Challenges of the European elections

Manal Lotfy , Friday 24 May 2019

This month’s elections of the European Parliament may be a make or break moment for centrist politics throughout the continent and not just in Britain, writes Manal Lotfy in London

A woman walks past an advertising board for the EU elections at the Schuman railway station near the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, May 22, 2019. REUTERS

These are the trickiest European elections in living memory, and their outcome could determine the future of the European project and perhaps the future of many EU leaders, not least French President Emmanuel Macron and his vision of a more integrated Europe.

Generally, the European Parliament elections, held every five years, are about the EU and policies such as on migration, budget, defence, foreign policy and environmental issues.

However, the upcoming elections are not about the EU’s internal policies as much as they are shaping up to be a response to national policy in each and every European nation.

There are fears that the far-right and far-left from the UK to France and Germany to Italy could use the elections to hinder EU institutions.

According to opinion polls, it is expected that the far-right, the far-left, populists and euro-sceptics will gain more seats in these elections, some even predicting that they could win up to a third of the seats in the European Parliament and making them serious players in determining policies from migration to integration and threatening the EU’s decision-making processes.

These are legitimate fears, yet they may overplay the unity of the populists, euro-sceptics, far-right and far-left parties in Europe.

Their anti-establishment stance and hostility to liberal economic policies might be the only issues that unite them. On other issues such as migration, protectionism, EU integration and foreign policy they disagree, which means they could struggle to cooperate and create a coherent bloc in the upcoming parliament.

Nonetheless, voters are expected to give the mainstream and established parties across the continent a bloody nose, with the centre-right and centre-left forecast to lose their combined majority, leading to a more fragmented European Parliament.

And with the established parties forecast to lose their majority across the European Union, political centrism in Europe could be facing its greatest challenge yet.

More than 370 million people eligible to vote in the European elections will go to the polls between 23 and 26 May to choose a total of 751 MEPs currently representing more than 512 million people from 28 member states. The elections will be the ninth since the first in 1979. But EU citizens will vote on very different issues and concerns.

In France, the elections are about the economy and Macron’s leadership. In Italy and the Eastern European states, they are about migration. In the UK, it is Brexit that dominates the political debate, with the latest polls showing that Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party is likely to gain the most votes.

Most of the polls have the Labour Party in second place followed by the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives. But YouGov, a polling organisation, puts Labour on a much lower share than the others, 15 per cent in recent polls, and have the Lib Dems ahead of them in second place.

The latest YouGov poll also provides a regional breakdown, in which the Brexit Party is strongest in regions that voted firmly for leave in the 2016 referendum on EU membership, but weaker in areas where remain was stronger.

The Brexit Party lead in Wales and most of the regions of England, but not in Scotland, where the nationalists are dominant, and not in London, where YouGov gives a small lead to the Lib Dems.

According to another poll, three in five British voters say politics in Westminster and Brussels is broken. The survey, shared with the Guardian newspaper by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), found that Britons nurture some of the highest levels of political disaffection in Europe, with 60 per cent of those polled saying the system in the UK and the EU is broken. Only in France and Greece are levels of disenchantment higher.

The elections result in the UK will be monitored closely as a sort of proxy vote for another referendum on EU membership.

The new Brexit Party claims its potential win would be a clear message that the British public want Brexit with a deal or without. On the other hand, the remain parties that advocate for the UK to hold another Brexit referendum or revoke Brexit altogether, such as the Lib Dems, the Greens, Change UK, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party (SNP), claim a majority for them in the elections would be a clear message that the British public is against Brexit and seeks to end the process.

It will be intriguing to add together the votes for the anti-Brexit parties and compare the result with the combined score of UKIP and the Brexit Party. The polls suggest it will be pretty close.

It is clear that EU leaders are also keen to see the results as a sign of British views on Brexit. EU President Donald Tusk intervened in the elections by urging Londoners to support a Change UK candidate running to become a MEP.

Tusk endorsed his former deputy prime minister Jan Rostowski, who is running as a candidate in London, claiming he would make a “great MEP.”

Changing Loyalties

Tusk’s intervention might not be fruitless, as many voters who usually vote for Labour or the Conservatives may decide to vote for smaller parties in these elections based on their Brexit positions.

Even MPs from both Labour and the Conservative have decided to vote against their parties in protest against their Brexit stand. Michael Heseltine, a former deputy prime minister, was suspended by the Conservative Party because of his backing for the Lib Dems in the elections.

As the Conservative MP for Kingston in London told the Weekly, “I am ashamed to go to my constituency to ask voters to vote for us. When I am asked about the party’s policy towards Brexit, I cannot explain that policy because there is no one policy. Every faction in the party has its vision. My greatest concern is that Brexit will cause the party to lose its base from both side of the argument for many years to come.”

According to EU rules, each country is allocated a set number of seats, roughly depending on the size of population. The smallest, Malta, has six members sitting in the European Parliament, while the largest, Germany, has 96, and the UK has 73.

Candidates can stand as individuals or as the representatives of one of the political parties. Once elected, they represent different regions of their country, again according to population. The north-east of England and Northern Ireland have three MEPs each, while the south-east of England, including London, has 18.

While most UK MEPs are also members of a national party, once in the European Parliament they sit in one of eight political groups that include MEPs from across the EU who share the same political affiliation.

With an average turnout of 43 per cent, many Europeans do not bother to vote in the European elections, but the parliament has substantial powers and elections come around once every five years.

While laws are drafted by the European Commission, it is the directly elected parliament, along with the Council of 28 governments, which decide what happens. MEPs have the power to approve, amend or reject nearly all EU legislation.

As a result, these may be make or break elections, at least in the eyes of the French president. Macron is facing a huge challenge in the elections, as he must come out a clear winner in front of France’s far-right leader Marine Le Pen. They are now neck-and-neck in the opinion polls.

Macron’s hard stance on Brexit has put him at odds with his closest ally Germany. And at home his tax and pro-business policies have given rise to France’s yellow vest uprising.

“We have a crisis of the European Union. This is a matter of fact. Everywhere in Europe... all the extremes are increasing,” Macron said on the sidelines of a technology trade show recently.

“On currency, on digital, on climate action, we need more Europe,” he said. “I want the EU to be more protective of our borders regarding migration, terrorism and so on, but I think if you fragment Europe, there is no chance you will have a stronger Europe.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Challenges of the European elections

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