A Divided Europe Goes to the Polls
The upcoming European Union parliamentary elections will help indicate in which direction the Union is heading. No one can be certain whether they will reinforce anti-EU populism, revive traditional pro-EU parties, or simply exacerbate political volatility. Nonetheless, probably for the first time in the EU’s history parliamentary elections have become an arena of political excitement.
Voters in each EU country will elect a new European Parliament on May 23-26, including the UK following its seven-month Brexit delay. The 751-member EU parliament, elected every five years, is the only directly representative European institution, even though the average voter turnout in previous ballots has barely reached 43 percent. Parliament has the authority to amend, reject, or pass legislation that affects the lives of all EU citizens. It also votes to approve the 28 members of the European Commission – in effect the EU government.
Since the pro-Brexit vote and the success of Euroskeptic parties in several national elections, alarm bells have been ringing that populist nationalists will dominate and paralyze the new parliament. Nationalist leaders are encouraging citizens to vote while claiming that they are offering a “new European harmony” that would limit the power of EU organs and restore state sovereignty.
This harmony was on display at a rally in Prague on April 25, sponsored by the Movement for a Europe of Nations and Freedom (MENF), a pan-European alliance of nine nationalist parties dedicated to stopping mass immigration and recovering national sovereignty from EU bodies. They include the Czech Freedom and Direct Democracy Party (SPD), the Dutch Freedom Party (PVV), the French National Rally (RN), Austria’s Freedom Party (FPO), and Italy’s Northern League Party.
Matteo Salvini, Italian Interior Minister and leader of the Northern League party, has called on nationalist parties in the European Parliament to form a new alliance, which Marie Le Pen, leader of the French National Rally, has dubbed the European Alliance of Nations. Salvini has convened a meeting in Milan on 18 May for all major anti-EU parties, including the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the Danish People's Party (DF), and the Finns Party (PS), and expects the new bloc to form the largest parliamentary coalition. Hence, nationalists view the May elections as a referendum on the future of the EU.
However, an attempt to form a new “nationalist international” has its limits, particularly among neighbors with historical resentments and cultural prejudices and where distinct national interests predominate. Parties from different countries may agree on an anti-immigration platform but not all populists seek to emulate Brexit. There are divisions between hardliners who want to fully disband the Union and Euroskeptics planning to curtail the prerogatives of EU officials and restore more decisions to national parliaments.
Recent opinion surveys indicate that Europeans are not simply divided between pro-Europeans and nationalists, as there are numerous gradations in between and many voters do not hold iron-clad preferences. This does not mean that the traditionalist parties will rebound in the upcoming elections, but that populism has its limits. For the “mainstream” parties to regain public trust, they need to recast themselves as reformers fighting for ordinary citizens and national stabilizers in a period of profound public uncertainty.
Indeed, a series of recent presidential, national, and local elections indicate that the electorate may not be radically polarized but exceptionally volatile. During the last few months a diversity of political parties across the political spectrum have scored better than expected, including Greens in Germany, social liberals in Slovakia, and the ultra-right in Spain. A recent report by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) discovered almost 100 million swing voters uncommitted to any party ahead of the EU elections, forming 70% of citizens who stated that they are planning to vote.
Moreover, voter priorities change during each election cycle. The previous focus on mass immigration has now shifted toward government corruption, health care, living standards, youth unemployment, and particularly in Central East Europe, the emigration of educated professionals. Unpredictable political newcomers, of left, right, and center could make the next five years the most volatile in the EU’s history, even without the seemingly unending Brexit drama.
While member states are focused on the future of the Union, several Western Balkan states are still hoping to enter the EU and benefit from its economic potential. But despite various initiatives by Brussels, Berlin, and Paris at the Balkan Summit in late April, designed to facilitate progress toward accession, the German and French leaders offered symbolism over substance.
Although Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emanuel Macron met with leaders from all six West Balkan states, they failed to resolve any outstanding conflicts or to announce concrete decisions on enlargement. This will generate skepticism about future meetings and EU commitments to Balkan inclusion. It appears that the Union is not only struggling with political uncertainty and potential shrinkage but its most important foreign policy tool, the prospect of enlargement, is also in jeopardy.
May 9, 2019