Socialists still hold “key” position in EU parliament

The S&D Group remains in a key position in the parliament, as in practice it will be very difficult to adopt EU legislation or elect a Commission President without its agreement.

Notwithstanding the drama in France, where President Macron has responded to Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement Nationale coming first in the European elections by calling an early national election, the much-hyped Europe-wide surge of the far-right in the European elections turned was actually rather limited.

They held their positions in Italy and the Netherlands (with swings between far-right parties rather than to them) but they failed to make headway in other countries where they were predicted to do well: Belgium, Czechia, Hungary (a set-back to Viktor Orban), Finland and Poland.

Overall, they made only modest gains. The Identity and Democracy Group gained nine seats and the Conservatives three (pending possible realignments and final results still awaited). These extra seats were fewer than predicted and will not give them significant extra leverage in the European Parliament.

These were the first ever European Parliament elections without British participation (and the first this century without me being a candidate!), but interestingly, had Britain still been a member and if the results in Britain matched the current opinion polls, then Labour’s seats could have come close to tipping the balance to make the socialist S&D the largest group in the parliament – and within it Labour would have been the largest national party.

Without Labour, its sister parties did not make gains, but overall, the S&D Group kept the status quo. It gained some seats in a few in countries where they are in opposition but lost in some of the countries where they are in government, albeit only a single seat each in Spain, Portugal and Germany. They will be pleased at the return from its recent near-death experience of the French Socialists, who matched the 13 seats of Macron’s party and will lead the fight against the far-right in the national elections. Also encouraging was the victory of the Dutch Labour Party, fighting in alliance with the Greens, so soon after the far-right had become the largest party in the national elections.

The S&D Group remains in a key position in the parliament, as in practice it will be very difficult to adopt EU legislation or elect a Commission President without its agreement.  Its influence will depend on how well it leverages that reality and on the skill with which it negotiates.

The far-right is chaotic and divided

The centre-right EPP is again the largest Group and is theoretically in a pivotal position, but it cannot form a majority coalition with the far-right.

Even if it wanted to do so despite the reputational damage, they would find that the far right is not a reliable partner. It is actually fragmented and divided.

Most of the far-right parties are economic neoliberals, but some, such as the French RN, the Polish PiS, the Danish DPP and the Finns, are protectionist and interventionist. Some are ‘culture warriors’ opposing women’s equality and LGBTI rights, others not (some, such as the Dutch PVV and the Swedish SD, even justifying their anti-immigration position with the argument that immigrants don’t accept equal rights).

Some (such as the German AfD and the PVV) are outright climate sceptics, and most of them oppose measures such as the EU’s Green Deal as too costly or inconvenient, while others (such as the Swedish SD) do accept that action against climate change is needed.

Many have clashing historical national grievances (e.g. the Austrian and Italian far-right fell out over the status of the South Tyrol, the formerly Austrian German-speaking area of northern Italy).

They have various gradations of Euroscepticism. Some are opposed to the EU as such (though, after watching the UK’s experience with Brexit, practically none of them now advocate that their country should leave the EU), while others are simply anti-federalist or anti-euro, or opposed to joint-EU borrowing, though all this fluctuates (e.g. Le Pen is no longer calling for France to leave the euro).

Some are pro-Putin, (and several have received support from Russia in the past), others not – currently a major dividing line among them.

Besides policy differences, they also have different strategies, some now seeking to portray themselves as mainstream parties and disassociating themselves from others. Some have been in governing coalitions and have tempered their language and rhetoric (though not necessarily their views) and find some of the utterances of their fellow right-wing parties to be unhelpful. Some are in, or aiming to be in, coalition with traditional centre-right parties, while others regard such parties to be their mortal enemies.

This incoherence makes them an unreliable partner for any traditional centre-right parties in the European Parliament tempted to make a right-wing alliance. The numbers of votes they could actually deliver on most issues will almost always be lower than the total numbers of far-right MEPs.

The only sustainable and reliable majorities in the European Parliament will, as before, be across the centre, with deals between the EPP, the liberal Renew and the socialist S&D Groups, sometimes supplemented by the Greens. 

There will not be a right-wing coalition in the new parliament.

Richard Corbett
Richard Corbett
Richard Corbett is a former Labour MEP for Yorkshire and Humber who served as leader of the Labour MEPs between 2017 and 2020.