Europe before the election

The elections to the European Parliament in May 2019 will determine the future direction of the EU. A great deal is at stake for Europe.

 

Some 400 million EU citizens will be called upon to vote
Some 400 million EU citizens will be called upon to vote dpa

When the votes have been counted in the elections for the next European Parliament in May 2019 things could look quite different: one crucial question is whether pro-European positions will assert themselves or the attitudes and trends that have emerged in recent national elections will continue in the European elections. That would result in a loss of votes for the parties of the political centre, while nationalists and rightwing populists increase their support. The election could be interpreted as a vote for or against the European project – and the European Parliament’s important function as a control and legislative body would move into the background.

And yet these functions alone should give EU citizens sufficient reason to exercise their right to vote. Since 1979 the powers of the Parliament have been steadily increased within the EU organ­isation. Today, the European Parliament is established as co-legislator, it has budgetary powers and performs the function of democratic control of all EU institutions.

Some 400 million EU citizens will be called upon to vote in the 27 member countries between 23 and 26 May 2019. In the last poll (2014), 42.6% of the electorate voted. They still included the British, who elected 73 of the current total of 751 MEPs. After Brexit the country will no longer take part in the election.

Experts reckon with a higher voter turnout in 2019. This view is supported not only by the increased political significance of the election ­because it will determine the future course of Europe, but also by the stable image values of the European Parliament. According to the most recent EP Eurobarometer (spring 2018), 47% of EU citizens would like the Parliament to have a “more important role” in future; at 49% this wish is strongest among 25- to 39-year-olds in the 27 EU countries.

Since autumn 2018 the European Parliament has been promoting democratic participation in the European elections with its non-partisan “thistimeimvoting” (This time I’m voting) campaign that is independent of all political parties and ideologies. The campaign appeal says: “As Europeans we face many challenges, from migration to climate change, from youth unemployment to data privacy. We live in an ever more globalised, competitive world. At the same time, the Brexit referendum has demonstrated that the EU is not an irrevocable project. And while most of us take democracy for granted, it also seems under increasing threat, both in principle and practice.” Over the coming months, events will be held in many European cities under the thistimeimvoting banner, and volunteers and supporters can play an active part.

Different scenarios are possible

In the run-up to the election there is broad speculation about the possible results. The members of the next European Parliament could be the most critical of integration since 1979.

If the two largest party groups experience a significant loss of votes, it could mean the end of the informal coalition of large parties in the European Parliament that has long determined structures and processes. It consists of the Conservative parties within the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Social Democratic parties affiliated to the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D).

At present, these two parliamentary groups hold 412 of the 751 parliamentary seats. If they no longer have an absolute majority after the 2019 poll, new coalitions would then be required, which would give greater influence to the smaller parliamentary groups, such as the Liberals and Greens. A loss of power by the large people’s parties would possibly also lead to uncertainties about the appointment of the future head of the Commission.

Harsher tone of debate

Such a change in circumstances, like most crises, would also present an opportunity for reform. The situation could transform the character of the ­European Parliament. Since the 2014 European elections, when the Eurosceptics made significant gains, debates and the tone have become harsher. Arguments about Europe are more contentious than ever before; practically every possible case for and against European integration has been presented in the Parliament.

The European Parliament’s presence in the public consciousness could change in future if the supporters of the EU were to articulate their ideas and arguments more strongly than in the past. All too frequently the debate on Europe continues to use the same old formulas and rhetorical phrases that tend to dissipate rather than draw attention.

So far the run-up to the campaign and the parties’ election campaign strategies have not shown whether the opportunities offered by this transform­ation will be taken up. The picture is one of po­larisation: Europe’s Social Democrats are under a certain amount of pressure after recently having lost heads of government from their parties in Italy and Sweden. The EPP is struggling with the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, and his policies, because Fidesz, Orbán’s political party, belongs to their family of parties.

The President of France, Emmanuel Macron, on the other hand, envisages a new inter­national movement modelled on his campaign (En Marche) in the French presidential election – one that would compete with the two large party blocks EPP and S&D. The French President would also like to set the basic tone of the election campaign, which he sees in the confrontation between “Europeans” and “nationalists”. Macron wants to lead the “European” camp in this contest, in the same way that he did so against the National Front in France.

The EU protects the nation state

If everything goes well, voters could come to regard the next European Parliament as a centre of political debate that reflects the broad range of opinions, including both approval of ever closer union and criticism of further integration.

Today, the Parliament sees itself above all as the representative of the European idea against the special interests of the member states; in future, it could present itself first and foremost as the voice of EU citizens and strengthen its oversight role with regard to the European executive.

The governments of the member states must defend the EU against the denigration of integration as a technocratic superstate, as an anti­democratic kraken that wrests sovereign power from nation states. In reality the EU protects both the sovereignty and identity of its members through the benefits of joint action.

© www.deutschland.de

Josef Janning
Josef Janning
The Europe expert heads the Berlin office of the Think Tank European Council on Foreign Relations.

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