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About

What the 2024 EU Vote Tells Us about Europe Today

What the 2024 EU Vote Tells Us about Europe Today

The 2024 European elections yielded a fragmented picture as voters from the 27 member states in the EU failed to provide a clear political preference for the Union’s destiny. Provisional results show a weakened majority for the pro-EU parties who, at the time of writing have 401 of the 720 seats up for grabs. Alberto Alemanno is the Jean Monnet Chair of European Union Law. As the dust begins to settle on a bruising European election, we discuss some of the longer-term implications for the period between now and the next European ballot in 2029.

The image displays the year 2024 in bold yellow numbers with the European Union flag's blue and yellow stars superimposed on a map of Europe within the digits

In the world’s second biggest democratic vote (behind India), over 300 million European citizens were called to the ballot boxes this weekend. This tenth EU Parliamentary election is designed to shape European policies on vital issues like climate, migration, resolving conflicts to the East and the EU’s $1 trillion plus budget allocation. While successful political candidates run in their respective countries, their entrance into the European Parliament leads them to forging transnational alliances. Currently, there are seven groupings ranging from the extreme rightwing ID group to the Left coalition. Since the 1950s, the mainstream conservative European People's Party (EPP) has been the largest alliance. The results of these elections, as of Monday, June 10, show the EPP heading a diminished but comfortable majority of pro-EU parliamentarians.

For HEC Professor Alberto Alemanno of the Business Law & Taxation department, the election outcome appears to show a fragmented Europe that is less intelligible than ever before. Nevertheless, several lessons can already be drawn from the results: “First of all, we can see that, contrary to what many observers trumpeted before the vote, the center continues to hold, despite the record gains by the far right. That means that the traditional parties - the EPP, the Socialists & Democrats (S&D), the Renew Europe liberals, and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, ALDE, are likely to gather a majority in the upcoming Parliament. And, as a result, I think there will be more continuity than what many observers might have expected.”

The surge of the extreme rightwing parties has, with the exception of France, been over-rated by the media and observers, says Alemanno: “But there has been a major wave of unaffiliated MEPs, for example Viktor Orbàn’s Fidesz and Italy’s M5S parties, and this may play a role in reshuffling existing groups and shaping a new political cycle.”

Alberto Alemano

Thunderbolt from France

The French snap elections in three weeks will also affect the post-EU elections for key posts in Parliament and the European Commission. French ID leaders have not hidden their focus on France and not the EU, while the EPP is likely to weigh in more heavily than Emmanuel Macron’s Renew group for the top appointments. “The big question now is how this political center of gravity, which is clearly more conservative than in the past (but is not as extreme as many expected), will translate in terms of the choice of the President of European Commission,” says Alemanno. “That candidate needs a two-third majority. First of all, (s)he has to be supported by the European Council, decided by the 27 heads of state. They agree on the candidate by a majority vote. The successful candidate has to then obtain the majority in this new Parliament. That means a second check. Then, and only then, will the new European Commission - the de facto government of Europe - actually emerge. As we saw in 2019 with the win by Ursula von der Leyen, there's a lot of wrangling and uncertainty around the choice of the candidate and his or her ability to pass the scrutiny of the European Parliament.”

This post-election period is likely to usher in a fragile and complex period, admits the academic: “I believe it will be uniquely convoluted and driven by both endogenous factors (like these French elections or the formation of a government in The Netherlands) and exogenous considerations (the ongoing Ukraine and Gaza conflicts, the American presidential elections, etc).”

 

A Narrowing of Pan-European Focus

Alberto Alemanno has been one of the leading voices on the democratization of the European Union. His book “Lobbying for Change: Find Your Voice to Create a Better Society” is a timely guide to levelling the democratic playing field by empowering ordinary citizens to inform policy decisions at all levels. “The European Union has been designed for the few, not for the many, yet today it affects everyone. So how can we change that?” he asks when looking back at this most unusual of European elections. In a nutshell, he sums up the dynamics which are challenging the principles drawn up by the Union’s Jean Monnet 74 years ago. “Continue, continue, there is no future for the people of Europe other than in union,” Monnet said in 1950, a notion which lay the bedrock for a unique human experiment on a continental level.

Yet, despite this legacy, the latest European elections show a narrowing of pan-European focus, according to Alemanno: “In these elections, we’ve seen people vote for national parties running national candidates, presenting national agendas. There’s nothing European about them. We’ve witnessed 27 national elections take place simultaneously!” For the HEC Jean Monnet Chair, Europeans don’t really understand the link between their choices, the ballot box and the political color of a European Commission which is central to EU decision-making: “This necessarily creates a democratic deficit, as well as an intelligibility deficit,” insists Alemanno. “That means we are not able to understand exactly who takes decisions at what level, and how we can contribute to it. For me, this is a self-inflicted dimension of the European project.”

The founder of the Good Lobby has a no-nonsense analysis of the European leadership. “These leaders always try to reduce the overall transparency. and accountability of their decision making. This is why, over the years, we have tried to Europeanize the vote by asking our European political parties to tell us which of their candidates are running for votes from all over Europe. There’s so much uncertainty around the rules of the democratic game and that’s why we are trying – academics, researchers, but also think tanks and citizens who believe that Europe has to be democratized - to come up with ideas to make the European Union work a bit like a nation state, something we’re more familiar with. This Europeanization is a key requisite for any attempt to have the EU thrive in a geopolitically shattered world.”
 

Democratizing the European Union

On top of Alemanno’s extensive research on the EU, he has been exploring his own pan-European identity as a citizen from Italy: “I define myself as a critical friend of the Union, a constructive friend aiming to make it better. I feel the Union needs more people taking such a stance. It’s not about bashing the Union or celebrating it in a naïve way, but really trying to improve it.”

Indeed, for the last two decades, Alemanno has been focusing much of his research on the democratization of the European Union. Broadly speaking, he studies ways the law can be used to improve its citizens’ lives by reducing inequalities in the economic, political or health sectors. With his forty-plus research articles and numerous academic books, this former Ashoka fellow is perfectly placed to analyze evolutions in EU politics during its next mandate. “There's no reason why Europe is so complicated. At the end of the day, each government and each state has its own institutional functions. We need to unpack it, embrace plain speaking and having more people understand those dynamics. Because, at the end of the day, EU decisions affect us much more than decisions taken in the national capitals of Europe. So, there is a moral imperative of clarifying how decisions are taken in Brussels and how we can contribute to them.”

For the seasoned academic one factor holding back the EU’s democratization is systemic: “It goes back to the idea of the nation state as the only holder of democracy. Most of our politicians are only accountable to the people voting for them and not accountable to those who live in another country of the European Union. They have no incentive whatsoever to expand the realm of people who support them, so they don't want to change the rules of the game.” With this loss of political momentum, voters are no longer presented with political ideas or agendas that crisscross Europe. For Alemanno, this tendency comes at the most paradoxical moment: “There’s never been a better moment to close the gap between the absence of a European political space and the realities of Europe, which are the realities of integration. Europeans have never been as integrated as they are today. They are integrated from a social perspective and from an economic perspective. Yet, as these elections show, they have never been so politically divided.”

 

Finding a Political Voice

This political vacuum could have an irreversible long-term impact. As Europe shrinks demographically, its economic and financial strength dips. In 2010, the EU represented around 28% of the world GDP, and economists project it to represent less than 17% in 2050. This is at the heart of a paper Alemanno co-authored with Oxford academic Kalypso Nicolaidis called Citizen Power Europe. “It's clear that unless the European Union merges as a political power in which decisions are taken across border and not only along jurisdictional lines, we will limit our ability to project our power,” he claims. “Kalypso and I try to push the European Union to declare that its main competitive advantage would be to open up to citizens voices as compared to what is happening in the US or in Asia. Europe is witnessing a lot of experimentation in terms of democracy an citizen assemblies - different consultations that carry the potential to turn Europe into the democratic powerhouse. But of course, there's a need for some political voice to support this and for the time being, this is not happening.”

As for the rise of far right movements across the continent, the co-editor of “Citizen Participation in Democratic Europe” believes it reflects a sentiment of anti-establishment protest, especially among the lower socio-economic classes. “All this is perfectly understandable in our democratic space. And it should be at least acknowledged before being denounced as something good or bad. We need to revamp the political offering today to counter the demonic ideas bandied around. I think there is potential and I'm quite hopeful, though not necessarily optimistic. We see the left and the right talking more and more about real issues like inflation, cost of life, which are common challenges for all political forces.” Alemanno hopes this will translate into a new political offer that does not exist at the moment: “It’s badly needed given the growing inequalities we see in the world, most flagrantly in the United States, where we even see a lowering of life expectancy. You know, when you look at some of our foundational values and measurement of progress, many rich countries are not doing well at all these days. ”
 

The Impact of the European Parliament

At present, all eyes are turned towards the new composition of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. This institution has grown in power since the end of the Seventies, according to the professor in European law: “It is virtually impossible today to make the European Union function without the European Parliament. The choice of the President and Commission belongs to the Parliament as does the choice of the Commissioner. Then there’s the distribution of the budget which is decided every six years. It represents around 1% of the overall European GDP. On the diplomatic scene, the European Parliament also signs all international treaties (and it can reject them if they don't like them). The enlargement of the Union is also an area where the European Parliament has a say. This is why European elections are so important. At the end of the day, it's the European citizens’ preferences that guide the head of state and government sitting in the European Commission. However, we need to acknowledge there are areas in which the Parliament has no voice and cannot really make a difference. Let’s take foreign policy. The European Parliament cannot, for instance, decide if Palestine should be recognized as a state or not, it has no competence to do so. And this explains why a few European countries like Spain, Ireland and Norway did recognize the state of Palestine and some others like Germany have been overly cautious. I must say that these differences reflect poorly on European unity today.”
 

Abstention and Europe’s Youth

Another phenomenon seen in these European elections continues to be the rate of abstention, although it appears to be stable, matching the record-high of 2019 (despite Qatargate, limited campaigning and 27 separate national electoral votes). Close to half the voters did not show up at the polling stations. “It remains a very relevant issue,” admits Alemanno. “Political leaders don’t want to discuss because it's difficult to tackle. However, we see a counter trend when it comes to European youth. For the first time in 25 years, we saw a major increase of average figures across the continent in 2019. And I think one of the reasons has to do with the public awareness of major European decisions taken. For example, the reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but also the defense and public security linked to it. There is a desire to be protected by something bigger than the nation state because it's dwarfed by the size of the challenges that are that are facing us. And then there is the progressive expansion of the political forces that accept the European project. We are no longer witnessing political parties that want to leave the European Union. Few parties are talking about Brexit or its equivalent in France or the Netherlands leaving Union. There is an acceptance of the European project which means that we are expanding the political boundaries of our conversations by making the EU much more representative, diverse and rich. And that's what democracy should be about at the European level.”

Alemanno remains optimistic about the rising generation of young voters: “I think there's a lot of hunger and thirst emanating from these youngsters. They want to better participate in European affairs. They realize that the most important decisions affecting their lives are no longer decided in their national capitals, and they want to understand, to participate more. The youth feel more European simply because their life experience has been more European than their parents. They take for granted borders where they’re not checked, and they embrace multilingualism. This kind of fluidity, almost promiscuity that exists across European borders is very difficult to give up, it’s one of our major accomplishments. So, I think that, at some point, this new generation will take over and will become much more vocal, not only in defending but advancing the legacy that our generation has contributed to over time.”