Depending on where you stand politically, you might view the Right-populist surge in the European Parliament as either a grave threat to democracy, or as a striking victory for it — and a major step forward in “taking back control” from the Brussels oligarchy. But both positions would be wrong. The truth is, despite yesterday’s hysteria, compounded by Macron’s decision to dissolve parliament and call an election, the impact of these elections won’t be as significant as people fear or hope.

Consider the victors: the ECR and ID groups, who made significant gains. Both blocs are made up of various Right-populist parties who are deeply divided on several crucial strategic issues: social and economic matters, European enlargement, China, EU-US relations and, most important, Ukraine. This means that, even if they succeed in pushing the European Commission to the Right, they will struggle to turn their electoral success into political influence; on Europe’s most important challenges, it seems unlikely they will vote as a bloc. But on a more fundamental level, to assume these elections will radically alter the course of the EU’s policymaking agenda, or even threaten democracy itself, implies that the EU is a functioning parliamentary democracy. It is not.

Despite the fanfare that surrounds every European election — each one tediously described as “the most important elections in the history of the European Union” — the reality is that the European Parliament isn’t a parliament in the conventional sense of the word. That would imply the ability to initiate legislation, a power the European Parliament does not wield. This is reserved exclusively for the EU’s “executive” arm, the European Commission — the closest thing to a European “government” — which promises “neither to seek nor to take instructions from any government or from any other institution, body, office or entity”.

“The reality is that the European Parliament isn’t a parliament in the conventional sense of the word.”

And this, inevitably, includes the European Parliament, which may only approve, reject or propose amendments and revisions to the Commission’s own legislative proposals. Nor is the Commission itself by any means democratically elected. Its president and its members are proposed and appointed by the European Council, which is made up of the leaders of the EU member states. Even in this case, the Parliament may only approve or reject the Council’s proposals. Hence the paradox of Ursula von der Leyen running a (comically disturbing) electoral campaign for a second term despite not actually running for a seat.

In 2014, this was supposed to be fixed: a new system — the so-called Spitzenkandidat, or “lead candidate” process — was introduced, whereby prior to the European elections, each major political group in the European Parliament would nominate its candidate for the role of Commission president, and the nominee of the group with the most seats would automatically become president. But the system never took off. Indeed, in 2019, Ursula von der Leyen herself was chosen behind closed doors by EU leaders, despite the fact that she hadn’t run in the elections, and that two candidates had already been put forward by the centre-right EPP and centre-left S&D groups. Today, that system is considered all but dead, which is why the other groups didn’t even bother to choose a candidate.

And yet, despite such democratic constraints, judging by yesterday’s results, one could argue that even the EU cannot remain fully insulated from the continent’s Rightward shift. This is true: the increased weight of the Right-populists within the European Parliament might force the Council to put forward a more Right-leaning candidate than von der Leyen.

Before we fall down the trap of predicting a Right-populist dystopia, there are, however, some important caveats. While it is true that the Commission is nominated by the national governments, and thus it may appear like the latter are in control, it is equally true that the supranational institutions of the European Union hold a huge sway over national governments, insofar as they control crucial aspects of their economic policy. This is especially true in the eurozone, where the European Commission and the European Central Bank (ECB) can effectively enforce whatever policy they want on elected governments — and even forcibly remove them from office, as they did with Silvio Berlusconi in 2011.

This means that, in the eurozone at least, the political survival of governments largely depends on the goodwill of the EU. This is why even Right-populist parties, once they get into government — or start to think that they have a good chance of doing so — tend to quickly realign with the establishment, in the European Council as well as in the European Parliament. Take Giorgia Meloni. On all major issues, Italy’s prime minister has aligned her government with the EU and Nato — and has signalled her willingness to support a second term for von der Leyen, with whom she has developed a close relationship. In France, meanwhile, Marine Le Pen has also started to undergo a process of “Melonification” — abandoning her anti-euro platform and softening her position on Russia-Ukraine and Nato. Even if her National Rally party wins France’s forthcoming elections, all the signs suggest it won’t be the disruptive force she is promising.

There’s also another to point to be considered. On the one hand, the fact that the European Parliament, the only democratically elected institution in the EU, exercises some oversight over the Commission’s policies, might be seen as a positive development. In this sense, the bigger presence of the Right-populist parties will certainly have an impact of the legislative process, especially on highly polarising issues such as the European Green Deal and immigration.

But on the other, this doesn’t change the fact that the European Parliament remains politically toothless. The entire legislative process — which takes places through a system of informal tripartite meetings on legislative proposals between representatives of the Parliament, the Commission, the Council — is opaque to say the least. This, as the Italian researchers Lorenzo Del Savio and Matteo Mameli have written, is exacerbated by the fact that European Parliament is “physically, psychologically and linguistically more distant from ordinary people than national ones are”, which in turn makes it more susceptible to the pressure of lobbyists and well-organised vested interests. As a result, even the most well-meaning politicians, once they get to Brussels, tend to get sucked into its bubble.

On an even more fundamental level, none of this will ever change, even if the European Parliament is granted full legislative powers; for the simple reason that there is no European demos for the Parliament to represent. Such a demos — a political community generally defined by a shared and relatively homogenous language, culture, history, normative system — still only exists at the national level. Indeed, the EU remains deeply fractured along national economic, geopolitical and cultural fault lines — and this looks unlikely to change.

All this means that, while we may expect a change of direction on some issues, these elections are unlikely to solve the pressing economic, political and geopolitical problems afflicting the EU: stagnation, poverty, internal divergences, democratic disenfranchisement and, perhaps most crucially for the continent’s future, the bloc’s aggressive Nato-isation and militarisation in the context of escalating tensions with Russia. In this sense, it’s hardly surprising that around half of Europeans didn’t even bother to vote. Ultimately, the EU was built precisely to resist populist insurgencies such as this one. The sooner populists come to terms with it, the better.

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