Adam BalcerForeign Policy Project Manager at WiseEuropa
The 2019 European Parliament elections are probably the most important in the history of the EU. The union faces a serious challenge posed by the rise of Euroskeptic parties, from hard radicals to soft realists. Most Euroskeptics have apparently changed their minds and no longer want to exit the EU but to capture it. They aspire to repeat on the European level the seizing of the state they have already achieved in Poland and Hungary or are pursuing in Italy.
The rise of the Euroskeptics will translate into a change in the composition of the European Parliament in their favor. Ruling national populists from Italy and Poland may even gain the second- and third-largest representations in the parliament, respectively, if the UK delegation is taken out of the equation because of Brexit. If the Euroskeptics win one-third of the 751 seats, they may—despite their diversity—come together to block key legislation. They may certainly seek to stop the Article 7 sanctions procedure launched against their Polish and Hungarian brothers in arms for dismantling the rule of law on the national level.
However, the electoral campaign for the European Parliament also seems to be encouraging the pro-European majorities in some EU countries to rise up against Euroskeptic forces. In fact, as the case of Poland suggests, a reversal of the Euroskeptics’ state capture may begin with an increasingly likely narrow defeat in the European elections by a broad pro-European coalition.
Rosa BalfourSenior Fellow in the Europe Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States
The far-right populists clearly think these European Parliament elections matter. They have been campaigning across Europe, and some have pledged to come together in a political group.
The elections also are an appetizer for things to come. In France the campaign is framed as a referendum on President Emmanuel Macron; in the UK it is a proxy for a second referendum on Brexit; in Italy it will be make or break for the coalition government; and in Poland it will indicate whether the governing Law and Justice party can win the parliamentary election this fall.
The anti-EU far right is occupying the space vacated by pro-European political forces that comfortably assumed EU business could be carried out without meaningful engagement of citizens. To the far-right populists, the elections matter not because the European Parliament co-legislates on a wide range of issues of vital importance to European societies—such as fighting the climate crisis, investing in innovation, and strengthening Europe’s global role—but because their agenda is to dismantle the EU from within and undermine democracy in Europe in doing so.
The next European Parliament will matter because the pro-European democratic forces will need to reclaim lost ground and capture the imagination of Europeans on a positive agenda for the future.
Caroline de GruyterEuropean Affairs Correspondent for NRC Handelsblad
Yes, these European Parliament elections matter, and they matter more than ever before, essentially for three reasons.
First, European citizens are increasingly concerned by big issues. Ask any teenager what their main concern is, and you will hear about the climate. Not buying a house within ten years, but the future of life on Earth, no less.
Second, European citizens are increasingly aware that such big issues need to be tackled by countries together. This awareness of challenges brings people together because they realize that there are only cooperative solutions. Another big issue is the future of European societies. The more the United States and China fight delusional battles, the more the Europeans understand that they are different, that they have something in common: a European model. The choice cannot only be between the American and Chinese models.
Third, as a result of all this, the political debate has this time been more pan-European than ever. Technically, the contest is still a series of national elections. But politically, it has moved on from a combination of purely national debates. This increases democratic control, and therefore the legitimacy of what Europeans decide together.
So, yes, these elections matter. A lot.
Agata Gostyńska-JakubowskaSenior Research Fellow at the Centre for European Reform
European Parliament elections matter because they are an opportunity for EU citizens to express their preferences for the further evolution of the European project. Despite populists’ claims that the EU resembles a diktat from faceless technocrats, the directly elected European Parliament co-decides—alongside the EU Council, which represents member governments—on most EU policies and exerts informal pressure on issues such as foreign policy. In light of the EU’s pressing internal and external challenges, it is therefore significant who represents EU citizens in the European Parliament.
These elections also matter for truly pro-European forces, which have been in retreat in some member states. In countries like Poland or the UK, these elections are a chance for pro-European voters to express their frustration with the course and consequences of their governments’ actions. An electoral victory for the opposition parties in Poland could set the stage for a changing of the guard in Warsaw and help the country return to the heart of the EU’s decisionmaking. Similarly, a good collective performance by the parties that want to stop Brexit in the UK could increase the likelihood of another referendum on the country’s EU membership.
Brigid LaffanDirector of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute
The 2019 European Parliament (EP) elections matter to the EU member states and will shape the union in the years ahead. The hustings are a crucial test of how far-right sovereigntists, buoyed by their rally in Milan on May 18, perform across Europe. Italy’s Euroskeptic Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini fulminates against gli oligarchi europei—the European oligarchs—when the real danger lies in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s support of far-right parties. Russia’s influence was illustrated on May 17 when an undercover video exposed Heinz-Christian Strache, then Austrian vice-chancellor, offering government contracts to a supposed Russian oligarch’s niece.
Yet the radical right, whatever its performance in the elections, will not determine who leads the next European Commission. Instead, the electoral outcome will produce a messy process of coalition building as the center-right European People’s Party and the Socialists lose their joint parliamentary majority. The Liberals and Greens are the available kingmakers. The distribution of seats will determine which party or parties are necessary to achieve the majority required to appoint the new commission president.
The election outcome will also influence how EU heads of state and government in the European Council approach the delicate task of nominating a candidate. Extensive informal testing can be expected among the political groupings and between the EP and the European Council in the week following the vote. Neither the EP nor the European Council would relish a constitutional crisis with the sovereigntists on the rise.
Stefan LehneVisiting Scholar at Carnegie Europe
“Landslide Victory for Pro-EU Parties.” This is the headline you are not going to see on May 27, even though it would accurately describe the outcome of the European Parliament (EP) elections to be held on May 23–26. All the media are primed to focus on the successes of the populist right. While these will be impressive in individual countries, some additional nationalist members of the European Parliament (MEPs) will not make much difference, particularly as they are unlikely to form a unified group. The overwhelming majority of pro-integration MEPs is not at risk.
But the elections could be a game changer for another reason. The old duopoly of the center-right European People’s Party and the Party of European Socialists that has ruled the EU for decades will for the first time lose its majority. Liberals and Greens among others will gain influence, and coalition building will become more complicated. The EP might lose some efficiency as a legislative machine but could become a more interesting forum for public debate. Overall, European democracy could gain in the process.
The real threat to the EU comes when populist parties take control of member states or become powerful partners in governing coalitions. Euroskeptic European commissioners nominated by such governments can seriously hamper the EU’s work. Nationalists at the tables of the European Council and the EU Council, composed of heads of government and ministers, respectively, can block reforms and deepen divisions.
The European elections that really count are the parliamentary ones in the member states. Over the coming months watch out for Greece, Poland, Austria, Portugal, and probably—and most dangerous of all—Italy.
Juha LeppänenChief Executive of Demos Helsinki
European Parliament elections matter. Based on an October 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world has to cut global CO2 emissions by 45 percent by 2030 to stay within a 1.5°C temperature rise. The EU is the third most CO2-intensive economy globally, after China and the United States. The next European Parliament will play its part in the first half of this challenge, as decisions made in the next five years will define Europe’s global future.
In connection to this, during the next parliamentary term, the EU’s role in the decarbonized global economy will be defined. The EU has an opportunity to be a global leader in both policy and business, a position the union has never held in the digital economy. This offers a promise for citizens throughout Europe and can secure a sense of purpose for the EU for decades to come. On a policy level, examples of requirements are public-private programs to support systematic decarbonization of industries and production structures; schemes to fund reskilling and life-long learning to support fairness during the transformation; and incentives to enable sustainable and affordable lifestyles.
Denis MacShaneSenior Adviser at Avisa Partners Brussels
For good or ill, the nation-state remains the political focus of national electorates. A certain sense of modesty should therefore keep in check the über-enthusiasms of both pro- and anti-Europeans who think the world turns around the two pharaonic buildings in Strasbourg and Brussels that house members of the European Parliament (MEPs).
The cost of running the parliament is now almost €2 billion ($2.2 billion) a year, or €2.5 million ($2.8 million) for every MEP. Their pay, their zero-visibility expenses, and the thousands of assistants they can employ raise some serious questions.
This year the focus will be on the rise of right-wing MEPs from Italy’s Northern League, France’s National Front, the Freedom Party of Austria, and the Alternative for Germany. What is interesting is the set of other right-wing nationalist parties like Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland, Fidesz in Hungary, the Brexit Party in the UK, the Forum for Democracy in the Netherlands, or VOX in Spain that refuse to link up with a narrow core of racist populists guided by American media executive Steve Bannon.
The populists of the harder left will also do well, as will green populists. But when the results come in, it will be the broad center of parties—left, right, liberal, centrist, or separatist—that see their national interests best promoted by sticking together in the EU. They are the ones who will still be running the show this time next week.
Marc PieriniVisiting Scholar at Carnegie Europe
Traditionally, elections for the European Parliament (EP) have not drawn massive crowds, as Europe is considered too remote from citizens’ daily preoccupations. This time, though, two novel elements are making the EP elections an interesting barometer.
The first one is an oddity. Due to the deadlock between the British government and the House of Commons over Brexit, the UK, which is supposed to have left the EU, will hold elections for the parliament. One party, the Brexit Party of Nigel Farage, was specifically created to offer a megaphone to its leader, a well-known enemy of the EU from within. This is the perfect illustration of a populist politician shamelessly hijacking democratic elections for his own inconsistent purposes.
The second element is that, as often, these EP elections are not about defending or reorienting Europe’s goals and policies. Rather, they are either a free ride against national leaders—see France’s President Emmanuel Macron, who is disliked by a sizable part of the country’s population but enjoys a solid majority in the National Assembly—or a golden opportunity to rail against the EU’s deficiencies and promote populist parties.
But EP elections matter more on substance than they appear, simply because the EU is still the beacon of democracy and the rule of law in the Western world.
Amanda SloatRobert Bosch Senior Fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings
Yes, these European Parliament elections matter. Given the increasingly strengthened role of the parliament in EU decisionmaking, including legislative authority, budgetary power, and oversight functions, its membership will affect policy outcomes. These elections will also provide a barometer of public opinion across the continent on support for populist parties, with the caveats that turnout is frequently lower than in national elections and that voting is normally along domestic rather than European lines.
Paul TaylorContributing Editor at POLITICO
These European Parliament elections matter because external and internal forces are working to weaken, divide, and ultimately destroy the European Union. They must be stopped.
Those forces have names and agendas: America’s Donald Trump and Steve Bannon and Russia’s Vladimir Putin on the outside; Italy’s Matteo Salvini, France’s Marine Le Pen, the UK’s Nigel Farage, the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, Austria’s Heinz-Christian Strache, Germany’s Jörg Meuthen, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński on the inside.
A splintered, Balkanized Europe would serve their interests. Trump and Putin would rather divide and rule than see a stronger EU upholding rules-based, multilateral governance of security, trade, climate action, and human rights. China may harbor similar intentions but treats the EU at least as a potential tactical ally for an open global economy.
The more seats nationalist and populist forces gain in the EU legislature, the more they will use its echo chamber to try to obstruct and discredit a strong EU. There are other choices over which the parliament has a say: opting for more or less austerity; taking more radical climate action or giving priority to old industrial interests; promoting more or less fiscal solidarity in the eurozone; and managing migration. No issue is more important than stopping the wreckers.
Ben TonraFull Professor and Head of International Relations at University College Dublin
Yes, these elections matter enormously in terms of both perception and substance.
In terms of perception, protagonists on both sides of the debate are clearly framing these elections as a showdown between liberals and nationalists for the soul of Europe. While each side may be overstating this case—and it is not clear to what extent these arguments are resonating with electorates in these second-order elections—each side is clearly determined to declare victory. Politically, this could then be spun as a watershed moment, either stemming the tide of the populist right in Europe or dealing a crushing blow to the European liberal world.
In practical terms, too, these elections matter. While not always visible to voters, the European Parliament’s extensive political competencies and central legislative role mean that if a profound shift in the center of the EU’s political gravity emerges, it will have significant legislative consequences.
Finally, the parliament’s role in ratifying the selection of the next senior EU office holders will also come into play later this year. This will be most stark in the case of the European Commission president and the forthcoming institutional battle over the system of presidential candidates that is being promoted by the party federations. In every way, this contest matters.
Pierre Vimont Senior Fellow at Carnegie Europe
At first sight, the game is over. With turnout expected to be low and the national debates having been dull, the May 23–26 European Parliament elections are set to be a lost opportunity. This outcome will once again confirm the paradox that the more powers this parliament gets, the less it attracts the attention of Europe’s peoples.
Yet this feeling of disillusion must not belittle these elections, which could be much more consequential than expected for two important reasons.
First, the political balance in the next parliament will have to live up to the challenge of promoting a more agile European economy. As in the past, this transformation will be largely channeled through the legislative process to shape the European single market on crucial issues like the digital economy, energy, or social welfare. An unsettled assembly risks being a major impediment to the union when it competes with its American and Chinese rivals.
Second, with an assertive far-right coalition likely to emerge in the new parliament, these elections are set to reshuffle significantly the whole of the European political scene, which is an increasingly intertwined network of national and European politics. This is one more reason to take these European elections seriously.