09 Juni 2023

The European Policy Quartet: One year to go until the 2024 European elections!

  • Carmen Descamps, German Association of Energy and Water Industries (BDEW), Brussels
  • Manuel Müller, Finnish Institute of International Affairs / Der (europäische) Föderalist, Helsinki
  • Julian Plottka, University of Passau / University of Bonn
  • Sophie Pornschlegel, Cadmus Europe / Ifok, Brussels
This conversation was conducted as an online chat in German. The transcript below has been edited and translated.
A hand throws a European election ballot paper into a ballot box
Just 366 more sleeps till it’s the European elections again!

The countdown is on: When this Quartet is published, it will be exactly one year until the European elections on 6-9 June 2024. The latest polls show a narrow but stable lead for the European People’s Party over the Party of European Socialists, losses for the Greens, little change for the Liberals, and gains on the left and right. In the coming weeks, the European parties will decide how (and whether) to nominate their leading candidates. And we can already see the first pre-electoral skirmishes, with the leader of the S&D group announcing that cooperation with the EPP is no longer possible.

How do you feel – are you already excited about the European elections?

Strengthening of the fringes

Excited, of course, there’s no question about that – for EU nerds, this is the event every five years. But along with the excitement and anticipation comes a growing sense of realism. My hope is for strategic content, a forward-looking agenda from democratic parties and, of course, especially from the EU Commission.

Personalities and prominent “faces” are important for identification, of course, but the election should be less about political competition and personal deals than about the serious will to advance important dossiers and the common project of European integration. The predicted strengthening of the political fringes will not help. Combined with a low voter turnout, this could lead to surprises.

I am afraid that I am not excited at all. Of all the European elections I have consciously witnessed, I have never expected so little from any of them. But I don’t know if this is still an aftershock of the failed leading candidate process of 2019, the impression of the war in Ukraine or the expectation that, given the great mobilisation last time, there is a high probability that the turnout will not increase any further next year. Unfortunately, I don’t see a boost like in 2019 this time.

First of all: Hello together! It’s nice to see you again after my long Quartet break.

I am very curious about the European elections, especially because it will remain unclear until the very end what the result will be. You can’t really trust the polls these days. At the same time, I’m also a little worried that the extremists will increase their vote share, which will weaken the Parliament and steer European politics in a less constructive direction.

Getting used to the far right?

I have the feeling that you are pretty alone in this concern. In 2019, there was so much fear of a shift to the right that even companies mobilised for the European elections in Germany. I remember a SayYesToEurope livery on a Lufthansa plane and a special European election edition of the DB-Mobil magazine. My impression is that this fear has given way to fatalism. Or am I wrong?

According to the seat projection, both far-right groups are expected to gain seats.

I see it in a similar way. It is clear that European far-right parties have continued to grow in recent years, that they are participating in several national governments and that they could take a larger share of seats in the European Parliament than ever before. But when people were worried about a far-right victory in the 2017 national elections in France and the Netherlands, it sent ripples across Europe. In Germany, for example, the Pulse of Europe movement emerged in response, which then helped shape the mood for the 2019 European election campaign. In 2022, when the far right actually won in Italy, the reaction was much more muted. A certain habituation has obviously set in.

But it is also true, of course, that the far right in the European Parliament will continue to be far from having a majority of their own. Ultimately, even after 2024, it will be easier for them to influence EU policy through the governments they control in the Council rather than through the Parliament, where they can easily be outvoted.

Yes, it is certainly true that the extreme right is now being “normalised”. The other day I was sitting in an event with lobbyists where someone talked about the ECR and ID groups being “conservative”. I wondered what the EPP is supposed to be then.

But Julian, it depends on who you’re talking to: the “EU nerds” Carmen has mentioned before do know that more power for the extremes doesn’t bode well for the decision-making process in Brussels. It’s also about the EU’s ability to act. In the next legislature, the EU will still have to respond to many crises. If it fails to do so, populists will seize on this to argue that power should be repatriated from Brussels to the national capitals.

Well, we know this “take back control” idea from Brexit … Unfortunately, this kind of demands is no longer restricted to politicians from populist or extreme parties. It seems to be increasingly acceptable to call for the disintegration of Europe and the transfer of powers back to the national level.

The bad thing is that the differences between the conservatives and the far right are also being levelled by the real conservatives – in the false hope that this will slow down the rise of the far right. As a result, the extremists have an influence in Parliament that goes much beyond their voting strength.

Is this the “end of the grand coalition”?

In this respect, too, the European election campaign will be exciting: Will the EPP stand as a firewall against the far right or not? So far it doesn’t really look like it, but in the end, much will depend on the positioning of the CDU under Friedrich Merz.

Of course, the EPP itself has recently fuelled this debate a lot, as party leaders like Manfred Weber and Antonio Tajani have repeatedly signalled their openness to cooperation at least with the ECR group. The S&D (for example, in the person of Iratxe García Pérez or Frans Timmermans) has therefore been increasingly dropping hints that the decades-long “informal grand coalition” could end after the European elections, as the EPP has shifted from the centre to the right.

For my part, I don’t think this is very realistic. For one thing, EU legislation is generally so consensus-oriented that majorities without one of the big parties are at best possible on a selective basis, but not on a structural basis. Moreover, in the current situation, a majority without the S&D would in any case require the participation of the liberal Renew group, which won’t want to cooperate systematically with the ECR. What do you think?

What I sense in the EPP is a great dissatisfaction that von der Leyen’s policies are too “leftist” or too “green”. I can imagine that within the party this is encouraging an open-door policy towards the right. The question is whether a future EPP Commission President will be able to develop a more conservative profile than the current one without working together with the ECR.

Stronger left-right antagonism

I can easily imagine that there will be closer cooperation between the EPP and the ECR in the next legislature. This would mean that the European political agenda would shift strongly to the right – with the consequence that we would make no progress anywhere, except perhaps in the curtailment of fundamental, human and minority rights.

However, this could also have the advantage of strengthening the distinction between left and right in the European Parliament and allowing the S&D to pursue a more “left-wing” policy.

Now, that’s a bit cynical – hoping for five years of right-wing policy, so that there can finally be a left-wing opposition to it. 🤨


Well, it depends less on the far right than on the left itself whether it repositions itself. The Democrats in the US and the Labour Party in the UK have not really managed to reposition themselves, despite Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. All I’m saying is that this could lead to a clearer left-right divide in the debates in the European Parliament than has been the case so far.

Will the Liberals remain kingmakers?

I find the wish for such a polarisation very understandable, but not really feasible given the current distribution of votes. With whom would the S&D be able to achieve a left-wing majority – with the Greens and the Left alone? I don’t see that, and neither does the seat projection.

What I find more exciting is whether the Liberals – between the S&D and the EPP – will remain the “kingmakers” in the Parliament. Or will they be replaced by the Greens in the wake of Fridays for Future and the Last Generation?

According to the polls I have seen so far, both the Liberals and the Greens would lose seats in the next European elections. We must be careful not to extrapolate from Germany to the EU here.

If we look at the projection, there could be two main power shifts in the next Parliament. One of them is to the right: A centre-left alliance of S&D + Renew + Greens + Left is currently very close to an absolute majority in the Parliament, but would not reach one in the future. Conversely, a centre-right alliance of EPP + Renew + ECR doesn’t currently have a majority, but would at least come close to it in the future.

The other power shift is from the Greens to the Liberals: Since 2019, the EPP and S&D don't have a majority as a pair any more, but they can still choose whether to form a tripartite alliance with Renew or the Greens. From 2024 onwards, the projection suggests that the numbers could be tight for an EPP + S&D + Greens majority – which would further strengthen Renew in its role as an indispensable partner for any winning coalition. If the polls are confirmed, a majority without the Liberals would be even more difficult to form in the future than it is now.

What do you think are the chances of stable “coalitions” in the next Parliament anyway? With the huge fragmentation and the stronger extremes, it will certainly not be easy.

That is true. But that is exactly why I expect the big groups of the centre – EPP, S&D and Renew – to come together again in the end. This is simply the easiest way to form a majority in the European Parliament, the option to fall back on when everything else could lead to a blockade.

New MEPs: Fresh wind, but also loss of experience

It is also important to note that in the 2019 European elections, the number of newly elected MEPs without previous political experience was extremely high. More than 60 per cent of the members were new to the Parliament and had to learn how it works. I think this is one of the reasons why the Parliament has been so weak in the current legislature.

If the proportion of new MEPs is lower next time, I hope that more stable alliances can be formed that will also be able to assert the European Parliament’s position vis-à-vis the other EU institutions.

However, there are some forecasts predicting that the turnover of MEPs in the next European elections will remain high, at over 50%. On the one hand, this is an opportunity for innovation, but on the other, it means a lot of lost knowledge about how the European Parliament works and how to build majorities there.

In my opinion, the weaker role of the current Parliament that Julian has mentioned is not only related to the turnover, but also to the crisis mode of the last few years – first the pandemic, then Russia’s war in Ukraine – and perhaps also to the strong Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Many emergency measures, especially in the field of energy, have been adopted without the involvement of the Parliament; the citizens’ chamber was left with little more than ex-post communication. To me, this resembles the euro rescue packages during the financial crisis, where the democratic deficit was repeatedly criticised.

From an academic point of view, it would be interesting to analyse what learning processes have been triggered by the large number of new MEPs during the current legislature and to what extent the Parliament has changed as a result. And if it really is as Carmen says, then it will be interesting to see whether the political groups have learned how to deal with discontinuity in their ranks and whether they have become better at ensuring that expertise is passed on.

Who will be the leading candidates?

Let’s get back to the upcoming election campaign – especially to the leading-candidates procedure, which will soon be on everyone’s lips again. In a European Policy Quartet from February 2022, Sophie, Julian and I already speculated on who could be the candidates. Here are our tips from back then:

Julian Sophie Manuel
Ursula von der Leyen Stéphane Séjourné Enrico Letta
Katarina Barley Viktor Orbán Alice Bah Kuhnke
Mark Rutte Sanna Marin Giorgia Meloni
Sebastian Kurz Valdis Dombrovskis Bas Eickhout

How plausible do you think these names are from today’s point of view?

Well, some of our predictions are definitely not bad – others are a bit off, partly because there have been elections in some member states in the meantime, which have changed the political landscape. Viktor Orbán will definitely remain prime minister of Hungary for the next few years, and Giorgia Meloni now holds a national government post as well.

In any case, von der Leyen as the EPP’s leading candidate sounds very plausible. The question for me is which parties will really get involved in the process. After all, the ALDE has already expressed reservations.

Will von der Leyen run for a second term?

Sanna Marin and Ursula von der Leyen
Will Sanna Marin and Ursula von der Leyen face off in 2024?

As for von der Leyen, I still think she has a good chance – even if that was a bit of a boring guess. I mentioned above that the EPP is struggling with her profile. This also has to do with the promises von der Leyen had to make to other parties in 2019 in order to be elected without having been a leading candidate. If she were to run as a leading candidate now, it could solve this problem for her second term, as she would have an easier time getting a majority in Parliament and would therefore have to pay less attention to the other parties.

I also still think that Sanna Marin was a good tip from Sophie. With her security policy profile, Marin can score exactly where the Socialists are traditionally weak: in the Central and Eastern European countries.

For the opposite reason, I would no longer bet on Katarina Barley. A German Social Democrat is a hard sell in Central and Eastern Europe at the moment, even if the German government seems to be getting a better handle on its discourse in support of Ukraine.


I also think von der Leyen is very likely, especially since the German traffic-light coalition agreement of autumn 2021 explicitly opens up such a possibility. Translating from the German original, it says: “The right to nominate the [German] European Commissioner lies with Bündnis 90 / Die Grünen, provided that the Commission President does not come from Germany.” And: “We support a uniform European electoral law with partly transnational lists and a binding system of leading candidates.” That means that von der Leyen, as a leading candidate, would also have the support of the German government.

It is also striking that the Commission President and her team have recently been very active in the field of long-term energy policy – i.e., the response to Russia’s war in Ukraine and the path to energy security. In particular, von der Leyen has taken over the mediatic external communication of a number of energy and climate dossiers that would normally fall under the responsibility of First Vice-President Frans Timmermans or Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson. Clearly, von der Leyen is keen to be very visible on these important strategic issues.

And what names didn’t we think of last year that come to your mind now?

Roberta Metsola, the current President of the Parliament, could be another plausible candidate for the EPP. (And certainly better than a second run by Manfred Weber, who is flirting with the far right!)

Margrethe Vestager, Executive Vice-President of the EU Commission and Competition Commissioner – even though she recently spoke out against the leading-candidates system, arguing that it is a contradiction to run for a parliamentary seat and a Commission post at the same time. I don’t share her reasoning and still hope to see her as a knitting leading candidate! 😉 Moreover, her political family, the European Liberals, hasn’t taken a decision on the topic yet, arguing it was “too early”.

Will the leading-candidates procedure be successful this time?

And then, of course, there is the question – debated a thousand times over – of whether the leading-candidates procedure will be “successful” (however you define success here) this time around. If von der Leyen runs again and the EPP becomes the largest group, it seems very plausible to me that both the European Council and a parliamentary majority would support a second term for her.

However, I think it could get interesting if, after all, the S&D becomes the largest group in the election. As a kind of worst-case scenario, I could imagine that the European Council would still nominate von der Leyen then, since the heads of state and government are already familiar with her and know that they don’t have to worry about her being too ambitious. This could lead to a situation in which the S&D insists on their candidate, while at the same time the EPP supports von der Leyen, pointing out that she was a leading candidate after all and is therefore legitimised by the procedure. As a result, nobody would have a majority, and everybody would be arguing again about what the leading-candidates procedure “really” means.

This doesn’t really seem like a worst-case scenario to me, but rather a repeat of the situation in 2014: If the S&D wants to push through its leading candidate and the Greens also oppose von der Leyen, with whom would the EPP want to elect her? A coalition of the EPP, Renew and the far right would be doubly difficult: First, there would be a discussion within the Liberals, dividing the majority. Second, some heads of state or government in the European Council would probably have problems with a Commission at the mercy of the far-right parties, too.

This would thus be a chance for a blockade in the Parliament against the European Council. In the best case, the Socialists could even succeed in turning some EPP members against von der Leyen.

A possible stalemate

But then we would be facing a stalemate, wouldn’t we? Would that mean that the leading-candidates system is buried for good, because after all the difficulties the parties would abandon it definitely and not nominate any candidates for the 2029 European elections?

Regarding the European Council, I think it is not unlikely that the heads of state or government interpret the rules of the leading candidates more freely and don’t take into account the parliamentary majority, as in the scenario described by Manuel. Especially as the Socialists-led governments in the EU are in the minority and a potential “anti-von der Leyen faction” would find few supporters in the European Council. Besides the German Chancellor, the strongest Socialist representative I can think of is Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, whose future is uncertain with the new elections on 23 July.

Exactly. A centre-left alliance without the EPP would hardly have a majority in the European Council. A centre-right alliance of EPP, ECR and Liberals, on the other hand, would be quite conceivable there, especially if Spain also falls to the EPP in July.

Well, wouldn’t that be something new, Manuel, that people argue about the leading candidate procedure! 😉 (Although the 2019 debate was only really heated in Germany – there was much less discussion in other countries.)

I would like to disagree with you on one point: I did not perceive von der Leyen as an “unambitious” Commission President. Her 2019 programme was very ambitious, and despite the crises, the EU Commission has made many proposals in the areas of digitalisation and climate protection (Many of these then died in the Council or were watered down by governments. But that is another matter.) In addition, von der Leyen has taken quite important decisions on NextGenerationEU and vaccine procurement during the crises, even though the European Council always insists on its power.

But I agree with you on one thing: With von der Leyen, the chances are greatest that there will be a leading-candidates procedure in the 2024 European elections in which a leading candidate will actually become President of the Commission.

Which events will shape the election?

To close, a quick round of short answers: Which event in the next months will shape the European elections?


A blackout next winter.

An intensified public debate on treaty reforms and the upcoming EU enlargement.

The office dog
Snap Bundestag elections in Germany.

The Hungarian Council Presidency directly after the European elections. And the Belgian parliamentary elections, which will take place at the same time as the European elections and in which the two separatist Flemish far-right parties N-VA and Vlaams Belang are expected to make strong gains. To put it bluntly: What will become of the EU if Belgium soon ceases to exist as a country?

Well, the idea of moving the European capital to a non-state territory has been floated before … 😉

You mean to London?

If that happens, the 2024 European elections will certainly be remembered for a very long time! 😅

Carmen Descamps works as Manager for EU Energy and Digital policies for the German Association of Energy and Water Industries (BDEW) in Brussels.
Sophie Pornschlegel is the Director EU Relations & Projects at Cadmus Europe / Ifok in Brussels.

The contributions reflect solely the personal opinion of the respective authors.

Previous issues of the European Policy Quartet can be found here.

Translation: Manuel Müller.
Pictures: Ballot box: European Parliament/Pietro Naj-Oleari [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr; Marin and von der Leyen: Laura Kotila, valtioneuvoston kanslia [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr; portrait Carmen Descamps: Life Studio [all rights reserved]; portrait Manuel Müller: Eeva Anundi / Finnish Institute of International Affairs [all rights reserved]; portraits Julian Plottka, Sophie Pornschlegel: private [all rights reserved].

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