America done, Europe to go: What 2019 elections have in store for the EU’s future

America done, Europe to go: What 2019 elections have in store for the EU’s future

With American elections finished, the European Union finds itself in a brightening electoral spotlight. Broad forces impacting continental politics, when viewed through a domestic lens in key countries, offer clues to what the European Parliament could look like after Europe heads to the polls in May.

Consider an addition to life’s sureties, death and taxes: a never-ending electoral cycle. In the wake of midterms in the United States, in which Democrats retook the House of Representatives from Republican control, global electoral calculus now turns to 2019 and the looming European elections.

Similar forces that have heightened tensions in EU member states, including Brexit, a stagnating Eurozone, migration, and the forces of nationalism—are likely to take center stage as voters pick the next 705 representatives to the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

But the question of how exactly these forces may shape the broader debate in upcoming months remains unclear. Only through careful analysis of domestic political battles can we speculate as to what EU governance may look like come June of next year.

The German Giant

The EU’s largest economy holds significant sway in determining election outcomes for the continent, and with fundamental shifts occurring in German domestic politics, much of that influence has yet to be determined.

After 18 years as leader of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Angela Merkel stepped down in early December after a year that saw her brand of moderate, pragmatic politics outflanked in the polls. Her successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK), a former protégé, could potentially shift federal politics in 2019 to the right in order to win back voters lost to the Alternative for Germany (AfD). If she is unable to do so within a year, conservatives in Germany may look to this year’s runner-up, Friedrich Merz, to realign the party to its traditional base.

If AKK is able to revitalize conservative Politik in Germany, two quick domestic ramifications would be likely: first, the far-right AfD would indeed lose support to the more moderate CDU; and second, economic issues would rise to the fore, as Europe’s largest economy frets about trade contractions. The continent’s staunchest supporter of migrant acceptance under Angela Merkel will be likely to quiet on the issue.

Europe and the world will certainly be watching the relationship with Merkel and AKK as the new year begins, hoping for stability’s return to Germany.

The Faltering French

On the other side of Alsace, French president Emmanuel Macron—himself the product of an unlikely political convergence—also worries about Europe’s rightward turn. “The world is fracturing, new disorders are appearing, and Europe is tipping almost everywhere toward extremes and again is giving way to nationalism,” he said on Oct 16. “Those who do not see what is going on around us are sleepwalking.”

But recent events in Paris have put Macron in a defensive position. The last five weekends have seen yellow-vested, or “gilets jaunes,” protestors taking to the streets, initially against a rise in diesel tax but now extending to broader issues facing the middle and lower classes of the country. In response, Macron scrapped the fuel duty and promised an extra €100 per month for minimum-wage earners. Public anger, and potential contagion to other European countries, remains a concern.

In spite of Macron’s own faltering approval ratings at home, he has continued to act as defender of Europe abroad, suggesting an alliance of “progressive” politicians for the May elections. This liberal coalition is likely to include Macron’s En Marche party alongside the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), and has expressed reservations about the EU’s traditional Spitzenkandidat (lead candidate) process, in which the major parties put forward a name or team of names to head the European Commission.

No candidate put forward by the two largest parties, the European People’s Party group (EPP) and Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), is French.

The Irritated Italians

Perhaps the biggest wrench in what is usually a calm process is the potential impact of Italian political and budgetary maneuvering. The country’s populist coalition has so far resisted pressure from the EU to rein in its federal spending levels, as Reuters notes, effectively daring the EU to punish its process ahead of May elections. An increase in fiscal spending from France as the result of the “gilets jaunes” protestors may help diffuse tensions, but such a result is far from certain.

Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio, a senior leader of the anti-establishment 5-Star-Movement in Italy, said that “citizens will vote in the European elections and will cause a big shake up. We are ready to discuss things around the table, but they cannot ask us to massacre Italians.”

The biggest question left to answer is whether Italy’s crippling debt and slow growth will create financial turmoil before the elections, despite political posturing from both sides. As the Eurozone’s third-largest economy, any additional cracks in the country’s fiscal and monetary standing will require attention from the EU and a response from each key player in the race to shape European politics for the next several years.


By no means are Germany, France, and Italy the only major forces with the potential political capital to shape European elections in 2019. Indeed, several European leaders have indicated they will not necessarily support the Spitzenkandidat of the largest parliamentary party. Instead, they might put forward their own candidate, which may even include Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.  

Issues that have impacted American elections, including outside manipulation, may also appear over the next several months. The European Commission itself has warned that treating next year’s elections as “business as usual” could have dire consequences for the continent.  

With several months between now and May 2019, predictions issued with any certainty are best considered from a distance. But domestic politics, which have well foreshadowed results in prior elections, will be essential to watch as the loudest bellwethers of what is to come.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

John R. Hess

John is a first-year master’s student at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, concentrating in international political economy and business. His areas of expertise include macroeconomics and political risk issues of the European Union. John’s past experience includes legal work in his home state of North Carolina, research with the US Department of State, and government analysis for Lawyers for Human Rights in South Africa. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is proficient in German.