrinking the budget, increasing cohesion funds, and defunding foreign policy and development projects. In this scenario, there is a heightened risk that the EU’s foreign policy will fall victim to cuts or compromises.

Appointment of the next Commission

Although it is up to member states to propose commissioners-designate, the presence of anti-Europeans in several national governments poses a serious risk that the next European Commission will become less internationalist and principled on the main global issues Europe faces, such as free trade, human rights, the rule of law, and multilateralism.

The spoils of cooperation

Anti-European parties’ capacity to obstruct the work of the EP will largely depend on whether they can coordinate their activities with one another. According to current polls, a variety of anti-European parties ranging from the far left to the far right, including right-wing Eurosceptics, are for the first time almost certain to acquire more than one-third of EP seats. The collective seat share of representatives from the far right and right-wing Eurosceptics will, if current polling is accurate, could  rise from 23 percent to 28 percent. They could even gain more than 30 percent of seats if their popularity continues to grow or if some of the fringe members of the mainstream join them. If they cross the one-third threshold, this would signify a qualitative change in the EU.

Possible types of cooperation between parties  

The share of far right parties may rise to 19 percent in May, largely due to the expected success of Rassemblement National, Alternative for Germany, and Italy’s League (as well as that of the Five Star Movement, which may not align with the EP’s far right). Most far-right MEPs are affiliated with one of two political groups in the EP – Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) and Europe of Nations and Freedom – or are non-aligned. So far, the far right has been divided, due to ideological and personal issues. These two political groups have demonstrated very weak internal cohesion relative to most others in parliament. And this lack of unity has often prevented the far right from affecting European processes (as has their reluctance to actively participate in the EP’s daily work). But this could change if they double their share of seats.

This core far-right group could also ally with MEPs from Eurosceptic parties on the right, particularly those in Scandinavia and central Europe. These parties include Poland’s PiS, the Sweden Democrats, and the Danish People’s Party – all of which are currently affiliated with the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group in the EP – as well as Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz, which remains a member of the EPP.

Members of a possible coalition of the far right and conservative Eurosceptics would find it relatively easy to cooperate with one another on the issues they care about most, particularly migration and the rule of law. They may disagree on some foreign policy issues: the pro-Russian stance of Le Pen and the League’s Matteo Salvini has discouraged PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski from joining a unified sovereigntist block in the run-up to the EP election. But they may still put their differences aside to reach two shared tactical goals: curbing the EU’s liberal orientation and returning power to member states.

Europe’s right and far right could even formally establish a new political group, which would be the second-largest political family in the EP. In any case, the right and the far right will likely be forced to realign in 2019 due to the loss of British MEPs and to requirements for forming a parliamentary political group that the ECR and the EFDD may struggle to meet. Furthermore, it is unclear whether Fidesz will leave the EPP. As it stands, neither Orbán nor the EPP have an interest in announcing a divorce before May 2019. But, after the election, there is a high likelihood that the nationalist camp will become more unified.

Finally, there is also a possibility of an “all against the establishment” alliance of the far right, Eurosceptics, and the far left. If parties such as Germany’s Die Linke and La France Insoumise joined the cause, this coalition could make life very difficult for pro-European forces given that, for the first time, they are almost certain to collectively win more than one-third of MEP seats.

The far right and the far left have worked together in the EP before, largely in areas where either the ECR voted with the mainstream (such as on Russia, the US, and trade) or the mainstream demonstrated significant internal discipline (such as on migration). Love of Russia, hatred of sanctions, and strong protectionist inclinations can unite the far left and the far right. Nonetheless, it is still more common for them to take different approaches.

Therefore, opportunities for cooperation between the far right and the far left are limited and will vary from party to party. For example, Portugal’s Left Bloc may be critical of the EU in many ways, but it also aims to counter xenophobia and nationalism in Europe. Podemos and Syriza have been much more willing to cooperate with mainstream parties on European issues since they became part of their countries’ political establishments. In turn, La France Insoumise could play a different role: its leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, refused to tell his supporters not to vote for Le Pen in the second round of France’s 2017 presidential election.

In this context, a significant threat to the European project comes not so much from an “all against the establishment” alliance (especially given that the far left have few things in common with the Eurosceptic right), or from a stable alliance between the far left and the far right, but rather from unplanned alignment on key aspects of the EU’s agenda, or a readiness to cooperate on the two tactical goals discussed above. Whenever the far right, the far left, and the EU-sceptic right vote together, the mainstream will have a relatively slim margin of error, forcing it to be disciplined and to build coalitions around individual issues. In recent years, pro-Europeans across the political spectrum have rarely exercised such discipline.

But what would cooperation between anti-European parties in the EP mean in the real world?

Politics across the EU – from the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) stand-off in France to the election of EU-sceptic governments in Hungary, Italy, and Poland – demonstrates that an increasing number of voters see no link between negotiations in the corridors of power and the issues they care about: jobs, security, and living standards. Can the threat that the election poses be brought to life?

If the nationalists’ focus on migration is well chosen, this is because the issue not only resonates with voters but also demonstrates the divides within the much larger pro-European camp. It seems that most European voters would prefer to reduce immigration, but they differ on how, and to what extent, they should do so. This has prompted pro-European parties to deal with these voters as distinct camps. Not so the anti-Europeans. ECFR’s research confirms that in all EU member states except Portugal, Ireland, and Lithuania, migration will feature prominently in the debate on the May 2019 election. And there are signs that mainstream parties – mostly members of the centre-right EPP – are already conceding ground on migration. With Eurosceptic forces having taken them to task on the issue, moderate parties increasingly appear to view a relatively hard line on migration as the price they must pay to retain power.

Nationalists also find it relatively easy to divide the pro-Europeans on other issues, such as the rule of law and the EU’s economic governance. In what may be another sign that they are bowing to Eurosceptics’ wish for less European economic governance, members of the EPP often vote against one another on issues involving the eurozone. For instance, in a parliamentary vote on the eurozone budget held in 2017, there was a clear divide between representatives of eastern and western countries within the EPP. In comparison, representatives of the centre-left S&D, the ALDE, and the Greens were much more cohesive, largely supporting the introduction of a eurozone budget. Nonetheless, left-wing parties’ persistent divisions on trade liberalisation could lead some of them to partner with Eurosceptics, perhaps paving the way for a more protectionist Europe after Brexit.

Therefore, unless they recognise the existential challenge they face, members of Europe’s political mainstream will struggle to work together against an attack from anti-European parties that seeks to polarise voters on any of these issues.

For anti-European parties, winning more seats in the May 2019 election should be understood as a means to an end. The bigger prize for them is a position from which they can challenge pro-Europeans in a wider battle of ideas. They mean to use this as a springboard for fighting national elections across Europe in the coming years.

For instance, if it is successful in the EP election, PiS will improve its position in the run-up to Polish parliamentary vote scheduled for autumn 2019. Equally, a poor result for the party would increase the likelihood that Kaczynski, Poland’s de facto leader, will soon lose power. In Bulgaria, the outcome of the EP election may determine whether the government will hold a snap national election. Such a vote could occur if the ruling, centre-right GERB performs poorly in the EP election, precipitating a political crisis. While GERB has signalled rapprochement with Orbán in the past year, a new election could pave the way for a government led by the Socialist Party, which is a far more strident advocate of anti-immigration and nationalist policies (and more pro-Russian) than its rival.

All in all, if Eurosceptics retain their power in Poland and Italy and acquire at least some influence over ruling coalitions in countries such as Denmark, Estonia, and Slovakia, this could help the illiberal camp obstruct the EU’s work through the European Council. In this scenario, governments in Budapest, Warsaw, and Rome would feel empowered by association, perhaps helping them break EU rules with impunity. And the risk is all the more serious given that the European Council (which is already a dominant player in the EU’s inter-institutional power game) could gain even greater power after the May 2019 election – at the expense of an EP that will likely be grappling with nationalist parties.

There is a risk that some generally pro-European parties – such as those in Denmark, Belgium, Spain, Austria, and the Netherlands, to name just a few – will enter into a vicious spiral: flirting with populist ideas ahead of the May 2019 election to strengthen their position at home. This would only provide more legitimacy to these ideas in a broader European debate and could later backfire at home, if voters decided that they preferred the original to a copy – switching their support from Partido Popular to VOX; from the New Flemish Alliance to Vlaams Belang; from the Austrian People’s Party to Freedom Party of Austria; from Les Républicains to Rassemblement National; from the CDU/CSU to Alternative for Germany; and from Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte to Geert Wilders or Thierry Baudet, leaders of the Party for Freedom and the Forum for Democracy respectively.


Over the last several decades, a broad alliance of big parties has called the shots in the EU. Politicians from the mainstream center-right and center-left parties have held a comfortable majority in the EU’s principal institutions, including the European Parliament (EP), European Council, and European Commission. However, this era could come to an end with the next EP elections in May 2019, following waning support for mainstream parties, rising populists on both the radical right and left, and emerging new political players.

If the existing power balance changes, a complex constellation of forces could develop with more ad hoc coalitions across traditional party divides. While this might detract from the parliament’s legislative efficiency, a more open decision-making process might have a positive effect on public interest in democracy at the EU level. However, if the populist parties gain enough power to block crucial decisions, all the other parties will have to pull together to keep the EU functioning. If they don’t, member governments will start bypassing parliament by doing intergovernmental deals.

It is too early to predict the makeup of the new EP and the effects on other EU institutions, but future political dynamics will likely be dictated by two factors: the end of the duopoly of the Christian and Social Democrats and the enhanced influence of the populist radical right. The European People’s Party will have fewer MEPs but could remain the biggest single party group. If the trend of recent national elections continues, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats will lose many seats. For the first time, these two parties may not be able to establish a majority, which could greatly enhance the clout of other party groups, especially the Liberals and Greens.

As a result, the EP could look more like the Dutch or Danish parliaments, with more parties and coalition options. Under such a scenario, the EP legislative process might become less efficient, but the overall effect on EU-level democracy could be positive. The opening up of the political process to more, diverse participants could result in a more flexible system of shifting coalitions. Majorities would have to be built across party lines and include some non establishment parties. And if MEPs have more vigorous debates, they could elicit more public and media interest.

However, a strong showing of populist radical right parties could change the dynamics. Historically divided across several party groups, the radical right will aim to unite forces in the new parliament.

On most legislation, the EP needs an absolute majority to amend or reject the position of the Council of Ministers. By themselves, the populists will not achieve such a majority, but they could influence the forming of one. This enhanced influence could also convince more anti-EU MEPs to engage in substantive work of the parliament. So far, most populist MEPs have used their seats largely to fund their domestic political activities or as a platform for anti-EU rhetoric. If they were to start using them to block legislation and important measures, member governments would likely seek to bypass parliament by doing deals among themselves.

On vital issues such as the election of the next president of the European Commission or adoption of the EU budget, a much stronger populist right could join together with anti-EU MEPs on the left to block these decisions. In response, the mainstream liberal parties would then have to join together to counter the populists’ power. However, such a “Super Grand Coalition” of pro-EU forces would not be permanent—only forming in exceptional cases when the functioning of the EU is at risk.

To what extent the division between pro- and anti-EU forces will dominate the work of the future parliament will depend on the relative success of the populist radical right. The influx of a large number of EU-phobic members would make the tone of debates harsher and more confrontational. But that could also encourage mainstream MEPs to speak out more strongly in defense of European values and the benefits of European integration. The dominant dividing line of the new parliament could become a contest between politicians who want to find common EU-level solutions to current challenges and those who favor safeguarding and reaffirming national sovereignty. The parliament could turn into a major battleground between competing visions for the future of Europe.

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