Upcoming European elections may be the most important ever

Upcoming European elections may be the most important ever

This year’s election has been referred to as a referendum on the entire European project. (Shutterstock)

This week sees the kick-off of the final leg of the landmark European Parliament elections campaign. The May 23 to 26 ballots are assuming much greater importance this year in what may, in effect, be a referendum on the six-decade integration project of the Brussels-based club.

The election is not just important for the future of the continent, but also the rest of the world, as the EU remains an economic superpower, with its collective gross domestic product parallel to that of the US and larger than that of China. It is also the world’s biggest exporter, with the scores of nations for which Europe is their leading trade partner ranging from China in Asia to Brazil in South America.

One reason why this year’s election has added spice within Europe is the growing prospect that the UK will take part in the ballot. Some three years after the 2016 Brexit referendum, UK candidates will take part unless Prime Minister Theresa May can quickly get her withdrawal deal through Parliament.

The continuing impasse over Brexit is just one reason why French President Emmanuel Macron is depicting the contest as a choice for or against Europe. With anti-integration, Euroskeptic parties across the continent hoping for big gains, Macron is seeking to rally liberal, internationalist forces that have been buoyed by Sunday’s Spanish election, which saw a resurgence in fortunes for the strongly pro-Brussels Socialist party.

Yet the challenge for Macron and others of his ilk is that the election takes places in the context of major voter discontent and apathy. This is fueled by the fact that the European Parliament, specifically, is generally not trusted by many in the continent, for whom Brussels seems very remote to their day-to-day lives.

Voter turnout at European Parliament elections has declined, slipping from 62 percent in 1979 to a record low of 42 percent in 2014. In some countries, turnout only just got into the double digits last time around. This apathy comes despite the steadily growing powers enjoyed by the European Parliament. Originally created in the 1950s, it assumed enhanced political legitimacy in 1979, when it became a directly-elected chamber.

Since then, the legislature has assumed veto power over annual EU budgets of approximately €140 billion ($157 billion) and secured powers to amend or block a wide range of draft laws that are devised by the European Commission. The new members of the European Parliament will also have a significant opportunity to influence the choice of the next president of the European Commission, widely viewed as the key office holder in Brussels.

This is because key groups in the Parliament forged an agreement before the 2014 election that, for the first time ever, the choice of candidate for president to succeed Jose Manuel-Barroso should be nominated by the voter bloc that secured the most seats. While national governments have ultimate power over the appointment, the legislature’s voice was louder than ever on the important decision to select Jean-Claude Juncker, who has held the post for the last half-decade.

Yet, for all of this, it is the Euroskeptic, anti-politics element of this year’s election that may capture the most attention. At this point in the campaign, there appears to be significant wind in the sails of anti-EU parties. They are seeking to build on the 2014 elections, which saw major gains for anti-integration parties from the extreme right to far left. 

Over the last five years, the rise of these parties has already complicated decision-making in Brussels, including in the economic policy arena. This is because Euroskeptic parties are generally anti-free trade, and the European Parliament has veto power over many international treaties. There is a real possibility that anti-integration parties could win enough seats in the legislature this time around to significantly influence and potentially stymie legislation, rather than just rant about it, as is often now the case.

The continuing impasse over Brexit is just one reason why Emmanuel Macron is depicting the contest as a choice for or against Europe.

Andrew Hammond

Another reason for the high profile of Euroskeptic parties this year is the role of former Donald Trump aide Steve Bannon, who will speak on May 11 at a conference in Berlin organized by the far-right Alternative for Germany. Bannon is also prominent in Italy and has claimed credit for bringing the coalition government of the far-right League and populist Five Star Movement together. 

Nevertheless, the latest polls indicate that the balance of power in the Parliament is still most likely to be held by a pro-integration majority. While this will be reassuring to many in the continent and beyond, it cannot nonetheless be taken for granted, given the disenchantment of millions of people with the status quo.

The increased popularity of Euroskeptic parties reflects a wide range of factors, not just popular discontent with growing European integration. Broader issues include deep disquiet with long-established national political parties and systems, concern over immigration, and discontent over the post-2008 economic downturn and subsequent austerity measures.

Taken overall, the forthcoming European Parliament elections may well be the most consequential ever. With Euroskeptics seeking to make big gains, the result could hinge on turnout and whether voters from the center ground of European politics come out in large enough numbers to ensure that the preponderance of power in the legislature continues to be held by a moderate majority.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
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