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Elections for European Parliament will be a key political event in 2019


  • The elections for European Parliament, to be held in May 2019, will be a key political event
  • Growing popular discontent could lead to a rise in support for anti-establishment parties in European Parliament, hampering the EU’s capability to forcefully address important challenges
  • The outcome of the elections will be a factor in the grand bargain for the top positions in the EU, such as the president of the European Commission and the president of the ECB
  • Over the years, European Parliament has gained more influence on important policy areas such as the EU budget, internal market policies, international trade and agricultural policy
  • In Questions and Answers we have a first look at the role and way of working of the European Parliament

The European elections will be a key political event for Europe in 2019. In May 2019, elections will be held in all member states to elect the new members of the European Parliament (EP). In the current environment of growing support for anti-establishment parties, the European Parliamentary elections are of great importance. This makes it a potentially decisive moment for the course of Europe. Furthermore has the European Parliament been granted more powers on a wide range of subjects in recent years. Next to this several key positions at the European institutions need to be filled in the coming year and the European Parliamentary elections will influence these decisions (in)directly.

According to recent polls, the dominant groups (Christian Democrats, Social Democrats) are set to lose a significant amount of seats. This is a consequence of growing popular discontent about issues ranging from wages to migration and from taxes to pensions, as was reflected in recent national elections in several member states. Still, an anti-establishment majority is not very likely given the substantial buffer the dominant groups have. Additionally it remains to be seen whether the anti-establishment parties can unite themselves as one strong force in the European Parliament or remain divided over different groups. The rise of the anti-establishment forces could nevertheless have a significant impact on the course of the EU in the future and notably on the ability of the EU to forcefully address coming challenges.

The European Parliament has become increasingly important for EU policymaking. The Lisbon Treaty of 2009 granted the EP with more powers over a wide range of subjects, see box 1 for examples. The general legislative procedure is currently based on Co-decision. This means the Council and EP jointly decide about new legislation. It is quite remarkable to see that the importance of the European Parliament increased, but the voter turnout is declining steadily (Figure 1). Several countries even report voter turnouts below 20% (Figure 2). This voter apathy can be seen as an indicator for a lack of trust in EU politics or the perception that voters do not have any influence on EU policy. The voter turnout is remarkably low in relatively new member states, explaining part of the decline in voter turnout.

Figure 1: Steady decline in voter turnout for EP elections
Figure 1: Steady decline in voter turnout for EP electionsSource: European Commission
Figure 2: Significant differences between voter turnout among EU countries
Figure 2: Significant differences between voter turnout among EU countriesSource: European Commission

Besides a broader mandate for the European Parliament and a possible shift in the balance of powers towards anti-establishment parties there is a third reason which makes the elections highly important. Next year several key positions in the EU institutions will become vacant: new leaders for the European Commission, European Council, European Parliament and the ECB will be appointed. Compromise has always been an important factor when filling the top jobs in the EU, as national and group interests are balanced through grand bargains. The choice of a new leader of the European Commission will therefore influence the decision for the other key positions.

The results of the elections will first of all have a (in)direct influence for the position of president of the European Commission, as the European Parliament must approve the nominee. Since 2014 the so-called Spitzenkandidat process exists. During this process the groups in the European Parliament each nominate a candidate to become president of the European Commission. The group winning the biggest share of the votes will see their lead candidate become the new leader of the Commission. There is growing criticism around the Spitzenkandidat process, which could change the way the new president of the Commission is elected.

Based on current national polls[1] the European Peoples Party (Christian Democrats) is going to lose around 3 percentage points in the coming elections, but will remain the largest group in the European Parliament with 26% of the total seats. The Socialists and Democrats (S&D) will lose around 7 percentage points and remain the second biggest group with 19%. This will result in a loss of the majority of these two parties and a further fragmented European Parliament.

Given the importance of the European elections we start a series of publications about the possible consequences and implications for European policy. As a first guide in the road to the elections, we look at several key questions regarding the elections. The following publications will go into more detail about what the results of the elections could mean for European policy. We will focus on several themes such as F&A, the Banking Union, external policy, the internal market, trade and climate policy. But let’s take a look at some basic questions regarding the role and functioning of the European Parliament.

Examples of European Parliament decisions

Banking Union
Banking rules: The European Parliament contributed to the establishment of the European Banking Union by adopting legislation on, inter alia, the Single Supervisory Mechanism and capital requirements for banks. The European Central Bank’s Single Supervisory Mechanism is accountable to the European Parliament (as well as to the Council). Other important banking legislation includes the so-called Payment Services Directive, making ‘cross-border payments as easy, efficient and secure as ‘national’ payments’.

Pulse fishing: In January 2018, the European Parliament in first reading on proposed new rules for the conservation of fishery resources adopted an amendment calling for a total ban on the use of electric current for fishing (e.g. to drive fish up out of the seabed and into the net, or ‘pulse fishing’). Negotiations with the Council on the final rules continue.

CETA: European Parliament approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, which aims to facilitate trade and economic cooperation between the EU and Canada.

It played a role in changing the proposed investor-state-dispute settlement mechanism, which had been controversial.

Data protection: In 2018, data protection regulation came into force that gives citizens easier access to their data and information on how it is processed, introduces the ‘right to be forgotten’, and gives them the right to know when their data have been ‘hacked’.  

Geo-blocking: European Parliament approved regulation that will allow buyers to shop online in the EU without being blocked or re-routed on the basis of their nationality or geographical location.

Q1: What is the European Parliaments role in the decision-making process?

Gradually the parliament’s role in the legislative process has been extended from an advisory role to co-decider, in which it is at equal footing with the Council of the European Union. The European Parliament and the Council take into account both national interests and political orientation when influencing the legislative process. Broadly speaking, national interests are defended most directly through the Council of the European Union in which each member state is represented by a national Minister. The European Parliament is organised in political groups, which makes it best positioned to reflect preferences based on political orientation. See the infographic for an overview.

While the Maastricht Treaty (1993) introduced this co-decision procedure, it took until the Lisbon Treaty (2009)[2], for the co-decision procedure to become the standard legislative procedure. Apart from changes related to the legislative process, the EP has a key role in approving the EU’s common budget as well as trade agreements with third countries. However, there are also topics in which the European Parliament merely has a consultation role, which in some cases is not even obligatory. Topics that are applicable for the consultation procedure are for instance related to taxation and competition law.

Just to put things in perspective, the European Parliament wields a budget that is only around 1% of EU28 GDP, with a significant amount of this being reserved for the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). But its power reaches much further than just having a say on the spending and revenues of the EU, as its legislation influences national policy making as well.

Apart from the role that the European Parliament has in legislation and budget, the institute also has powers of scrutiny, which concerns inspection of the European Commission. Moreover, it has a role to play in the appeals to the Court of Justice, European Citizens’ Initiative as well as the appointment of the European Ombudsman.

However, whereas the European Parliament as EU institute became more powerful, the actual influence of individual Members of EP has declined. The background for this lies in the growth of EU member states and subsequently the number of MEP’s over the years: From 142 MEP’s from 6 countries in 1958 to 751 from 28 countries today. On the contrary, the role of the EU political groups is significant in the parliament. MEP’s actually organise themselves according to their political affinities in transnational groups. These groups are leading in the division of chairmanship of committees or the role of rapporteurs[3], which heavily determines the influence of MEP’s on certain topics.

Finally, the role of the European Parliament as supranational institute has become more important in view of the direct applicability of EU legislation on the one hand and the call for more national divergence in practical implementation of EU laws on the other hand. The legislative trend in the EU during the past decade has been to move away from so-called EU directives, which need national implementation legislation, towards EU regulations, which have direct effect in national law systems and therefore need fewer national implementation efforts. On the other side, during that same period we have witnessed an increased re-nationalisation of the bloc’s policy, as national governments, through their seat in the Council of Ministers, demand increasing national room for the practical implementation of EU legislation in their country. As these trends are divergent, the role of the European Parliament as supranational co-legislator is increasingly of importance in order to weigh-in against national interests that could undermine a true common policy across the bloc.

Infographic 1: Both national interests and political orientation influence new legislation
Infographic 1: Both national interests and political orientation influence new legislationSource: Rabobank

Q2: What is the co-decision procedure?

The ordinary legislative procedure gives the same decision power to the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union and concerns a wide range of subjects, inter alia in the fields of economic governance, energy, transport, environment and agriculture.

The procedure is organised as follows: the European Commission is the institute that has the right to submit legislative proposals which it has prepared on its own initiative or at the request of EU institutions, member states or following a so-called citizen’s initiative. The proposal is submitted to the European Parliament, who can either adopt or amend it. Following the EP, the Council of the European Union may either accept the EP’s position or amend it, which leads to a so-called 2nd reading in the EP. At this stage of the process the EP and the Council will subsequently have the possibility to adopt, reject or amend the proposal, which at that point has received various modifications compared to the original Commission proposal. If the proposal is not adopted or rejected, the next step is the Conciliation procedure, which entails a joint committee of EP and Council representatives working towards agreement on the text, which subsequently has to be approved by the EP and Council. This latter procedure is called the 3rd reading.

In other words, this means that the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union jointly decide about legislation. They have different possibilities to amend the legislation and ultimately adopt it or even reject it. This ensures that both the member states and the different political groups in the European Parliament can have their say about new legislation.

Infographic 2: Co-decision has become the standard legislative procedure in the European Union
Infographic 2: Co-decision has become the standard legislative procedure in the European UnionSource: Rabobank

Q3: What about F&A in the European Parliament?

The European Parliament has a major influence when it comes to the agriculture and food sectors. As mentioned earlier, the European Parliament nowadays has a key role in determining the legislation, the EU’s Common Budget as well as trade agreements with third countries, all of which are key topics for farmers and the food industry.

As regards the EU budget it is important to note that a major part of the EU budget is dedicated to agriculture, either in the form of income support (direct and indirect payments), rural development funds and market support (such as private storage aid or export subsidies), which used to be key tools in the past. Whereas the share of the EU budget spent on agriculture in the 1980’s amounted to 75% of the total budget, this share will shrink to below 30% in the EU’s Common Budget for the period 2021-2027. Nevertheless, as with a budget of EUR 365 billion for 2012-2027, the significance of agriculture in the EU’s spending is obvious. Moreover, the budget is an important steering mechanism in the common agricultural policy (CAP), as funds are either related to specific compliance measures for farmers, or in the form of national implementation of rural development funds.

Figure 3: The total CAP budget is decreasing and changing in composition
Figure 3: The total CAP budget is decreasing and changing in compositionSource: European Commission, DG Agriculture and Rural Development

Looking at the development of the share of the CAP Budget that was spent on the different funds, the pathway has been to move from market support to direct and subsequently indirect income support increasingly towards rural development funds. Moreover, the conditions that apply to the direct payments to farmers have increased for instance by adding the so-called ‘greening’ component, which effectively means that a part of the payment is related to farming practices that are beneficially for the climate and/or the environment. All in all, it is fair to say that the CAP Budget has been geared increasingly towards public benefits on top of maintaining a viable farming sector in the EU.

Q4: How is the European Parliament elected and what does the current composition look like?

The EP is the only directly elected institution in the European Union. People vote for national parties, which are mostly part of one of the eight European political groups, see table 1. Some national parties do not belong to a certain European group and are called the non-inscrits. To form a political group in the European Parliament you need to have at least 25 members and represent 1/4th of all member states. Currently there are 8 political groups in the European Parliament. The president is elected for a renewable term of two and a half years.

Table 1: The eight political groups in the European Parliament
Table 1: The eight political groups in the European ParliamentSource: European Parliament, BBC

Figure 4 shows the share of the total seats the different groups obtained during the last EP elections in 2014. The EPP is the biggest group and together with the S&D they had a majority in the parliament. According to polls[4], they are both likely to lose a significant share and as a result their majority, which will force them to cooperate more with other groups within the parliament.

Figure 4: Current allocation of seats in the European Parliament
Figure 4: Current allocation of seats in the European ParliamentSource: European Parliament
Figure 5: The Netherlands is one of the big ‘winners’ in the redistribution of seats after Brexit
Figure 5: The Netherlands is one of the big ‘winners’ in the redistribution of seats after BrexitSource: European Parliament

The amount of seats per country is related to population size in a degressively proportional way. The larger the population of a country the less MEP’s per person are appointed. In February 2018 the European Parliament decided to reduce the number of seats to 705 after the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. The remaining 27 seats are redistributed to under-represented members. In figure 5 the amount of seats per country are shown and the change relative to the situation in 2014.

Q5: How does the Dutch political landscape relate to the European Parliament?

The Netherlands elected 26 MEPs in 2014 (and will send 29 MEPs in 2019). The composition of parties broadly reflects the political situation at the time (table 2). Likewise, current polls for the May 2019 European parliamentary elections are a mirror image of national polls. What’s more, as the Netherlands has a highly fragmented party landscape, it is expected to deliver some new non-inscrits (NI) to the European Parliament. Some of these new parties may join establishments blocks, though they could also join (new) anti-establishment groups.

There are also differences from the European trends. As can be seen in Figure 1, the Netherlands has consistent lower turnout than the EU-average. In the last three elections, turnout seems to have bottomed out and stabilised at just below 40%. The low turnout generally benefits parties with a loyal voter base (EPP/CDA) and parties that have outspoken (negative) views on the EU (e.g. ENF/PVV).

For the low turnout in the Netherlands, general reasons that apply elsewhere may hold. One specific reason for the low Dutch turnout could be that the European Parliament is consistently perceived as ‘unsexy’ by Dutch politicians. The Netherlands does not have a tradition of sending high profile politicians to the European Parliament. This may have resulted in some apathy of the Dutch public towards the European Parliament, further exacerbated by the Dutch rejection of the European Constitution in 2005 in a referendum. In many other EU-countries, the opposite is the case, with former ministers or even prime ministers running for MEP.

Recently, though, the perception of Dutch political parties has changed as they find Brussels has become increasingly important in achieving their domestic goals. Parties choose more proficient and able leader candidates and the Dutch deliver two lead candidates (former minister Timmermans for S&D, Eickhout for Greens).

Table 2: New Dutch parties will enter the European Parliament
Table 2: New Dutch parties will enter the European ParliamentSource: pollofpolls.eu

Another factor which could influence the turnout are the provincial elections in the Netherlands in March 2019, which are staged elections for the Dutch senate. The government could lose its majority there, complicating its legislative agenda and leading to some uncertainty and unpredictability about the subsequent political dynamics.

Q6: What is the role of the European Parliament in the election process for key positions in the European Union?

Compromise has always been an important factor when filling the top jobs in the EU. All national and group interests are balanced through grand bargains. The choice of a new leader of the European Commission will therefore influence the choice for other key positions at the ECB, European Council and The European Parliament.

According to the Lisbon Treaty, the European Commission president is not directly elected, but the European Council proposes a candidate and then the European Parliament formally elects the new president of the European Commission. The Spitzenkandidat process was designed in 2014 to increase the democratic legitimacy by giving the voters more influence about who ends up leading the European Commission. In this procedure, all groups in the European parliament nominate a lead candidate and the nominee of the group that wins the largest share of votes becomes the president of the European Commission.

There is growing criticism about the Spitzenkandidat process. In essence, only the biggest group, the EPP, wholeheartedly supports this process. Their candidate is German Christian-Democrat Manfred Weber. Nevertheless, also the S&D nominated a candidate: Frans Timmermans, current Vice-president of the European Commission. The ALDE group did not nominate a specific candidate, but will present a slate of candidates for top EU jobs, thus backing away from the Spitzenkandidat process.

For now, according to the polls, the most likely outcome of the European Parliament elections is that the EPP remains the biggest group, hence Manfred Weber could become the new president of the European Commission if the Spitzenkandidat process is followed. Additionally some other important positions need to be filled (table 3). The president of the ECB is appointed by the European Council through a qualified majority vote. They will also consult the European Parliament and the ECB’s governing council.

Table 3: Key positions open up in 2019
Table 3: Key positions open up in 2019Source: Rabobank

Q7: What’s next?

Table 4: Several groups have nominated their lead candidate(s)
Table 4: Several groups have nominated their lead candidate(s)Source: Rabobank

Several European groups have elected their lead candidates last month. The EPP chose Germany’s Manfred Weber as their lead candidate, S&D elected Dutchman Frans Timmermans as their Spitzenkandidat. For other nominees see table 4. The lead candidates will start their campaign through Europe in March and challenge each other in debates in April and May. The election will take place during 23-26 may 2019. Countries in the EU have different traditions and can decide themselves on the exact election day, within this four day-window. The Netherlands will vote on Thursday. Most other countries prefer Sunday for election day.

After the elections, the new European Parliament will be inaugurated during a plenary session at the 2th of July. When installed one of the first tasks is to elect a new president of the European Commission. Member states nominate a candidate for this post, but the European Parliament needs to approve the decision by an absolute majority. Candidates for the other Commission portfolios will also have to go through a tough parliamentary vetting process.

Infographic 3: Elections for European Parliament, timeline and key events
Infographic 3: Elections for European Parliament, timeline and key eventsSource: Rabobank

Q8: What could be the consequence of the greater share of anti-establishment groups in the European Parliament?

National elections have been dominated by an ongoing rise of anti-establishment and EU-sceptic forces, which is also going to be reflected in a larger presence in the European Parliament. The different anti-establishment parties are very diverse and cooperation between the parties in one big European group is not very likely at this moment.

The anti-establishment parties can mainly be found in the ECR, EFDD and ENF. It remains a key question whether these groups can overcome their significant differences and build one strong block. When they succeed in building a united front, they can have a much larger influence in the European Parliament. It is possible that this causes a new equilibrium in which further European integration could come to a standstill.

The strengthening of smaller groups will definitely lead to more complexity in the European Parliament and make the progress in strengthening the European Union more difficult.

The impact will vary across policy areas and this will have the focus of our future publications in which we focus on several themes such as F&A, the Banking Union, external policy, the internal market, trade and climate policy.


[1] www.pollofpolls.eu

[2] Dates between brackets refer to year that the treaties entered into force. 

[3] Whenever a new legislative proposal arrives, a committee that deals with the issue involved is charged with drawing up a recommendation for all MEPs to vote on. For example, if it is something to do with the transport of livestock, then the agriculture committee would deal with it, whereas if it is about a trade treaty with Canada, it would go to the international trade committee. The committee appoints a MEP to prepare the report. This person, known as the rapporteur, often consults with the political groups and with experts, sometimes during specially organised hearings. Based on the information received, he or she drafts a text, including amendments, which the committee then votes on. All MEPs then vote on the report during a plenary session. Source: www.europarl.europa.eu

[4] www.pollofpolls.eu

Koen Verbruggen
RaboResearch Global Economics & Markets Rabobank KEO
Ester Barendregt
RaboResearch Netherlands, Economics and Sustainability Rabobank KEO
+31 6 51828489
Ruud Schers
Rabobank KEO
Daniel van Schoot
RaboResearch Netherlands, Economics and Sustainability Rabobank KEO

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