European Parliament elections — a battle for the union’s future?

At 22:00 BST on 26 May the final polling stations will close in the 2019 European Parliament elections. Taking place over four days across 28 countries to elect 751 MEPs, it is the second largest democratic exercise on the planet.

Not that you would always know. These elections often pass by with little to no fanfare, reserved for those who wish to make a point about their own domestic politics. This year is different. While turnout may still remain low, never has a European Parliament election been given so much attention or produced so much drama.

In the United Kingdom, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party has led the polls and media coverage. Across the continent radical-right and Eurosceptics are eyeing up victories and new alliances. The elections have been framed by many as a grand battle between pro and anti-European forces to decide the union’s future. While correct to an extent, this belies complexities at national and European levels.

Take the success of the radical-right. It is true that these parties will see their vote share rise across Europe, but this is only half the story. Liberals, greens, and even rejuvenated centrists are set to make equally large gains. This is because national politics for many EU members is fragmenting, splintering off in every direction, not just to the right. A changing electorate reflects these schisms. Political, economic and social shifts decades in the making have left many with little trust in government and institutions. Indeed, rather than a simple, binary face-off between pro and anti-Europeans, the elections will reflect a divide between the status quo politics of traditional parties and those seeking more radical change across the political spectrum.

The face of Euroscepticism is evolving, too. In 2016 there were at least 15 parties proposing a referendum on EU membership. Now hardly any do. This is partly because of the chaos of Brexit. Once describe as a blueprint for others, it now resembles a very large, bright, red warning flag. But it is also much deeper than just Brexit. Europe is popular. Support for the union is at its highest in 35 years. For the majority of citizens, national and European identities do not clash but complement each other. Being overtly anti-EU simply isn’t a vote winner — apart from in the UK.

Instead of wanting to destroy the union many Eurosceptics now seek to reform and rebalance it. Italian Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the radical-right League Matteo Salvini is the self-appointed leader. He wants to carve out an alliance of similarly minded parties to build a ‘Europe of nations’. Many of these gathered at a rally in Milan on 18 May. “We are the true Europeans”, said a member of Alternative for Germany. Sharing a stage is one thing; sharing policies is another. Scratch the surface and long held disagreements over economics, trade, environment, migration, social rights and foreign policy will be hard to reconcile. It is a reminder that Europe cannot be so easily split down the middle.

What these elections will do is give the parliament a vigorous shake-up. The centre-left and centre-right coalition that has dominated European politics for the last 25 years will likely lose its absolute majority (but still call most of the shots). While the radical-right and Eurosceptics won’t challenge numerically, they may be able to do enough to frustrate certain legislation and reform. The parliament is not the most powerful of EU bodies — it takes its direction from the European Commission — but it does have varying degrees of limited influence over trade agreements, rule of law procedures, the budget and more. It will also have its say on the top EU jobs to be decided later this year, including the president of the Commission.

Yet 2019 is unlikely to be a year defined by these results. Eurozone reform, migration management, conflict in the Sahel, climate change, relations with China, tensions with the United States, and yes, even Brexit; these issues will shape the future of the union more than the theatre of the elections. And while EU institutions remain influential, it is national leaders that are increasingly taking the lead on big decisions, wielding their power.

Whatever these elections bring to the surface the union will muddle through. It always does. Throughout the Brexit negotiations many in the UK government believed it would split. Some even put their faith in, bizarrely, German car manufacturers putting pressure on Berlin to give London a more palatable deal. It was a fatal misunderstanding. The union offers protections and clout simply unavailable to most individual countries but only if they keep together. Europe’s complexities means it cannot be expected speak with one voice, but it can still rally pragmatically around shared interests. Even at times of stress and deep division, whether within countries or between them, it is better to unite than go it alone.

Published May 2019

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