As Europeans go to the polls, can the centre (left) hold?

With voting now underway across the EU for the European Parliament, centrist and centre-left parties are expected to lose ground when the results come in Sunday night.
Terry Reintke, the co-chairwoman of the Green EFA group in the European Parliament, on an election poster in Berlin in May.

By Julia Kaiser

Julia is a reporter at The Parliament Magazine

08 Jun 2024

In this weekend’s European elections, the centre and centre-left forces in the European Parliament are expected to forfeit seats – unlike most parties on the right.  

The Socialists & Democrats (S&D), Renew Europe and the Greens/EFA groups could lose 32 seats combined, according to recent polling data compiled by Europe Elects. That would leave the three with a combined 280 seats in the next European Parliament, compared with 312 as of the end of the last term. In the 2019 elections, the three parliamentary groups won 336 seats combined 56 more than expected for this year 

Meanwhile, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) is expected to widen its lead, with 186 seats out of 720 in the next term. And polling shows the far-right European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and Identity and Democracy (ID) groups will likely become the second largest bloc in the EP, with a combined 141 seats, according to Europe Elects.

Still, early exit polls from the Netherlands, which voted on Thursday, suggest that the Labour-Green alliance won eight seats, one ahead of Geert Wilders’ far-right Party for Freedom (PVV).

More broadly, one reason the centrist parties are losing ground is because of a negative perception at the national level, experts widely say.

“This might largely be a bad coincidence – with some of these parties having done very well five years ago but now getting punished because of being [in] government,” argues Pawel Zerka, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“Thus, national stories stand behind the expected losses of the European left, Green, and liberal groups – and these losses are largely driven by the poor expectations of their members from largest member states, he adds. 

If the German Greens are doing badly, the group in the European Parliament is doing badly.

In Germany, the current coalition government is comprised of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’ Social Democrats, the Greens, and the liberal Free Democratic Party – and 80 per cent of Germans eligible to vote are dissatisfied to some degree with the government, according to a March survey from Berlin-based think tank Das Progressive Zentrum.  

Among the three parties in the German coalition government, the Greens are expected to lose the most in the European elections. The centre-left party garnered 20.5 per cent of the vote in 2019, but is predicted to only win 14 per cent on Sunday, according to polling institute Forschungsgruppe Wahlen.    

MEPs from the German Greens currently make up nearly one third of the Greens/EFA parliamentary group in the EP. “This means that if the German Greens are doing badly, the group in the European Parliament is doing badly, says Sophia Russack, a researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS).  

Centre and centre-left parties have lost steam as the EU’s policy priorities have shifted in recent years. Now, Europe is “living in the shadow of war in Ukraine,” says Zerka. That means there’s a greater focus on security and defence, at the expense of climate and social policies. In a recent Eurobarometer survey, EU citizens put defence and security as their top priorities “in reinforcing the EU’s position globally.”

The left and the Greens could be viewed as less credible on security and defence issues, unlike the right, Zerka argues.   

As for the next mandate, Russack thinks the EP’s policy moves will be less predictable. During this term, most decisions were made by the so-called super grand coalition consisting of the EPP, S&D and Renew Europe.   

But, she contends, 10 to 20 per cent of enacted legislation came about through the cooperation of a coalition of centrist and left-leaning groups, usually relating to typical progressive agenda points like environmental policies and equality.  

The Nature Restoration Law – which the EP adopted in February – was passed because most MEPs from S&D, the Greens, Renew Europe and the Left voted in favour. A majority of MEPs from the right camp, including the EPP, voted against the law.  

“It will be very difficult to build such majorities again. These 56 seats [compared to the 2019 elections] will be missing to make decisions that do not include the EPP,” Russack says, likely resulting in more conservative policies in the next mandate

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