Stakes Could Not Be Higher For This Year’s European Parliament Election – Analysis


By Luke Coffey

Elections for the European Parliament will take place across the 27 EU member states in June. Campaigning has already begun and many are speculating on what the outcome may mean for the future of Europe.

A lot has changed since the last elections in 2019: the UK was still in the EU; unknown at the time, the world was a mere 10 months away from a life changing pandemic; Donald Trump was still in the White House; and the war in Ukraine was essentially a frozen conflict limited to local skirmishes in the east of the country.

How different it all is now. Brexit in January 2020 sparked a debate inside the union about the future of Europe. Joe Biden is US president and Trump is challenging him for the office. The COVID-19 pandemic is over, but its social and economic consequences are still being felt. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 changed the security situation in Europe in a way not seen since the Second World War.

The political landscape in Europe has changed too. In the past, European parliamentary elections have been fertile ground for fringe parties to make inroads into politics, and 2024 will be no exception: the polls show a significant rise from 2019 in the popularity of far-right and populist parties.

There are good reasons for this. Elections with low voter turnout often result in a better performance by non-traditional parties because their supporters tend to be more energized to vote. Voter turnout for European elections has been traditionally low. In fact, between 1979 and 2014, it decreased with every election. This changed in 2019 when turnout reached 50 percent, but that was still far below the 1979 peak of 62 percent.

Also, not only are many Europeans uninterested in voting in EU elections, but those who do participate often use the elections to exercise a protest vote against their incumbent national government. People rarely vote in European elections on issues directly pertaining to the EU, which helps fringe parties increase their share of the vote.

Regardless of which political bloc does the best at the polls in June, when the next European Parliament meets this summer there will be three pressing issues.

First and foremost will be the formation and approval of the next European Commission, the executive branch and “motor” of the EU which also renews every five years. In recent years the European Parliament has been given more of a say in the process.

In theory, the European Commission president should be initially selected based on the outcome of the elections in consultation with member states and the European Parliament. For example, the European People’s Party is currently predicted by the polls to win the most seats. If this turns out to be the case, then the next president should come from this bloc. Once that is approved, the member states consult the new president to nominate the other 26 commissioners. Then the Parliament votes to approve or reject the new commission. It cannot approve some commissioners and reject others. Unsurprisingly, this can all take months and be fraught with political difficulty.

The second pressing issue is Ukraine. Russia’s invasion was a wake-up call for Europe. In addition to individual member states acting unilaterally, the EU as an institution has provided significant support and aid to Ukraine. The European Parliament plays a role in approving such aid. As expected, much of it has been humanitarian and economic. However, for the first time, the EU has also authorized significant amounts of military aid too. The EU has even had a military training mission since late 2022 to prepare Ukrainian soldiers for the front lines. Previously, the idea of the EU doing any of this, especially for a non-EU country, would have been unthinkable.

Finally, how best to maintain US-EU relations during a possible second Trump administration will be a focus for the new parliament. While Trump had cordial relations with some individual European leaders during his first term, it is no secret that he did not get along well with the EU as an institution. Part of the problem was the very public, and at times childish, criticism of Trump by some senior EU officials. How the new parliament could best engage with a second Trump administration will be on the minds of many.

There will be no shortage of challenges for the next parliament, but expectations of what it can achieve should be curtailed. It is the only directly elected institution in the EU, but it is also the weakest. Over the years successive treaties have gradually shifted more power to the parliament, but it still lacks much of the power that national legislatures enjoy and take for granted.

Even so, these elections will lay down a marker for the future political direction of Europe. With the appointment of the next European Commission, the war in Ukraine and a possible second Trump administration on the table, the stakes are high.

• Luke Coffey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. X: @LukeDCoffey

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