A report aftermath of the European Parliament election, finds that almost half (44%) of Spanish voters think their country’s political system is “broken”. Support for the EU, however, remains strong – with parties, and voters, agreed on the need for pan-European engagement on to key issues, such as climate, the economy, and international security.
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The 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 identifies a series of challenges for Spanish parties in the forthcoming session of the European Parliament, as they attempt to deliver on their respective mandates for change.
The Greta Thunberg-Effect
Voters are becoming less committed to parties – even while MEP groupings in Brussels become ever more tribal and extreme. 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.
In Spain, however, the mainstream performed strongly – in a near-replication of the result of recent domestic elections – with the insurgent VOX collecting just 6% of the vote. Accordingly, fragmentation was limited as mainstream parties succeeded in delivering clear, and emotionally resonating, messages across a range of issues.
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.
Climate change will create tensions within the EU
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%). In Spain – as in Italy – economic crisis or trade wars are considered as the single biggest threat for Europe, notably for voters of PSOE (25%). Action on climate change was cited as the single-most important issue by 12% of Spaniards – with this figure rising to 26% for supporters of Podemos and to 32% among those aged 18-24. Unsurprisingly, the only major drivers for voters of Vox were migration (30%) and Islamic radicalism (24%).
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.
Spaniards love Europe
Spain: Spaniards are among the most ardent believers and defenders of the EU. 53% believe that the EU protects them against the excesses or failures of the national government, compared with just 20% who say that the EU membership often holds their national government back. 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, and 35% said they were worried by both emigration and immigration.
On prospective coalition-building, Spanish voters are very ideological. Reflecting the deep polarisation seen in domestic politics, most Partido Popular voters (40%) would feel comfortable with their party cooperating with the far right and centre-right parties, while only 23% would like PP to cooperate with the centre-left, liberals and the greens. And the same is true for the Socialists: 75% would like their party to work with the centre-left, liberals and the greens (75%) while 52% would feel uncomfortable if PSOE were to collaborate with the centre-right and liberal parties.
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. The country is slowly moving away from the EU across a range of indicators. There is considerable opposition to coalition-building, particularly with other nationalist parties headed by the likes of Matteo Salvini (40%), Viktor Orban (37%), and Nigel Farage (28%).The voter group most receptive to cross-party engagement are those ages 18-24, who favour outreach to parties of the centre left, such as the Greens and Liberals.
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. 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, voters in Italy – particularly in the age group 18-25 – continue to have serious concerns about the impact of emigration on their country. 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%).
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.