What’s at Stake with the 2024 European Parliament Elections

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Introduction

Europeans across the European Union’s 27 member states will head to the polls between June 6 and 9 to cast a crucial vote for their representatives in the European Parliament (EP). The EP is one of the European Union’s seven main institutions and the only one directly elected by the citizens. As a functionally legislative body, the EP plays a major role in approving or rejecting legislation, conducting oversight, and confirming the bloc’s seven-year budget. Additionally, the results from the EP elections will lead to electing the next president of the European Commission (currently Ursula von der Leyen) and voting in the full college of commissioners, some of whom have positions with significant impact on the United States and transatlantic relations.

The EP faces a paradox as it faces its 10th direct election: European citizens have rarely placed such high expectations on what the European Union can or should accomplish, yet the elections will be fought primarily along national political lines. Many parties will leverage national issues or discontent against incumbents to gain votes. Some will address EU-level decisionmaking, such as on migration or trade, but not all. Ambitions are high across many member states for what the European Union can do for its citizens’ future in an increasingly insecure world. Even though the European Commission and the European Council will be the key institutions to initiate and pass legislation related to all these areas, the EP has an important role to play as co-legislator.

The parliament’s role is often undersold, but it will loom large in three areas: (1) the approval of the college of commissioners, which will lead on policy priorities such as a stronger European defense, rule of law and concerns over democratic decline, enlargement for Ukraine and the Western Balkans, and migration policies for an aging continent that is increasingly shaping its relationship with neighbors through the security prism; (2) the budgeting process for the next EU budget starting in 2028 (during this new EP’s mandate), which will either put money behind these policy priorities or shift it away toward others with potentially long-term consequences (e.g., less ambition on the green transition programs); and (3) law-making and reforms of the treaties to allow for stable enlargement, a review of the Stability and Growth Pact, and competitiveness policies, not to mention new regulation in the tech, trade, and industrial sectors. The makeup of the 705-member body will determine the direction of these three areas.

Current polls predict gains for right-leaning and far-right parties, and while the traditional political center is expected to hold, this change will likely impact EU policymaking. This commentary explores the elections’ impact across several key areas of EU policy: security and defense, rule of law, economic security, and foreign policy.

Security and Defense

At first glance, the elections seem to have a marginal impact on European security and defense policy. The primary reason is institutional: the European Union’s Common Security and Defence Policy is intergovernmental, steered by heads of state and government in the European Council or by foreign affairs ministers in the Foreign Affairs Council. Daily operations involve constant dialogue and negotiations between the commission, the European External Action Service (the European Union’s “Foreign Ministry”), and member states. The EP, in contrast, serves more as a consultative or monitoring entity.

However, the EP’s secondary role is not insignificant. When it chooses, the EP can leverage its position on security and defense issues, as illustrated by its recent refusal to approve the council budget until new Patriot air defense systems are provided to Ukraine. Additionally, the EP approves the composition of the commission and elects its president. If sovereign or nationalist forces gain strength in the parliament, they could scrutinize the commission’s actions in key sovereign domains, including defense. Crucially, the EP also participates in adopting the common budget, including the seven-year multiannual financial framework (MFF) and yearly budgets. During the last MFF negotiations, proposed increases in defense spending were reduced in favor of more traditional areas like agriculture.

Whether the European Union adopts a more ambitious defense posture will depend a lot on the composition of the next commission and its president. The most serious contender, Ursula von der Leyen, has positioned defense at the center of her campaign. The next commission is likely to play a more prominent role in defense matters, potentially by creating a defense commissioner and significantly increasing defense spending, possibly by the issuance of defense Eurobonds.

Regardless of their political programs, EU decisionmakers might be compelled to take bold steps out of necessity and urgency. Since the recent U.S. supplemental is likely to be the last aid package from the Biden administration in 2024, the European Union has a pivotal role in ensuring that Europeans commit the necessary support to Ukraine. Additionally, the potential for Donald Trump to take office would lead to concerns about NATO’s future. While the European Union does not aim to and is not at all able to replace NATO as the cornerstone of European security, it can potentially take on a bigger role alongside the NATO alliance.

Rule of Law

The EP elections will have a significant impact on the European Union’s response to the increase in democratic backsliding and erosion of the rule of law in some member states, such as Hungary and, more recently, Greece and Slovakia. The EP has been a key actor in pressing other EU institutions to take action to defend the rule of law within the European Union. If, as expected, the election results in a significant shift to the right, the parliament is likely to become a less assertive defender of the rule of law and democratic norms, further undermining the European Union’s already lackluster response to rule of law backsliding.

The European Union has been confronted with the phenomenon of member states violating core EU rule of law norms since 2011—when Viktor Orbán came to power in Hungary and began his drive to subvert the country’s democracy. The Law and Justice government in Poland also brazenly defied EU rule of law norms during its time in office, from 2015 until 2023. Over these years, the EP has taken a far more robust stand in defense of the rule of law than have the European Union’s other political institutions, such as the European Commission and the European Council. While the other institutions dithered, the parliament continued to press for action—all the way from 2012 when it issued its first report on backsliding in Hungary until 2024 when it condemned commission president Ursula von der Leyen for caving to extortion from Orbán over Ukraine’s EU accession talks and handing the Hungarian government €10.2 billion in suspended EU funding.

The two political groups in the parliament most committed and active on the rule of law issue—the Greens and the liberal Renew Europe group—are both set to lose seats in the upcoming election, while the two far-right groups most opposed to any EU action to defend the rule of law—the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and the Identity and Democracy Group (ID)—are both set to make historic gains. Moreover, these shifting power balances will likely make centrist party groups like the European People’s Party (EPP) and their prominent leaders who dominate top offices in other EU institutions more inclined to normalize cooperation with autocratically inclined parties and governments and therefore less inclined to take robust action to defend the rule of law.

Economics

The elections won’t be as consequential in the near term for the trajectory of the European economy, especially as growth in the Eurozone continues to pick up. This year will likely end with a growth rate of around 1 percent, disappointing by international standards but quite decent for Europe. As inflation decreases, the European Central Bank might lower interest rates sooner than the United States, potentially boosting the economy in 2025 by reducing financing costs. Moreover, thanks to the relatively successful energy decoupling from Russia, the threat of recession that most experts were concerned about last year has virtually vanished.

The composition of the EP will be crucial for shaping several strategic EU policies in the coming years. Firstly, it must continue advancing the energy transition and climate policies, focusing on increasing electricity interconnections and financing the European Green Deal. Secondly, it needs to ensure progress in industrial policy and economic security, particularly in technology, critical raw materials, semiconductors, electric vehicles, economic resilience, and overall competitiveness. Strengthening the single market and boosting private investment through a genuine capital markets union is essential. Thirdly, the parliament must address citizens’ social demands, such as concerns about the welfare state, inequality, inclusiveness, housing access, and creating quality jobs for non-college workers, all amid an aging population that complicates public service funding. Fourthly, it should continue supporting Ukraine, enhancing military capabilities, and acquiring the means to play a larger role in global geopolitics. Finally, substantial EU budget reforms will be necessary to finance these challenges, potentially including the creation of European taxes and issuing joint debt for specific purposes.

A fragmented EP, and especially one in which extremist parties (especially from the right) have more influence, will complicate attempts to Europeanize policies, increase integration, and find ways to provide needed European public goods through the fiscal, banking, and energy unions. A less integrated European Union will not be able to take advantage of economies of scale (as the United States or China do), which has been identified as one of the key factors behind the low productivity growth in Europe.

EU Foreign Policy and Enlargement

Seismic changes have occurred in Europe since the last elections five years ago. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted the European Union to rethink several status quos, particularly regarding EU enlargement, one of its key foreign policy tools. Although member states hold primary competence in foreign and security policy, the EP wields significant influence through its budgetary authority (funding for pre-accession countries), role as co-legislator alongside the council, and power to approve new EU members.

An increase in far-right representation could complicate parliamentary approval for accession treaties, enhanced financial assistance for enlargement-related reforms, and the emphasis on the rule of law. Far-right parties generally oppose further EU enlargement, viewing it as costly in terms of national sovereignty, economic efforts, and potential “undesired” migration flows. This opposition overlooks the transformative power of the European Union’s enlargement policy, especially as Ukraine’s accession is a high priority for Brussels and the transatlantic community.

Centrist parties might adopt more extreme positions due to growing competition with the radical right, hindering the EP’s ability to form coalitions. The EPP may seek right-wing partners for its conservative agenda. While economic and monetary affairs are likely areas of policy alignment, migration issues may lead to ad hoc coalitions between the EPP and far-right groups. The EPP’s support for democracy and the rule of law abroad could be affected by alliances with the ECR or ID, shifting focus to reducing migration or limiting free trade agreements. The extent of agreements between the EPP and right-wing groups will shape foreign policy.

According to the latest polls, over 25 percent of the next EP will sit to the right of the EPP. The ID and ECR could become the fourth and fifth largest groups, respectively. The balance of power between the ECR and ID will largely depend on whether Victor Orbán’s Fidesz aligns with one of these groups or remains nonattached. Recent moves by the ID to expel the German Alternative für Deutschland and seek common ground with the ECR suggest a possible far-right coalition.

Far-right fragmentation and mainstream parties’ united stance on external affairs have so far limited the far-right’s impact on EU foreign policy. These divisions have hindered the radical right’s ability to present a unified stance on key issues, including enlargement. However, far-right parties excel at framing EU foreign policy debates in stark terms that resonate with public concerns about security and migration. Increased far-right representation will likely polarize and securitize EU foreign policy, affecting consensus in the EP.

A key impact will be the EP’s role in approving the next commission president and their strategic priorities. In 2019, negotiations centered on the European Green Deal. This time, a right-leaning EP may prioritize issues like migration over other major issues like the green or digital transitions.

Donatienne Ruy is a fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program and the director of the Abshire-Inamori Leadership Academy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Sissy Martinez is a program manager and research associate at the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at CSIS. Federico Steinberg is visiting fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at CSIS. R. Daniel Kelemen is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at CSIS. Ilke Toygür is a senior associate with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at CSIS. Mathieu Droin is a visiting fellow in the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at CSIS.

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Donatienne Ruy
Director, Executive Education and Abshire-Inamori Leadership Academy, and Fellow, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program
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Sissy Martinez
Program Manager and Research Associate, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program
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R. Daniel Kelemen
Senior Associate (Non-Resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program
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Ilke Toygür
Senior Associate (Non-Resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program
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Mathieu Droin
Visiting Fellow, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program