EU elections can define EU’s credibility for next 5 years
The EU Elections are nearly upon us – just under two months of electioneering to come, after which we will know the makeup of the new European Parliament and the political colour of the new President of the European Commission.
If you speak to anyone in the “Brussels bubble”, the first thing they will mention is the likely success of so-called “populists” – by which they mean anyone who espouses eurosceptic or anti-immigrant views.
And indeed, there is enough evidence to suggest that such political groups will increase their overall share of seats. Brexit, the recent elections in Italy and Sweden, the Orban government in Hungary, and in France the ongoing popularity of the National Rally (formally called the National Front) all show that there is strong support across differing Member States.
Dominance of EPP
Yet there are other stories to tell. The collapse of the socialists in recent national elections will surely mean that the European People’s Party (EPP) will be the dominant party in the new Parliament and will be less dependent on the Socialists – perhaps, for example, they will no longer have to share the Presidency of the Parliament, as was the case in the current mandate.
There are significant “unknowns” – since the last EU elections Emmanuel Macron has formed his own party “En Marche” and has gone on to be elected French President, comfortably beating Marine Le Pen (a populist, in anyone’s book) in the second round. That his popularity has taken a dip since then, encapsulated by the “gilets jaunes” protest movement, should not be such a surprise – the acid test will be how well his MEPs do in this election, and whether likeminded MEPs from other groups choose to align with them under the Liberal (ALDE) banner.
Spitzenkandidat process still obscure
With the EPP set to become the largest party, they will also claim the Presidency of the European Commission. Yet their so-called “Spitzenkandidat” – the German Manfred Weber – is not guaranteed this role.
Because the Council want to retain a degree of control over the process and don’t want to be pushed around by the Parliament. In the sidelines sits the EPP’s Michel Barnier – a potential Commission President, fresh from negotiating Brexit (supposedly, though this is dragging on) and someone with the necessary political gravitas, respect, and experience that would surely win over most of the Member States – and possibly the Parliament too.
Finally, let’s look at turnout, which has fallen in every election since it was first held in 1979. In 2014 turnout across the EU was 42.5%, down by 0.5% on the 2009 elections. The Spitzenkandidat process is an attempt to rectify this trend, yet the main “Spitzenkandidats”, as in the case of Mr Weber, are little known outside Brussels and their own Member States.
How many of the electorate actually understand this obscure process and could name their representatives for each of the parties?
EU elections matter – they dictate the political direction for the EU Institutions for the next five years and are the largest democratic elections in Europe. Yet they are often seen by the electorate as a “protest vote” against the incumbent national government. Moreover, their legitimacy could be questioned in the case of low turnout, and if populist MEPs are able to disrupt legislative proceedings and distract from the policy-making process, this will have a knock-on effect on the EU’s wider credibility for the next five years.