May 23, 2024

Turbulence Ahead, as Europe Prepares to Vote

Amid all the angst about the far right, there is evidence that voters are taking the European Parliament elections more seriously than five years ago. 

General view of the European Parliament during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's address, on his second international trip since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Brussels, Belgium February 9, 2023.
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When the final plenary of the outgoing European Parliament took place in Strasbourg in April there was a greater sense than usual of exhaustion, relief, and trepidation.

It had been a turbulent five years: 2019 saw the bizarre spillover of Brexit, with British candidates still having to contest seats due to the transition period. There was the COVID-19 pandemic followed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, both of which left the parliament feeling angry, vulnerable, and—at times—side-lined.

The chamber was pitched into crisis by Qatargate, the scandal over huge cash bribes going to current and former MEPs to promote the interests of the Gulf state. The Belgian authorities then investigated whether far-right MEPs had accepted Kremlin money to parrot Moscow’s propaganda on Ukraine.

The European Parliament has also endured some of the most toxic debates in its history, particularly over the EU’s Green Deal, the signature policy of Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and the Migration Pact. 

Yet, the next mandate could well be even more turbulent. The outflow of the latter two policies will start to properly bite over the next five years and the next phase of the Green Deal will cost an estimated €800 billion (national governments may well have to cough up).

Shift to the Right

This would be challenging at the best of times, but an expected shift to the populist and far right in June will shrink the chamber’s pro-European majority with unpredictable consequences.

A Europe Elects poll in April suggested the right-wing populist European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and the far-right Independence and Democracy (ID) group would between them win an extra 35 seats, giving them a combined strength of 170 MEPs.

If Fidesz, the Hungarian populist right party led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, were to exit the non-attached group and throw its expected 14 MEPs into the ECR, then that group would become bigger still.

While the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) would return roughly the same number of MEPs, the center-left Socialist and Democrats (S&D), the liberal Renew group, and the Greens are all expected to suffer (shedding an estimated 62 seats).

The shrinking of what the former Secretary General of the Parliament Klaus Welle calls the “stabilizing center” could jeopardize the re-appointment of von der Leyen (the EPP candidate).

Risks of an Ungovernable Europe

Welle told a Centre for European Reform (CER) seminar on May 16 that she could end up needing the support of the Greens, who did not vote for her last time around, or of the “constructive” right, such as MEPs from Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party.

But the shift could have broader implications. “There is a risk that Europe will be ungovernable … when all is geared toward international problems: Russia, China, and the United States, with the possibility of a Trump comeback,” Stéphane Séjourné, former head of the Renew group, said in January, before he became French foreign minister.

Center-right and center-left parties across Europe have sharpened their rhetoric on migration and dampened the fervor surrounding the EU’s ambitious climate goals.

Despite it being the centerpiece of von der Leyen’s mandate the Green Deal, and in particular the Nature Restoration Law, were turned on by EPP MEPs after European farmers took to the streets in violent protest at the perceived burden it places on them.

Spooked by the emergence of the Farmer-Citizen party in the Netherlands last year, center-right governments have suddenly been paying attention to what farmers want. In September, von der Leyen thanked them for their contribution and promised a “structured dialogue” on the EU’s climate efforts.

Renew is also taking no chances. “The group has been de-listing more progressive candidates in a shift to the right, or putting people so far down the list they’ve no chance of being elected,” says one outgoing MEP. “It will be a lonelier place for somebody who might be progressive.”

Divided on Ukraine

Despite that, there are indications that the far-right threat could be overdone.

For a start, Brexit has tempered erstwhile passions on the populist right for leaving the EU or the single currency (the new mission seems to be a take-over from within instead). Secondly, by their nature, nationalist parties revere a member state-first bias in EU affairs, meaning cooperating with other delegations does not always come naturally, particularly when it comes to Ukraine.

“By exploiting war fatigue, compounded by Russian disinformation, the radical right could shift European public support of Ukraine,” write Rosa Balfour and Stephane Lehne for Carnegie Europe. “That said, this issue is hugely divisive within the radical right, which also contains groupings that are sharply hostile to Russia.”

The recent spat between Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) and the German far-right AfD, both of which are expected to swell the ID ranks in June, is indicative of the potential flux. The AfD initially piqued Le Pen’s ire over its suggestion that Germans of ethnic background could be deported, and allegations of Russian and Chinese influence. In late May, Le Pen then announced that her party would sever ties with the AfD, following comments by its leading candidate in the elections, Maximilian Krah, in the Italian daily La Repubblica that he would “never say that anyone who wore an SS uniform was automatically a criminal.”

All eyes will be on the Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and whether she will decide to shift her Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia) MEPs out of the ECR and into the EPP. She has been praised by other EU leaders over her support for Ukraine, while von der Leyen has publicly supported Italy’s outsourcing of asylum applications to Albania.

During a televised debate on April 29, von der Leyen said any collaboration with the ECR “depends very much on how the composition of the Parliament is, and who is in what group.” That has irritated members of the S&D and Renew, but also some within von der Leyen’s own EPP ranks.

In light of a growing number of far-right attacks on politicians in Germany, the Commission president was forced to clarify her position, proclaiming that any post-election coalition was only on the basis of a “clear commitment to the rule of law, clear commitment to Ukraine, clear commitment to our Europe.”

Amid all the angst about the far right, there is evidence that voters are taking these elections more seriously than five years ago, even if the EU’s supposedly positive role in securing coronavirus vaccines and standing up to Russian aggression does not get the credit it might deserve (Europeans seem to still want Europe to do more in areas where it matters).

Bread and Butter Issues

Looking beyond the forthcoming elections on June 6-9, a nationalist surge will have a potentially greater impact on domestic politics.

If Marine Le Pen’s cohort does as well as expected, that will surely boost her chances of winning the French presidency in 2027, an outcome that could cause an even greater disequilibrium to the European project. Even before then, seats at the European Council could be taken up by leaders such as Herbert Kickl of Austria, a far-right firebrand who opposes Islam in Europe and wants warmer relations with Vladimir Putin.

What we can expect, therefore, is another turbulent parliamentary mandate. The recognition that citizens want Europe to do more on bread-and-butter issues will be in direct contradiction with a sovereigntist zeitgeist in which new MEPs (and national leaders) will be inclined to take powers away from Europe.

How the war in Ukraine will impact the new Parliament is even harder to gauge, especially if the hard right gains import more Moscow-friendly legislators. Russia is gaining momentum on the battlefield and European capitals—particularly Paris—have been acting with more urgency to boost defense spending and rationalize procurement (the fact that the Parliament has very limited powers on defense may avoid friction with national capitals).

Yet, MEPs will insist on voicing concerns over enlargement (including Ukrainian accession) and a fresh surge in Ukrainian refugees cannot be discounted.

The European Commission will also be making demands for more spending on the Green Deal, on migration, and on defense at a time when member states are already heavily indebted and reluctant to pitch more cash Europe’s way.

European leaders are waking up to the need to find money elsewhere, as reflected in the revival of the Capital Markets Union idea, while the former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s report on making the single market more competitive is being taken seriously.

Higher Turnout Expectations

But much of this feels reactive and late in the day.

Between June 6-9, Europeans will give their verdict and the indications are that more will do so than previously. In 2019, 50.7 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot compared with 42.5 percent in 2014, while a Eurobarometer poll in April indicated that 71 percent of Europeans expected to vote this time around.

In the same survey, voters said they were more concerned with fighting poverty and social exclusion, improving public health, and supporting job creation. Migration and agriculture, often topics associated with a far-right surge, were lower down the list of priorities.

Voters may yet surprise themselves, and the experts.

Tony Connelly is Europe editor at Irish broadcaster RTÉ News.