European Parliament elections: A ‘battle for the future of Europe’ or referenda on national governments?

By Oliver Schmidtke, Director of the Centre for Global Studies at the University of Victoria and former European Community Studies Association (ECSA-C) president 

Between May 22 and May 26 EU citizens have the opportunity to cast their vote in the elections to the European Parliament. These elections take place in times of political turmoil and uncertainty for the European Union and European politics more generally. Over the past years, we have witnessed the growing electoral fortunes of right-wing, nationalist and populist parties across the continent. One critical question posed by these elections to the European Parliament is whether the nationalist-populist resurgence will continue on the European stage and if an emboldened group of Eurosceptic and nationalist parties will succeed with their plans to be a disruptive force within the European Union.

 Under the leadership of the Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, the newly formed European Alliance of People and Nations aspires to become the third largest group in the European Parliament. If successful, this would greatly challenge this institution’s consensus-driven decision making process. Similarly important, this could become a wedge as the European Parliament might no longer be able to play the role of a defender of tolerance and democratic principles in an environment increasingly shaped by aggressive nationalism.

 Elections to the European Parliament have always tended to be ‘protest votes’ in which citizens felt free to express their frustration with mainstream parties. Voting for Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) has widely been seen as a ‘second order’ election. Since they were established, these elections have seen a major drop in voter turn-out: from 62% in 1979 to an average of 42.6% in 2014.

 The lukewarm interest of European citizens in this electoral context has to do with its dual political nature: Elections to the European Parliament are simultaneously fought in the domestic and European arena. First, these elections are organized nationally, with candidates from national parties and based on a public debate largely shaped by national issues. In this respect, these elections are an indicator of the popularity (or disrepute) of the governing parties. This logic will play out strongly in the UK where the newly formed Brexit Party under the leadership of Nigel Farage is poised to win more support than the Conservative Party and Labour combined. Similarly, these elections will be a critical test for the popularity of French President Emmanuel Macron and his handling of the yellow vest protest.

 Second, the elections to the European Parliament are fought over visions for the project of European integration. It is important to note that the European Parliament has gained considerable legislative and budgetary power over the past couple of decades and now can substantially shape the political direction of the European Union. The problem is that in this electoral competition, as in others before, there has not been a captivating public debate on what the European Union stands for and what it seeks to achieve. With launching a competition between so-called Spitzenkandidaten (leading candidates) of the major party blocs, the European Union has hoped to spark more public interest and passion. However, even Macron’s attempt to make these elections about a ‘battle for Europe’, pitching Orbán-style nationalism versus a genuinely European vision for the continent, has not resonated strongly with audiences across Europe. In all likelihood the current elections will result in another sobering acknowledgement that - in spite of ambitious policy agenda regarding the economy, environment or data privacy - the European Union currently finds it extremely difficult to reach the hearts and minds of its citizens.

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