EU’s Future At Stake In Critical Parliamentary Election – OpEd


By Chris Doyle

From June 6 to 9, the most extraordinarily massive election will take place in Europe. It will involve more than 400 million voters in 27 states. In terms of electoral processes, few are more complex.

In a single country election, voters normally determine their support based on a few key issues, with the economy typically being the top priority. But European Parliament elections are akin to having 27 separate elections, involving 24 official languages, rolled into one. What matters to voters in Finland may not be so crucial to those in Portugal.

For much of the EU’s existence, the 700 or so Members of the European Parliament have had strangely limited powers. Gradually, the parliament has acquired more influence, meaning these elections have therefore evolved into a more significant contest.

Which trend will prevail? The European People’s Party, a center-right group of MEPs, looks likely to remain the largest bloc in the parliament, with it hovering around 22 percent in recent polls. In all likelihood, the socialists will continue to be the second-largest grouping, with polling showing them at 18 percent. The far-right parties may fare better than in previous elections, while the Greens and the left may be the biggest losers.

This hardens the trend of the last decade, with anti-establishment parties prospering at the expense of center-left and center-right political forces. Back in the 1990s, such anti-establishment parties got about 12 percent of the vote. By 2021, this figure was up to 32 percent. Most of these were on the far right. The far right is either in government or backing the government in Finland, Hungary, Italy, Slovakia and Sweden, while Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom secured the largest number of seats in last year’s Dutch elections. Many will be closely watching how the far-right vote fares in France, with a presidential election due in 2027. Marine Le Pen looks likely to be a major challenger for the presidency in post-Emmanuel Macron France.

The obvious failure of Brexit — the UK leaving the EU — has meant there is close to zero appetite for leaving the union. Instead, the radical right has opted to try to capture it. One of its standard bearers, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, was chillingly clear in an interview last December: “Our plan is not to leave (the EU), but to take it over.”

The anti-EU contingent is geared toward revolutionary change from within, focused on the significant repatriation of powers to member states. They push for an alliance of nation states in which national laws reign supreme. Radical-right politicians do not fit in with the consensus-style politics of much of the EU and serve as disrupters rather than facilitators of new policies.

After the June election, all the top EU jobs will be up for grabs. Ursula von der Leyen will be hoping for a second five-year term as head of the European Commission. A second stint is not guaranteed, but she is the favorite in the absence of a serious rival. However, enthusiasm is sparse. She has not exited. Pulses have not quickened in her presence. She has to have the backing of the parliament, but firstly the leaders of the 27 EU states have to reach a consensus behind her. Most will back her, though some abhor her starkly pro-Benjamin Netanyahu, anti-Palestinian stance. President Macron of France has cooled toward her, while German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, even though he is from a different party, will probably support his compatriot.

The front-runner for the European Council presidency appears to be former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa. However, speculation is rife that Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s rather dramatic four-page letter to the Spanish people last week, in which he indicated he might step down, is a prelude for him pushing for the role. He has won admirers in Brussels but this is no guarantee. Some of his positions are divisive, not least his support for the recognition of Palestine, which puts him in the opposite camp to Von der Leyen. But Sanchez on Monday insisted he would not be resigning as prime minister.

As for the chief EU diplomatic role currently held by Josep Borrell, this may be available too as his party is not likely to fare well. Some believe he could be succeeded by Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas.

However, not everyone on the right looks to be faring well. Take Matteo Salvini, once the darling of the Italian far right. In Italy’s 2019 European Parliament elections, his League party gobbled up an impressive 34 percent of the vote. Now, it is polling at a rather more unedifying 8.5 percent.

What will be the defining election issues? Immigration has been a long-term wedge issue. The ongoing shift to the right will only harden anti-immigrant attitudes. Meanwhile, the poor showing of the Greens in the polls means that there is declining support for implementing the European Green Deal.

Defense is another key issue, with Russian aggression amplifying fears surrounding its ambitions. Not all EU states are convinced they can afford major new defense expenditures, while others, largely in the east, passionately believe they cannot afford not to.

The EU today faces huge challenges, most of which it has failed to tackle because of disunity and a lack of leadership. Macron was bleak in a keynote speech at the Sorbonne University in Paris last week, when he dramatically stated: “The era of basing our production in China, of delegating our defense to the US and of getting our energy from Russia is over. The rules of the game have changed.” Much of this is correct. Macron enjoys playing the role of visionary for the EU — a leader who is a believer and is passionate. His speech would never have been made by Scholz or his predecessor Angela Merkel, who have a far more pragmatic approach to the EU.

The stakes for the future of Europe are high. Macron was stark but perhaps accurate: “Europe is mortal, it can die. It only depends on our choices.”

  • Chris Doyle is director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding in London. X: @Doylech

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