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EU Elections in Review

27 June 2019

Just one month after the voting dates of the European elections, ELIA would like to share the following overview by our partners Culture Action Europe, the major European network of cultural networks, organisations, artists, activists, academics and policymakers.

Thank you to all members who engaged in discussions, asked questions, and voted in these latest elections. ELIA will continue to advocate for higher arts education institutions and looks forward to the future of the cultural sector.

Text courtesy of Culture Action Europe

The European Parliament elections took place 23-26 May in the 28 Member States of the EU. Voter turnout was at its highest in 20 years, with 51% of eligible citizens voting (compared to 43% in 2014). Citizens in the majority of (although not all) Member States turned out in notably higher numbers. See the election results in detail here.

Traditional Majority Lost

For the first time in the 40-year history of European Parliament elections, the EPP and S&D do not have an absolute majority. The EPP lost 37 seats (down to 179 from 216), while the S&D lost 32 (down to 153 from 185). With a joint total of only 332 of the 751 seats, this will lead to a different dynamic in the European Parliament than in the past, necessitating much greater cooperation in a more diverse and representative Parliament. If such cooperation does not take place, the EU might become even more intergovernmental, reinforcing Member State role in policymaking. 

Centre & Greens on the Ascent

Pro-European parties still hold 75% of the seats, with decisions being made by new parties as to which political party grouping to join. Renew Europe (previously ALDE) has increased its seats by 36, from 69 to 105). Renaissance (the French list including President Macron’s En Marche) will join the group. 

The Greens have also significantly increased their share up to 75 from 52, with a gain of 23 seats, which will provide greater leverage to push such issues as climate action. Sustainability will become a key issue for the next legislative cycle. 

Both Renew Europe (ex-ALDE) and the Greens are being labelled “kingmakers”, that is, they are each in a position to impact negotiations on the next Presidents of the Commission and Parliament.

Euroscepticism - Growth, but Limited

Eurosceptic and far right parties have increased their share of the vote, but still lost seats in many Member States, and finished with under 25% of the vote. This is not however enough for a blocking minority, particularly given the diversity of views within the different eurosceptic factions. 

On the one hand, this means that worst fears on the future of EU cultural action will not be realised. On the other hand, there is the risk that the CULT Committee (in charge of education and culture) could be dominated by Eurosceptic and far right parties. 

These parties came first in a number of national rankings, representing a normalisation of the far-right at EU level. As a result, with increasing challenges to freedom of artistic expression, the defence of fundamental rights is of critical importance. 

After the Elections - What Happens Next

As political groups are being formed in the aftermath of the election results, the negotiations for key posts in the EU are also underway. The presidencies of the European Commission, Council and Parliament and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy are all the subject of these negotiations.

There was an impetus in the Council to select candidates for the top roles in the EU quickly - ideally in time for the European Council on 20-21 June. See Council President Donald Tusk’s remarks in full here.

Meanwhile, once the political groupings are firmly agreed in the Parliament, MEPs will elect their President and start to form the committees.

How to Select a Commission President

The decision on who will be the next President of the European Commission is subject to a tug-of-war between the European Parliament and the European Council (heads of the Member States). 

The Lisbon Treaty defines the election procedure: the European Council proposes a candidate from amongst the MEPs, to be elected by the European Parliament by a simple majority. However, in 2014, the Parliament developed the Spitzenkandidat system, whereby the Spitzenkandidat (lead candidate) of the party grouping that won the most seats would receive the support of Parliament to become Commission president. This seems unlikely to work a second time due to the loss of the EPP-S&D majority, along with Renew Europe's (ex-ALDE) decision to no longer back the system. The Council is therefore likely to be in a position to make the decision by qualified majority, although no decision was reached in the European Council of 20-21 June.

Contenders for Commission President

The EPP Spitzenkandidat, Manfred Weber (Germany), has received the backing of Angela Merkel. However, a number of countries, including France, are opposed. Meanwhile, the support of EPP leaders in the Council has dropped to 7 after Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz lost a no-confidence vote in his government. 

The S&D Spitzenkandidat, Frans Timmermans (Netherlands), has only secure backing from 7 S&D leaders in the European Council. Thus, it is still far from clear whether or not Timmermans will receive enough support to take up the position.

Current Competition Commissioner, Renew Europe's (ex-ALDE) Margrethe Vestager (Denmark), is a known favourite of President Macron, and received last-minute support from Denmark’s then government. Denmark has since gone to the polls on 5 June. However, it was the Socialists who came first in the elections with 25.9% of the vote. Margrethe Vestager’s centre-left party Radikale Venstre doubled their vote share to 8.6%, which may help her get the support she needs from the new government, if they join together as part of a larger coalition.

The most notable other name that is associated with a potential nomination for Commission President is Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. 
With further national elections approaching (Greece in July; Austria in September; Portugal in October; Poland in November; as well as the looming potential of an election in Italy), it awaits to be seen what delays may arise in appointing the President of the Commission.


Each Member State has one Commissioner, who is appointed by their national government. The Commissioners can only be appointed once the Commission President is in place, with portfolios then being allocated by the Commission President. Commissioner hearings take place in the European Parliament committees before the Parliament decides either to approve them, or alternatively to reject the full college of Commissioners. In 2014, for instance, this nearly took place in reaction to the appointment of the Hungarian Culture Commissioner, Tibor Navracsics, who was only approved in committee after a compromise was reached with the Commission over the extent of his portfolio.

President of the Council and the Parliament

The European Council elects their own President and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy by qualified majority. The outcomes of the 20-21 June European Council may provide names of potential candidates for these roles, although not the appointments themselves. 

Names circulating for the Council President include Angela Merkel (Chancellor of Germany, despite saying that she is not interested), Mark Rutte (Prime Minister of the Netherlands), Klaus Iohannis (President of Romania), Dalia Grybauskaité (President of Lithuania), or Helle Thorning-Schmidt (former Prime Minister of Denmark).

The President of the Parliament is elected by MEPs by absolute majority. The traditional power-sharing deal between the EPP and S&D, splitting the presidencies of the Commission and Parliament between them, will no longer be viable with the loss of their joint absolute majority in the Parliament. It therefore waits to be seen who will take up the Parliament presidency, although an unsuccessful candidate for the Commission presidency may be likely.

Brexit and the European Elections

A redistribution of seats in the European Parliament was confirmed last year in June by the European Council in light of the UK leaving the EU. 46 of the UK’s 73 parliamentary seats would be removed entirely, with the remaining seats going to underrepresented EU Members States (France and Spain with five extra each; Italy and the Netherlands with three extra; Ireland with two extra; and nine others with one extra each).

With the UK still participating in the elections, although due to leave by 31 October 2019 on the current timeline, this was problematic for the election of MEPs in the 14 Member States who would have seats reallocated to them. As a result, 27 elected MEPs across these countries have had their seats “frozen” awaiting the exit of the UK.

The result of UK MEPs arriving in the Parliament also has an impact on committee formation. The UK’s Liberal Democrats (of whom there are 16) are said to be demanding the presidency of one of the committees, which would cause some considerable disruption in reallocation if the UK leaves.
Meanwhile, in the UK’s EU elections, both Labour and the Conservatives saw significant losses to the Brexit Party on the one hand, and pro-European parties on the other. The full effects of this are yet to be seen, but with a Conservative minority government veering further towards exiting without a deal (now that Theresa May will be replaced), and with Labour’s chiefs turning towards stronger promises of a public vote, tensions are not relenting.


In this newly-formed Parliament, group leaders’ have reached an agreement on five working groups, representing the priorities of this parliamentary term. These include:
  • Environment and biodiversity, sustainable mobility, fighting climate change and zero waste, food, health.
  • Economic and social policy, jobs, trade, competition policy and industrial policy, taxation, Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) reform.
  • Innovation, digitalization, AI, single market, consumer protection.
  • Rule of law and fundamental rights, security, fight against terrorism, border and migration.
  • Europe in the world, development, defense, multilateralism, EU Africa relations, enlargement
None of these include culture or education explicitly. This raises concerns that, by sidelining culture, the political composition of the CULT (responsible for culture and education) committee could be adversely affected. 

CAE and ELIA will be advocating to highlight the central role of education and culture as a horizontal issue: as integral to sustainable development; inextricable from economic and social policy; deeply entwined with innovation and digitisation; as a fundamental right in itself; and a core component of international relations. 

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