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What's at stake in the European Parliament elections this May?

19:26 22/04/2019
With the European elections on the horizon, how serious a threat is the populist surge?

The European Union may be under threat again. Having survived the Greek financial crisis, the refugee crisis and Brexit, the bloc’s future is now under threat from its voters. At least, that’s what some observers would have you believe. The European Parliament elections in May come in the wake of the UK’s decision to leave the EU and the rise of right-wing, anti-migration parties in various EU countries, and voting trends are being closely watched to see if the populist wave that has already swept across Europe as well as bringing Donald Trump to power in the US will engulf the EU’s only directly elected body.

Opinion polls in Italy point to the anti-immigrant Lega, led by deputy prime minister and interior minister Matteo Salvini, winning a third of the votes. Salvini’s government has blocked boats carrying migrants from landing at Italian ports and his anti-immigrant policies have been criticised by Pope Francis. In Hungary, the Fidesz government of prime minister Viktor Orbán has launched an election campaign centred on attacking European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker as an elitist despot who will force Hungary to take in migrants against its will. Fidesz is expected to be Hungary’s biggest party after the elections, with just under 50% of the votes.

The forecasts have sparked alarm in some quarters. The European Council on Foreign Relations produced a report in February warning that if pro-European parties did not take seriously the threat posed by their opponents, the EU would be “living on borrowed time”. That report highlighted the effect that electoral gains by the far right would have on EU trade policy, as the Parliament has the power to veto trade agreements. Efforts by the Commission to defend cornerstones of the EU’s fundamental values, such as an independent judiciary, against attacks from illiberal governments in countries such as Poland and Hungary could be hampered by alliances of far-right MEPs.

Support for the ‘mainstream’ popular pan-European groups – the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the centre-left Socialists & Democrats (S&D) – is falling and they are expected to lose a large number of seats. A projection by the Parliament’s Public Opinion Monitoring Unit shows the EPP winning 183 seats compared to its current 217, while S&D is expected to see its numbers fall to 135 from 186 – reflecting declines in the share of votes for the national parties in Germany, France and the Netherlands.

But it’s not that straightforward. For one thing, the decline of the French Socialist party was accelerated by the rise of president Emmanuel Macron’s pro-European En Marche movement, later renamed La Republique En Marche (LREM). Macron is expected to align his party with the centrist Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) group, led in the European Parliament by Guy Verhofstadt, a Flemish liberal who was Belgian prime minister from 1999 to 2008. ALDE’s seats could increase by 18 if LREM does as well as expected. The Greens are also forecast to do well and secure more than 45 seats. This would create a broad pro-European majority in the Parliament with more than 450 seats, compared to 190 for anti-European parties.

The groups of political parties wield power and influence through control of posts and through the important committees that decide legislation. Parties of the nationalist right have traditionally struggled to form stable groups because of differences with their foreign allies. Salvini met Jaroslaw Kaczyński, leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, in January to try to thrash out an alliance. But differences between the two parties over Russia and redistributing migrants effectively rule out any chance of this working over the lifetime of the next parliament.

Agata Gostyńska-Jakubowska, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform in Brussels, says: “I am not buying into the narrative that Eurosceptics will take over the European Parliament,” because of the challenges they face resolving their political differences. What is clear, she says, is that dealing with the European Parliament will be more complicated for the Commission and the Council of Ministers, not least because of the increase in the number of small parties.

When the results are announced at the end of May, several of the populist, anti-migration parties will expect to celebrate victories with boasts of record numbers of seats. But the reality will likely be that the assembly will continue to have a large pro-EU majority. The populists will provide the sound and the fury but it would be a mistake to see this as the dying days of the European Union.

Ones to watch

Yanis Varoufakis, a former Greek minister of finance at the height of the country’s financial crisis in 2015, is standing in Germany for a new party, Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25). Varoufakis has been a fierce critic of the Eurozone’s policies towards Greece, accusing it of practising “fiscal waterboarding”. Silvio Berlusconi, the four-time prime minister of Italy, is heading the list for Forza Italia at the age of 82. He was convicted of tax fraud in 2013 and banned from holding elected office in Italy for six years.

When & where

The European Parliament elections for the 2019-2024 term will take place from 23-26 May in the EU member states. The voting date depends on each country’s traditions: people in the Netherlands will vote on Thursday, 23 May and Irish voters the following day. Voters in 23 countries, including Belgium, will vote on Sunday, 26 May. All MEPs are elected using some form of proportional representation.

Meanwhile in Belgium

Twenty-one MEPs will be elected in Belgium, with voters voting on lists depending on the language area they live in. In Brussels, they can choose whether to vote for the Dutch- or French-speaking electoral college. There are six municipalities with language facilities in the Brussels periphery whose inhabitants can vote for French-speaking lists despite being in Dutch-speaking Flanders. The 2019 Belgian regional and federal elections will take place on the same day as the European elections.

This article first appeared in The Bulletin spring 2019

Written by Simon Taylor