The 2019 European elections: Trouble ahead

We say it every time voters go to the polls, but this year’s European elections really will be different. By the time Europeans cast their ballots in May, it will cap a five-year period like no other in the six-decade history of the European project, and we can expect this disruption to be reflected in the next European Parliament. Exactly how much is a tough call. But it will be defined by the battle between the pro-EU mainstream and Eurosceptic populists.

We are now less than five months from the moment when adults in 27 EU member states will vote for 705 MEPs. The big question is whether the populists and nationalists will be strong enough next May to really challenge the traditional, pro-EU parties. Can the old order contain, regroup and push back – or will the cracks widen?

In recent elections across the bloc, the centre has crumbled and the fringes have grown. The anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and the far-right League were the big winners in Italy’s elections last May and currently lead an uneasy government coalition. Spain’s elections in 2015 and 2016 saw the conservative PP and the socialist PSOE lose support, while insurgent parties Podemos and Ciudadanos grew. Angela Merkel’s centre-right CDU-CSU won the 2017 German elections but with a historically low score, while the far-right AfD won their first seats in the Bundestag. Even Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the 2017 French presidential elections, as a centrist, came after he set up a completely fresh party as his vehicle – and beat the far-right Marine Le Pen.

The populist moment?

The populists see the elections as their moment. Hungary’s conservative nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orbán, says the vote will be a chance to dump liberal democracy. Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy premier and leader of the League party, says the elections will be “a referendum between the Europe of the elites, banks, finance, immigration and precarious work, and the Europe of people and labour”.

At the same time, the mainstream is in retreat. Forecasts show a fall in the overall share of the three largest groups: the centre-right EPP, the centre-left S&D and the liberal ALDE. This is reflected in data by polling aggregators like Europe Elects, and Politico: all suggest that EPP will again be the biggest political group, but dropping from its current 219 seats to 177-179. The S&D will also fall, from 189 to 133-135. The liberal ALDE could improve slightly, from 67 to 95-96; the far-left GUE/NGL rise from 51 to 54-58; the far-right Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) jump from 35 to 60-61; and the Greens/EFA drop from 50 to 43-47.

How will this affect the big battle between the centrists and the populists? The mainstream groups should still dominate the new assembly, although their vote will be split. Even the most generous scenarios have the populists and nationalists only winning a third of the vote, up from 20% in 2014. More realistically, they will probably see their share settle around the 25% mark.

Part of the challenge for the insurgent populists is that they are divided. There are currently four homes for right-wing populists in the Parliament: the ENF, the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD), the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR), and – awkwardly – the EPP itself, where Orban sits alongside Merkel’s CDU-CSU. Salvini has held back so far from declaring his allegiance: his League MEPs would probably be the biggest contingent in any nationalist group.

There is talk of a united nationalist front. Steve Bannon, who was Donald Trump’s presidential campaign manager in 2016, tried to rally them into a broad coalition but Salvini and Marine Le Pen rejected his overtures, saying that he was “not European” (and as an American, his political efforts would be illegal in most EU countries). There is still a chance that the populists could join forces – however ironic it would be to see nationalists in a united European alliance.

The risks for the EU

Even if they don’t come close to a majority in the Parliament, the populists can damage the EU in other ways. The combined vote of the EPP and the S&D – often aligned in a cosy grand coalition – will no longer form a majority. It will likely need one or even two other groups to pass laws – the most obvious ones will be the ALDE and the Greens, both of which could emerge with enhanced, kingmaking powers. That will complicate legislation even further. More immediately, it could confound the task of electing the next President of the Commission and, subsequently, the College of Commissioners as a whole.

This will have serious implications. Bushfires have been lit all over Europe. Threats dominate the horizon from both West (Donald Trump and trade skirmishes or worse) and East (Vladimir Putin and China). Cyber wars already rage: shadowy and unaccountable dark forces are destabilising democratic institutions – and may even try to manipulate the European elections. Another financial crash could hit us. Can these challenges be dealt with one by one, or will they turn into a single almighty conflagration?

What is clear it is that the next Parliament and the new Commission will have their work cut out to keep the European ship afloat. In the worst-case scenario, the lack of a functional parliamentary majority could block the election of the Commission and bring new legislation to a grinding halt.

Time to speak up

One precondition for overcoming these dangers is a respectable turnout in the European elections: voter turnout rates have fallen consistently since the first direct elections in 1979, and were down to 42.6% in 2014. This year, they should rise, in part thanks to our increasingly polarised politics. A bigger precondition is that pro-EU governments and political parties recognise what is at risk.

The stakes have never been so high. Only a combination of radically changed policies, clear communication and a firm stance against extremism can give the EU a chance to ride out the storm.

This is the moment to be bold. This is when the mainstream can shake off its caution and really respond to voter anxieties. This is when they have to speak up for the European ideals that they have been so timid in expressing in recent years.

Our political masters should act by offering fresh ideas and fresh faces to lead us over the next few years. It is what voters are craving, and what we need. Because if they do not, then they open the field to the extremes who only want to see Europe seriously weakened.

Author: David Harley Senior Advisor

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