Mainstream parties in European Parliament will need to form new coalitions to deliver on climate change, the economy and the rule of law

Press Release

New ECFR report draws on YouGov polling undertaken in the immediate aftermath of the European Parliament elections

See country-specific press releases for France, GermanyItaly, PolandSpain and the UK.

As heads of state prepare for this week’s European Council meetings (20 and 21 June), they will have to form shifting coalitions – with insurgent parties and opponents – in the European parliament to deliver on priorities for voters such as climate change, living standards, security and migration, according to a new polling-backed report published today by the international think-tank, the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

It predicts that in addition to migration, austerity and Russia, which have been key dividing lines in Europe over the past ten years, climate and rule of law will also be battleground issues in the next parliamentary session.  There is a clear mandate for coalition-building in these areas, given that a majority of MEPs in the new EP campaigned for them to be addressed through European-level action.

The ECFR report argues that Europe’s politics are now defined by volatility – rather than settled tribal divisions.  Under the new arithmetic of the European parliament, we can expect a permanent campaign where ad hoc coalitions have to be assembled for all the big decisions. Voters are generally tolerant of coalition-building, except with the extreme left and far right. The voters least happy about coalition building are supporters of far-right parties.

The report, entitled ‘How to govern a fragmented EU: What Europeans said at the ballot box, examines what the results of the EP elections mean for the future of the EU and draws on data collected by YouGov on Monday 27 May, the day after results were announced, in six of the largest European Union member states: France, Italy, Germany, Poland, Spain and the UK. It also includes research from ECFR’s 28 EU member state network and analysis of party manifestos and campaign promises in the EP elections.

It identifies a series of challenges for political parties in the forthcoming session of the European Parliament, as they attempt to deliver on their respective mandates for change. These include:

  • A falling away of party allegiances. Voters are becoming less committed to parties – even while MEP groupings in Brussels become ever more tribal and extreme.   Only 4% of voters in Germany and France said they were motivated by the possibility to vote for the Spitzenkandidats at the ballot box. The EU is more fragmented than ever before – with over 180 political parties represented in the European Parliament and the large groups (EPP and S&D) having lost their majority.
  • A new political geography –Europe’s political groups have become regional blocks. The S&D group, for example, has become dominated by southern Europe, which, in turn, could make it much more hostile to austerity. The EPP, meanwhile, has become dominated by Eastern Europe and Germany, and will have divisions on climate change and the rule of law. The Green group comprises parties of Western Europe, which may make it difficult to develop pan-European coalitions. And liberals – now rebranded as Renew Europe – are divided in two, between the French and the traditional liberals, leading to possible tensions on Single Market or trade policy. Only the MEPs to the right of the EPP are represented in all political geographies – but that makes their cohesion even harder, particularly on Russia, migration, trade, or rule of law.
  • New policy conflicts: While migration, austerity and Russia have been the key issues that have divided Europe over the past decade, climate change and the rule of law will become key battlegrounds in the next five years. A majority of MEPs were elected on a platform promising action on climate (62%) and on defence of the rule of law (65%), according to an ECFR analysis of the manifestos and campaign promises of all national parties that will be represented in the new European Parliament.
  • Generational changes – the divide by age groups is radically different in each of the big member states – and in the party groupings. In Germany, as many people under 30 voted Green as for CDU/CSU, SPD and FDP combined. In France the very young (under 25) voted Green while the old (over 55) were more likely to vote Macron and voters 25-55 more likely to support Le Pen. In the UK, the young usually voted Green who, in turn, were rarely ever voted by the oldest voters. In Italy, meanwhile, all age groups supported Salvini.
  • Voter emotions – Europe’s electorate has become motivated by stress, fear, and optimism. They have given Europe a chance to prove that it can speak to their concerns, but this offer may be time limited, putting pressure on political actors to start the work on reaching across divisions. 

Commenting on the report, and its findings, ECFR Founding Director, Mark Leonard, said:

“If mainstream parties are to deliver on the desire of the electorate or change, they are going to have to form short-term alliances around issues, swapping partners when the need for consensus demands it. In the interests of delivering results, they should be ready to seek out support beyond the depleted mainstream. The ball is in the court of the parties to work out who their partners are on the mandate their voters have asked them to deliver”

Susi Dennison, Senior Fellow and Programme Director at ECFR, said:

“The EU has become more ‘political’ in recent years particularly in relation to the consequent difficulty of decision-making around politically sensitive files such as migration. This election showed the extent to which Europeans now expect all EU institutions to become scenes of greater political contestation in the coming months and years.”

Building on prior ECFR outputs on the policy wants and emotions of Europe’s voters, the report also explores the motives of voters across six of the largest EU member states – France, Italy, Germany, Poland, Spain and the UK – from data collected in the immediate aftermath of the EP elections, on Monday 27 May 2019. 

This polling data reveals that in:

  • France: Voters are falling out of love with the EU with over two-thirds of the electorate (70%) holding the view that pan-European political institutions are broken. Despite Emmanuel Macron’s efforts at EU reform, voters in France are falling out of love with Europe as is corroborated by ECFR’s ‘Cohesion Monitor’, which reveals that the country is slowly moving away from the EU across a range of indicators. ECFR’s polling also identified considerable opposition to coalition-building, particularly with other nationalist parties headed by the likes of Matteo Salvini (59%), Viktorv Orban (58%), and Nigel Farage (46%).
  • Germany:  Voters are discontent with the governing coalition and want change. As pre-polling in the country showed, energy and climate change action were central to voters, and this played out in the election. In fact, the issue is such that it saw the insurgent Greens win votes from all parties represented in the Bundestag, including the right-wing, anti-European, AfD. According to the latest polls, the Greens would win 26 percent of the national vote if elections were held now, compared to 27 percent for CDU/CSU, 13 percent each for SPD and AfD, and 7 percent each for the left party Linke and the liberal party FDP. ECFR’s ‘day after’ polling also shows that Green MEPs bring with them a mandate to speak out for the defence of democracy and rule of law, as well a rejection of nationalism across the EU. 
  • Italy: A majority of voters (51%) believe the national and European political systems are “broken”. Though the focus has been on the anti-immigration rhetoric of Lega Nord’s Matteo Salvini, ECFR’s post-election polling reveals that voters in Italy – particularly in the age group 18-25 – continue to have serious concerns about the impact of emigration on their country. This reaffirms the findings of ECFR’s pre-election survey. The key issues for voters in the recent election were: the economy (47%), migration (44%), climate change (34%), and the threat of nationalism (22%).
  • Poland: The European Parliament elections were treated as a referendum on the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party. Mobilisation was the name of the game, and, ultimately, PiS’s deft political messaging cut through. As pre-election polling found, the key issues for voters in Poland were the threat of Islamist extremism, economic crises and trade wars, Russia, nationalism, and migration. These issues were reaffirmed in the post-elections survey – but climate change emerged as another of the major threat (the single major threat for 11% respondents). Angela Merkel is the most popular European leader when Poles are asked about politicians that they would like their parties to cooperate with in Europe (41%). But Victor Orban has many supporters too (35%).
  • Spain: ECFR/YouGov polling ahead of and after the European Parliament elections has confirmed Spaniards as among the most ardent believers and defenders of the EU. On issues, and consistent with domestic polls, the main concern for Spanish voters was the economy (22%) and, more particularly, jobs . This is followed by the rise of nationalism, which was cited by 16% of the voters, both at home and in Europe. In Spain, together with Poland, Hungary, and Romania, voters were more worried about their nationals leaving their own country than about others coming in. Almost one third (32%) of Spanish respondents cited concerns about emigration.
  • United Kingdom: 44% of voters in the UK said that supporting the party that best reflected their opinion on the EU was among their key motivations to vote in this election. It’s a larger score than in any other of the largest EU members where values and principles represented by different parties were considered as a more important motivation. But the UK electorate generally has a far more nuanced view on the future of the EU. For example, when asked about the threats that they were concerned about in Europe, they were the only major country to put climate change first (19%), followed by Islamic radicals (16%) and nationalism in Europe (15%). But when asked which institution would be best placed to handle these threats, the largest scoring answer (42%) was for the EU and the UK administration to be equally important in addressing them. Just 28% would prefer their national government to tackle these issues alone – which is comparable to the scores in Italy and Poland, and not that much higher than in other of the big member states.

The answer to voter demands for change, according to the report’s authors, will be surmounting the abovementioned challenges and working with new political groups – including those that have been strengthened, nationally, as government or as significant opposition by the European Parliament elections – on issue-by-issue cases.

This post-election publication by ECFR is part of a wider project to understand the wants of Europe’s electorate and recalibrate the offerings of mainstream political parties. Prior outputs by ECFR’s ‘Unlock Europe’s Majority’ team have focused on the projected make-up of the European Parliament, polling-backed myth-busting on electoral battlegrounds ahead of this year’s pan-European election, and the emotions of voters ahead of polling day. You can find more information and access these three reports at: https://www.ecfr.eu/europeanpower/unlock.

-ENDS-

Notes to Editors

  1. Report authors Susi Dennison and Mark Leonard are available for comment and interview with interested journalists.
  2. ECFR’s ‘Unlock Europe’s Majority’ project aims to push back against the rise of anti-Europeanism and show how internationalist and forward-thinking parties can effectively rally and unmute moderate voices across Europe. The project has an active presence in five-member states and is also working in an additional nine EU countries. For more information about this project, and details of its outputs to date, please visit: https://www.ecfr.eu/europeanpower/unlock.
  3. Countries polled by ECFR and YouGov for this report were: France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and the UK.
  4. ECFR and YouGov have also polled Austria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Greece, Hungary, the Netherlands, Romania, Slovakia and Sweden throughout this election project.
  5. ECFR experts working on the ‘Unlock Europe’s Majority’ project include: Mark Leonard, Susi Dennison, Vessela Tcherneva, Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, Almut Moeller, Josef Janning, Piotr Buras, Manuel Lafont Rapnouil, Susanne Baumann, and Pawel Zerka.
  6. For broadcast, comment and interview requests relating to the report or polling, please contact Ana Ramic, Head of Communications, on: E: ana.ramic@ecfr.eu / T: + +49 (0) 30325051027
  7. For all other media enquiries, please contact: David Yorath, Apollo Communications, on
    E: david.yorath@apollostrategiccomms.com / T: +44 (0) 7511467771

About ECFR

The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) is a pan-European think-tank. Launched in October 2007, its objective is to conduct research and promote informed debate across Europe on the development of coherent and effective European values-based foreign policy. ECFR is an independent charity and funded from a variety of sources. For more details, please visit: www.ecfr.eu/about/donors.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

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