In the build-up to the European Parliament elections this May, political analysts and forecasters focused largely on the increased fragmentation of European politics. To a large extent, we had already seen the emergence of anti-establishment parties in recent national elections. The 2019 polls now have them more firmly entrenched at a European level. The overall results do not come as a surprise and indicate continuity as well as change. The center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) lost the combined majority for the first time, but remain the two largest parties. Eurosceptic, far-right and national-populist parties did not secure a watershed result but established themselves as a fixed point on the European political stage. At the same time, the centre has also been strengthened thanks to gains made by the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) as well as the European Greens (EFA).

While the current wave of Euroscepticism and nationalism is a challenge for the European project, this also presents the European Union (EU) with an opportunity for further consolidation: the EU now has clear cut internal “enemies.” More so than an abstract sense of purpose, enemies provide a strong incentive to unite. From the perspective of Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries, both challenges and opportunities lie ahead for the E U. Ahead, I’ll examine them individually.

Source: The European Parliament, The Economist Intelligence Unit

Keep calm and learn coalition formation

The prospect of coalition-building at the EU level may sound scary and cumbersome. And yet, coalitions are an inevitable step in building EU institutions based on proportional representation. Analysts of EU institutional design would find a wealth of knowledge in the research of coalition formation experts at national level, while emerging EU leaders will soon resort to their own national experiences — as European cabinets have overwhelmingly been the result of coalitions. This perspective should make all less worried about impending disaster. It may not seem to be the case, but a more diverse representation within the European Parliament and less dominance of the main European Peoples’ Party (EPP) and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) are signs of institutional maturity and do not necessarily spell instability.

The countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) have contributed to this fragmentation. The question is whether they will also successfully participate in managing it. The recent coalition building experience of CEE elites, gained during the early days of post-communist one-party dominance, should prove a useful skill. However, while the post-communist countries currently constitute approximately 30% of the seats in the European Parliament, they do not and will not see this reflected in the senior leadership of any of the EU’s key institutions — with the notable exception of the Polish President of the European Council, Donald Tusk. This is partially due to the perception, held by funding EU members, that these states underperform on such metrics as democratization, individual freedoms and state administration capacity, partly due to their own inability to coalesce and secure such positions. In the Council, these countries will, nevertheless, protect each other on such issues as the suspension of voting rights under Article 7 or the connection of rule of law performance to distribution of EU resources.

Selling the product “Europe”

©Veronica Anghel

The EP and the pan-European parties are the main institutions that will bear witness to incoming CEE parties challenging the status-quo in the new electoral cycle. And while the bulk of national-populists and euro-sceptic parties do not come from this region, national-populists such as Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) and Hungary’s FIDESZ, will bear the banner of reform. In an interview I conducted a few days before the May 26 elections, a member of the Viktor Orban-led Hungarian government asked “why was it a given that the [conservative] EPP should necessarily coalesce with the European Social Democrats or the liberal ALDE? Maybe it is the best strategic option, but where is the negotiation behind this?” He went on to state that in the case of FIDESZ, ‘’this ‘socialist’ EPP is not what we signed up for; why can’t we even consider a negotiation with the conservative Polish PiS?” With a “Hungary First”, anti-migration and anti-liberal values campaign, FIDESZ won 52% of the vote. PiS won 46% of the popular vote. From among the smaller other Visegrad 4 countries, two MEPs will represent the Slovakian radical right People’s Party our Slovakia and two other the Czech the far-right through newcomer Direct Democracy. Such parties will nevertheless struggle to coalesce, as they are divided on more issues than those that unite them. Most of the other parties in the V4 will participate in strengthening the EU parliament’s center.

Centrist European forces have all the tools at hand to successfully dispel the arguments behind transforming the erstwhile aim of an ever-closer “Unites States of Europe” to a looser intergovernmental “Europe of Nations.” For this to be achieved, European elites must come to terms with the understanding that the benefits of a pan-European institutional liberal-legal order are not self-explanatory. Managing political fragmentation through transparent coalition formation negotiations is a first necessary step. Having a clear Euro-sceptic opposition may finally wake complacent European elites to the realization that the goal of an ever-more integrated Europe is not self-sustainable. Pan-European parties must begin to present the “European Union” product more aptly. This would mean engaging in a continuous strategic communication with European citizens who need to be reminded of the advantages of the EU.

Romania & Bulgaria: centrists in disguise

©Marius Tudor

More to the East, in Romania, we are witnesses to a more divided society and a different type of challenge to the European mainstream. The 2020 Alliance between central liberal newcomers Save Romanian Union (USR) and Freedom, Unity and Solidarity Party (PLUS) was the great victor of the elections and is set to reinforce the reshaped European ALDE with 8 delegates. The Alliance leveraged an anti-establishment and anti-corruption rhetoric as well as its novelty on the political scene, earning over 20% of the vote. Populist elements were also present in the USR/PLUS “us” against the “corrupt elite” rhetoric. Similar to the Czech Pirate Party and the Hungarian Momentum, the 2020 Alliance represents the reaction of the young, urban electorate to what is perceived as the incremental, “retrograde” establishment. This is, however, a volatile electorate, with very high expectations, that can easily become disillusioned and disengaged. The ability of both USR and PLUS to govern or deliver on policy matters is yet to be tested.

©Marius Tudor

The type of national populism employed by Romanian mainstream parties is softer than that in Hungary, but it is by no means absent. Main opposition party presidential National Liberal Party (PNL) won 10 seats in the European Parliament, two more than the governing Social-Democratic Party (PSD). At a record 49% voter turn-out, the bulk of the votes went to the centre-right EPP (14 seats) counting PNL’s MEPs plus two more from the former president Traian Basescu’s Popular Movement Party (PMP) and two from the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR). At a first glance, we could say that the centrists won. And yet such parties spell trouble for their host centrist groups in the European Parliament. PNL won the elections with a rhetoric employing traditional orthodox values and Romanian “exceptionalism.” This is not in line with the more centrist direction of the EPP. PNL President Klaus Iohannis was also one of the vocal contenders of the EU migration pact during the crisis, finding social benefits in preserving the ethnic homogeneity of the Romanian people. They both supported the social-democrats’ referendum for a change of the constitution to unambiguously reflect the understanding of marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman. Similar to FIDESZ in Hungary, the PNL campaigned under a “Romania First” slogan. The PSD also advocated for years for less “meddling” by the EU in national decision making, mainly as a result of constant constrains from EU institutions in matters of justice reforms. The European Social Democrats now consider a suspension of this party.

Compared to Romania, allegations of corruption had less of an effect on the Bulgarian electorate. They were also less picked up on by European institutions or the media. This is despite several corruption scandals that led to the resignation of three members of the cabinet in the weeks before the elections and PM Boiko Borisov’s nurturing of informal connections between business and politics. His centre-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) nevertheless obtained 30% of the vote, which translates into seven MEPs for the EPP, against 25% for the Bulgarian Socialist Party (5 MEPs for S&D). The president of the European Commission Jean Claude Junker still calls PM Borisov his “golden boy” despite him chairing a coalition with three far right parties.

The EPP also remains silent on the fact that their Croatian member, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) has governed over the country’s regression of individual rights and freedoms in the past years. HDZ also won the elections in Croatia, in a close race with the social democrats.

Overall, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe will participate in quantitative terms to the EPP-S&D-ALDE coalition of the center. A more qualitative approach shows that the dedication and resilience of these elites in moving the European project further is still a work in progress. With this election, the countries of CEE have once more proven to be failing and progressing at the same time: they muddled through EP groups membership with incompletely democratized political parties and forced these groups to settle on lowest common denominator solutions for their inclusion. Accepting such incompleteness unleashes forces that lead to crisis (witness the case of Hungarian FIDESZ within the EPP or the case of the Romanian PSD within the S&D). In this case, the EU political groups respond by again agreeing to lowest common denominator solutions, which address the crisis of the current populist and Eurosceptic forces and lead to deeper integration of other new comers within the mainstream EP families. In doing so, the center preserves its power for yet another electoral cycle. And yet, it is not too early to consider the price tag for this process in the not so distant future. The power of pan-European groups to constraint and condition their Eastern European newcomers will continue to be put to the test.

Dr. Veronica Anghel is a Research Fellow at Johns Hopkins University – School for Advanced International Studies and the Institute for Central Europe Vienna.  Her research focuses on processes of democratization and Central Eastern Europe party politics. Dr. Anghel is an analyst for The Economist Intelligence Unit and Oxford Analytica and former foreign affairs adviser for the Romanian Presidential Administration. Follow on Twitter @anghel_veronica.