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A continent at the crossroads

Image credit: 'Ilovetheeu' (Creative Commons: Wikimedia)

For four days in May, across the European Union, elections will be held for the next iteration of the European Parliament, representing 500 million EU citizens. The twice-a-decade vote, once considered inconsequential even mundane, has been called a referendum on ‘the soul of Europe’, with centrists fearing the arrival of Eurosceptic populists who could shake up the parliament.

For many, the parliament effectively acts as a gauge for public sentiments across the Union. The rising support for populist parties creates a picture of dissatisfaction with business-as-usual EU politics. Citizens are being presented with two visions for Europe’s future: a European Renaissance of ever-greater EU integration and regulation – outlined in Macron’s Dear Europe letter – or the ill-defined populist notion of a crumbling EU that needs to give power back to the nation-state.

European populism at historic high

Populist parties position themselves as the counter-revolution of the working class masses against the establishment EU, claiming it is run by a liberal internationalist elite. Populist parties have varying gripes with the EU, pointing to restrictions they claim the EU liberal elite have imposed on the liberties of member-states including; imposed austerity measures, smoking bans, same-sex marriage, increased burden of refugees, and ‘overreaching’ climate-protection regulations.

Opposition to such restrictions means Populists have had a sweep of victories in national elections, with one in four Europeans now voting for them. Their rise in Europe has reached a historic peak, which is concerning pro-EU centrists across the continent. Italy, for example, once a bastion of anti-fascist post-WWII sentiments, has seen support for the once strong centre-left fall to below 20 per cent, handing power to the ruling left-right populist coalition, which seeks major EU reform. In Germany, populist Alternative for Germany has shifted political discourse towards anti-migration. Austria is under the reins of the far-right populist Freedom Party, and Viktor Orbán – a nationalist populist – rules in Hungary.

Populist agenda in the European Parliament

As the EU’s legislative branch, responsibilities of the European Parliament include adopting EU laws, democratic scrutiny of its executive branch – the European Commission, and approving the Union’s €140billion+ budget. After Britain’s expected eventual withdrawal, all the remaining 705 parliamentary seats will be up for grabs, with Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) propionate to the population of each of the twenty-seven EU member states. Within the Parliament, MEPs vote by political affiliation by forming voluntary voting coalitions called European Party Groups (EPGs) in order to seek greater influence on parliamentary agenda. It is the possibility of greater influence of these voting blocs that could cause major disruption within the EU.

Pro-Europe centrist left-right coalitions have run the EU for decades, and currently, they hold a 472-seat majority in the Parliament. Eurosceptic parties are seeking to further join forces to use the political infrastructure of the EU in order to bring about systemic changes. Two eurosceptic EPGs, Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy and Europe of Nations and Freedom, are poised to win around 50 seats each, potentially creating a sizeable minority.

Centrists fear that a sizeable anti-EU populist coalition in the Parliament would reject dialogues, refuse to compromise and dramatically hinder the effectiveness of the institution. A report by the European Council on Foreign Relations outlines, for example, that with 33 per cent of seats, populist MEPs would have the ability to force centrist MEPs to pander to populist sentiments and EU policies would begin to lurch away from greater integration and towards protectionism, nationalism, and illiberalism.

If Eurosceptic parties were successful in appointing like-minded individuals to the European Commission, the Commission would have trouble fulfilling its mandate and thus, ineffective in overriding inter-state squabbles. The European Council, made up of the heads of state from each member, may face vetoes from pro and anti-EU leaders alike, thus rendering it unable to function. The disintegration of three principle EU institutions, the Council, the Commission and the parliament, could be seen as a deliberate internal dismantling of the European project, and one for which many populist parties specifically advocate.

A ‘populist takeover’?

Many European national movements, however, have struggled to collaborate at the Europe-wide level. Former Trump advisor Steve Bannon’s attempts to unite nationalist populist movements have so far proven to be ineffective. Widely differing policies and irreconcilable left-right wing disagreements between parties have led to populist EPGs being plagued by MEP defections. Further, Britain’s exposed weak bargaining abilities post-Brexit have startled many otherwise populist-supporting voters, suggesting the EU as a united institution is much stronger united any individual state’s ability to negotiate.

The 2019 European Parliamentary elections are proving to be consequential and far from mundane. The remaining weeks of the election campaign will determine if European populists are able to gain the seats needed to significantly influence EU institutions. No one, not even Emmanuel Macron could argue that the European Union is without its problems, but liberal centrists are seeing the need to argue the case for a stronger united Europe, or witness populists convince voters that the EU is in crisis.

Europeans are faced with two paths for the continent’s future and the Parliamentary Elections will be the crossroads to determine which one the European Union will take.

Dominic Simonelli is the Europe and Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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