The European Parliament enters uncharted territory

This year’s European Parliament elections, which take place from May 23 to 26, come at a time of unprecedented public debate on European Union issues. The EU now has more influence over our daily lives than ever before, it is central to the national political discourse in every member state, the past five years have provided a cornucopia of EU issues to argue over, and the campaign has been more visible than at any time since MEPs were directly elected in 1979. Yet at the end of all this, the result could be a Parliament that reflects the current centrifugal forces across the EU and where there is no stable majority. The key question is whether this fragmentation and internal division might undermine the exercise of Parliament’s legislative competences and thus its political authority.

How could this happen?

First of all, we should establish some basic facts and figures about the importance of the elections. It is worth reminding people that the European elections are an extraordinary democratic exercise. It is the only multinational election in the world. With a combined population of around 512 million, the EU has an electorate that is only beaten by India, where, coincidentally, elections just took place. That, in itself, is an amazing feat.

Some will fixate on the low turnout for the elections. Indeed, this is an aspect of concern. It fell from 62% in 1979 to 49.5% in 1999, to 43% in 2009 – a figure that it more or less maintained in 2014 (officially 43.09%). However, those declining numbers have been seen across the world, where low turnouts are often the fate of mature democracies.

The Parliament elections compare favourably with the voter turnout in most US midterm elections, which tend to hover around 40%. The most recent US midterms, in November 2018, bucked that trend with a turnout of 50.3% – a reflection of the urgency that activists saw in the polarizing political climate. Similarly, the turnout in the Parliament elections is likely to rise this time around as the stakes for Europe have come into sharper relief.

The fact that there is a functioning Parliament is also important. Over the years, it has successfully discharged its Treaty responsibilities and should be taken seriously by national governments, media and voters. It has scrutinised legislation, often improving it. It has conducted investigations into important issues. And it has held political leaders to account, often through increasingly popular debates in the chamber.

Having said that, we should acknowledge the disconnect between the importance of the institution, and how voters see it. Many voters do not fully understand the role of the Parliament, and many have only a rudimentary understanding of the EU. Some still view the elections entirely through the prism of national and local politics, and they see this as an opportunity for a protest vote. The EU itself is often a scapegoat for voters angry at globalisation and national political gridlock. It is still more accurate to describe 28 different national campaigns rather than one European campaign.

There are some common threads. Many of the issues debated during these campaigns were the same across the EU like migration, youth unemployment, a fairer tax system, climate change, and data privacy. These are increasingly common issues.

The political groups have also become more effective in creating common platforms. The Spitzenkandidat system of having a lead candidate for the eventual European Commission presidency has helped articulate more voter-friendly stances. Although this is only the second time the Spitzenkandidat system has been used, it has brought out distinctions between the groups and the leading characters. A debate hosted by the Parliament itself on May 15 gathered six candidates and showed the contrasts amongst them. Big television audiences watched the debates between the candidates for the two largest groups, the centre-right EPP’s Manfred Weber and the centre-left S&D’s Frans Timmermans, which were broadcast on Germany’s ZDF, Austria’s ORF and the Netherlands’ NOS.

Despite all this, the Parliament is facing a huge task.

The first concerns the Spitzenkandidat system, which has not captured the public imagination as MEPs had hoped: only 5% of British voters said they have heard “a lot” about Mr Weber and Mr Timmermans, according to a poll, and the figure is unlikely to be different elsewhere. The candidates themselves have not been as high profile as hoped, and Mr Weber, from the Parliament’s biggest political group, lacks any government experience. This time round, EU leaders have signalled that the European treaties give them the sole authority to nominate someone for the Commission presidency while taking account of the results of the European elections, setting up an institutional clash with the Parliament. French President Emmanuel Macron is vehemently opposed to the Spitzenkandidat – and the EPP, which would likely be the biggest beneficiaries of the system, now only has nine leaders around the summit table.

But there is a bigger issue concerning the Parliament’s political make-up. Like most national legislatures, the Parliament’s established political groups are facing a challenge from the fringes, who are increasingly populist and anti-European. In three of the four big member states, they could emerge as the biggest winners in the election: in the UK, Nigel Farage’s Brexit party could well win more than the next two parties combined; in France, Marine Le Pen’s far-right RN is currently neck-and-neck with Mr Macron’s LREM; and in Italy, Matteo Salvini’s Lega has comfortably lead in the polls.

Meanwhile, the EPP is fraying, as evidenced by its decision to suspend the Fidesz group of Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban. The S&D is scenting blood after recent victories in Spain, Finland and Sweden – although France’s PS will be lucky to meet the 5% threshold. Mr Timmermans is pitching for a centre-left alliance to break the EPP dominance: it would include the liberal ALDE, Greens and the far left, stretching from Mr Macron to Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

It is not clear if that alliance would work. But there may have to be a grand coalition with some – or all – of the EPP, S&D, ALDE and the Greens. Whatever the configuration, it will be harder to keep troops in order. This would require particular coalition-building expertise, and there are not many MEPs with those skills. If no stable majority emerges, Parliament business could be paralysed. The European Parliament elections may be drawing to a close, but a noisy and challenging new era may be about to begin.

Author: David Harley

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