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EU elections: a future for Europe’s Social Democrats?


Since the time of Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder, social democrats in Europe have declined in electoral support. But is this trend reversing?

In 1994, social democrats held about 35% of the seats in the European Parliament, which decreased to 29% by 1999,  continuing its decline to 27% in 2004, and 25% in 2009 and 2014, respectively. In 2019, the last EU election, support for the left-leaning group plummeted to 21%.

Granted, new states joined the EU over the years, and national EU electoral systems were modified, which makes comparison tricky. Also, seat shares only roughly translate into vote share because larger states are proportionally underrepresented in the bloc’s co-legislator.

Regardless, the story of social democrats’ decline is well-documented.

In January 2020, EURACTIV’s polling partner Europe Elects projected that if an election were held, only 18% of the seats and EU-wide popular vote would go to social democratic parties. However, the waning of the past 20 years seems to have since halted, at least for now.

In the past three years, social democrats have not fallen below 18% and would currently receive 20% of the seats. However, it is far too early for centre-left joviality as that result is still below the 2019 election result. Moreover, the lack of data makes it difficult to identify other multi-year recovery phases in support of the centre-left between elections, even if they did occur.

Still, with only one more year until the 2024 EU elections and given the indolent ‘party’ system at the bloc level, the boost in support can be seen as an unusual treat for social democrats in Europe.

We can only speculate about the sustainability and causes of this stabilisation. The temporary halt in decline at 25% after the 2014 elections was followed by further collapse five years later.

One could argue tectonic shifts affecting public life at the end of the last decade, such as Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic, helped to consolidate support around policies that promote a social democratic state that favours European integration. An uptick in support observable after the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 also points in this direction.

Nevertheless, looking at the other parties shows that voting behaviour in the past four years has been remarkably stable in Europe on an aggregate level.

The centre-right EPP Group in the EU Parliament is projected to win 160 seats, 16 less than they currently have. The Social Democrats (S&D) are projected to win 143, one less than they now hold. The liberal Renew Europe group would remain in third position with 99 seats, three less than they have now.

Data suggests the biggest boost in support for the national-conservative ECR Group in Europe, which is projected to overtake the Greens/EFA Group (projected 56 seats, minus 15) and the right-wing Identity and Democracy Group (projected 63, minus one) with 84 seats (+21).

The Left is also on the rise, projected to win 48 seats (+10). Forty-five seats (-19) would go to unaffiliated MEPs, while seven seats could be snatched by new parties that, at this point, have no ties with any of the groups mentioned before.

In 2019, the ECR and the Left Group had issues mobilising their national parliament electorate for EU elections (on which the current projection is based), while The Greens/EFA performed above expectations. This could mean the swings for the three political groups are likely not to be as strong as projected.

(Tobias Gerhard Schminke | with Europe Elects)