To tackle climate change, immigration and threats to democracy, Europe’s fractious new Parliament will have to work together

The European Union has survived its latest contest between pro-EU and anti-EU forces.

Helped by high turnout, pro-EU centrist and leftist parties together won more than two-thirds of seats in the European Parliament elections held in 28 countries from May 23 to 26. Populist parties intent on destroying the EU from within made only modest gains, increasing their share from 20% to 25% of the 751 seats.

The European Parliament – one of the three institutions involved in passing laws in the European Union – was once a debate society with no real influence. Today, it has a significant role in shaping how EU countries will tackle climate change, threats to democracy, immigration and other matters of great concern to European voters.

The election outcome ensures that populist forces cannot form a blocking minority, which could paralyze the work of the European Parliament.

Despite hobbling populist forces, the result is messy. No single party has a majority of seats, meaning the EU will be governed by a broad coalition – one that will likely have to accommodate left, right and centrist views.

I’m a scholar of European politics. While the European Parliament relies on bargaining between its groups, this is the most fragmented I’ve ever seen it.

It is possible that the necessity of building coalitions among the varied pro-EU parties could foster compromise. But with lots of small parties and divergent opinions vying for influence, legislators may also struggle to make any concrete legislative progress at all.

Climate change

Pre-election polling showed that European voters saw climate change as a major factor in casting their ballot, citing concern over environmental conservation and global warming.

In recent months, student-led school strikes against climate change have spread across Europe.

These environmental concerns contributed to the surge of Green Party representatives, who won 9% of the vote – increasing their parliamentary seats from 52 to 69.

Greens were particularly effective in Western Europe and with younger voters, capturing one-third of all German voters under the age of 30. Their campaign pledges to push for urgent climate action, social justice and civil liberties were less successful in Central and Eastern Europe.

“We will need to see much more serious climate action, a real change of attitude: a price on CO2, properly tackling aviation, the greening of agriculture,” said Bas Eickhout after the election. Eickhout is a leading member of the Greens in the European Parliament.

Pressuring EU countries to meet these environmental goals, however, will not be straightforward.

While 77% of Europeans surveyed in a recent study want to see meaningful action on climate change, European politicians are divided on the issue.

Germany and Poland have refused to endorse a bold plan to achieve carbon-neutral economies by 2050. That has put them at odds with many of their partners in the EU, such as France, the Netherlands and Sweden.

A sign erected by climate activists outside the European Parliament in Brussels before the European elections, May 26, 2019. AP Photo/Francisco Seco
Any legislative action on the environment, such as reforming EU agricultural or trade policies, will require agreements between parliamentary groups. The likely coalition of the center-right, liberal, center-left and Green parties would bring together groups with very different environmental records.

That will likely mean more compromise and less ambitious policies.