The EU’s real political challenge will come after the European Parliament elections

After months of debates and predictions inside the Brussels beltway, the official European Parliament election campaign is finally underway and the focus shifts to the political situation on the ground and on the doorsteps in the EU member states.

It is understandable that in the heat of the campaign for next month’s European Parliament elections, the political focus is on which parties will win. There has been speculation on the candidates hoping to eventually become Commission President, on the impact of the populist parties, and just recently, on how Britain’s eventual participation in the elections could change the balance of power.

But there has been much less attention paid to what happens after the elections, even after the EU decides the big jobs like the Commission, the European Council President or the ECB President. What should the EU do when the dust settles after a vote that is likely to create new schisms within the political system? How can the EU bring people back together at a time when popular anger at the elites – including those in Brussels and Strasbourg – has been hotter than ever?

Populist challenge

While it is hard to predict the eventual outcome of this year’s elections, it looks certain to mark a fall in the vote for the mainstream, broadly pro-EU political groups, the centre-right EPP, the centre-left S&D and the liberal centrist ALDE.

These will be the first elections in a new environment of surging populism. Nationalist, right-wing, Eurosceptical parties that were once on the fringes of European politics have made headway across the bloc, spurred on by the 2016 examples of the UK’s Brexit referendum and the election of President Donald Trump in the US.

There will be a sea change in the member state campaigns take place this time. The populists are enjoying an upswing across the EU. Even in France, where President Emmanuel Macron has been a beacon of centrist, pro-EU policies, his En Marche party is running neck and neck with the far-right RN party led by Marine Le Pen, while the ongoing Gilets Jaunes protests eat away at his authority.

The highest profile European populist, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini of the far-right League party, is aiming to gather like-minded politicians from as many as 20 countries into an alliance. Even if they will struggle to present a united front, they will still be a formidable and loud force in the next Parliament. The European Council on Foreign Relations says the anti-establishment surge will give populists a third of MEPs. It will likely end the cosy duopoly that the EPP and the S&D have long enjoyed in the EU institutions for decades. Salvini and other populists, like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, will feel emboldened and continue baiting Brussels as a bureaucratic beast.

Democracy under attack

Intriguingly, despite its many crises, the EU itself has seen its support rise amongst the public in recent years. Doubtless, this is partly due to the Brexit negotiations, which have shown the chaotic and diminishing alternative of life outside the EU.

But what does seem to be losing favour are other aspects of a functioning democracy: the media, public institutions, and experts. It is no coincidence that these are all under attack from populists: they are sometimes explicit in saying that in discrediting them, they aim to undermine public confidence in anything that might hold them to account. Indeed, support for democracy as a political system is falling to alarming levels in many EU countries.

This means that the elections are taking place in an extremely volatile climate of opinion. Political discourse is coarsening across Europe particularly through trolling and abuse on social media. Voters have become increasingly susceptible to dubious claims. The centre is not holding as much as it might against the buffeting from the extremes.

When the results come in on the evening of May 26, the centre might be tempted to put the lid on populists. Indeed, the EU establishment can be notoriously flippant about opposition. In 2005, before French voters rejected the EU constitution in a referendum, then-Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker was quoted as saying, “If it’s a Yes, we will say ‘on we go’, and if it’s a No we will say ‘we continue’.”

But it will be more difficult this time. The mainstream will have to address it seriously. There cannot be the same business as usual approach. They have to look at some of the underlying reasons why voters have been rejecting their model.

Addressing popular concerns

One of the reasons is that many people think the system is rigged against them. They feel globalisation – with the EU mixed into it – is a plot aimed at making the wealthy, metropolitan elites even richer. They feel that liberal concepts, like open borders, are undermining not only their jobs but their cherished values.

There is some justification in the complaints. Some say that the traditional working class has been replaced by a new ‘underclass’ of the working poor. The underclasses today are all too easily forgotten.

In several member states, one-third of the population live below the poverty line. More than 11% of the Europeans struggle to keep their homes warm according to the Commission’s EU Energy Poverty Observatory. Inadequate housing costs governments around €200 billion a year, Eurofound estimates. There is an estimated gap of at least €100-150 billion in social infrastructure, and of this gap, €57 billion is missing investment in affordable housing. The critics have a point when they say the EU is a bubble, ignoring their concerns.

Juncker’s notion early in his Commission term of “A Europe that protects” seemed to acknowledge this – but he never really followed the slogan with convincing policies. Some candidates for the Commission presidency such as the S&D’s Frans Timmermans, seem to be heading in the right direction with his commitment to a major European social housing programme.

Will EU follow this advice? Brussels has a knack of shutting itself off from everyday European concerns. That is why the next Commission President – and his or her colleagues – should get out of the city’s chambers as much as possible and engage directly with all sectors of society, along the lines of President Macron’s recent round of extensive town-hall meetings across France. They will earn a better understanding of what citizens really want.

Europe faces all sorts of great challenges in the coming years: sluggish economies, a permanent migrant crisis, trade wars, ageing populations and environmental crunches. But there are also other, tangible issues for many voters, and they revolve around questions like income inequality, territorial inequity, the demand for a fairer tax system, and the marginalisation of rural areas and small towns.

These have to be addressed too. European politics can no longer afford to muddle through as before. The EU’s next leaders need to listen harder – or risk further fragmentation and a weaker European project.

Author: David Harley

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