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Steering the European Union through populist waters

Image credit: Wikimedia (Creative Commons)

The European Commission will be led for the first time in its history by a woman, Germany’s Defence Minister, Ursula von der Leyen. Von der Leyen has outlined her vision for a “United States of Europe” and will be the first German in 50 years to sit as Commission President. This nomination caused a stir within the European Union (EU) parliament with some members of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) concerned her nomination was illegitimate. Her nomination can partially be explained by the rise of populism within the EU, as the institution broke away from its ‘politics as usual’ procedures.

The recent European elections saw a significant increase in support for populist parties on both sides of politics. This follows a global trend of increased anti-establishment sentiment among the voting public which has also been seen in the United States, Brazil and many of the European national elections. The Eurosceptic parties and Greens parties both saw a surge in votes which, in turn, saw a significant slump for the major parties. This fractioning of support is suspected to have contributed to the divergence from the usual Spitzenkandidat nomination procedure for EU’s top jobs.

The Spitzenkandidat process was designed to link the assignment of the Commission President position to electoral success, however, this has been disregarded in the nomination of von der Leyen. This process was not without its critics, but it gave the impression of democratic selection and without it, the selection has been slighted as a closed-door deal. Under the newly fractioned parliamentary conditions the priority became finding a ‘non-offensive’ candidate to unite the centre left and right groups within the weakened coalition. Von der Leyen may have been a surprise nomination, however she did carry support from a number of establishment leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron who first nominated her for the position, likely because of her support for launching a European ‘defence union’.

The EU is facing uncomfortable terrain as the rise of populist parties and candidates within its institution and its member states’ national affairs continues to challenge the status quo of politics. This populist rise is theorised to stem from disillusionment felt by voters due to gridlocked parliaments and the perception of self-serving politicians who are out of touch with the needs of average citizens. Populist ideologies can often (but not always) still be divided along traditional right-left political divides although voters are often more focused on specific issues than attached to the parties’ identity.

The values of those who now vote for populist Eurosceptic groups differ greatly to those voting for Green political groups. This divide can be loosely described as right-leaning nationalists and left-leaning globalists, presenting two very different visions for the foreign policy of the EU. The simplified solutions put forward by populist candidates, in contrast to the fussy complexity of status quo politics, appeals to voters who feel disillusioned and excluded from politics.

Von der Leyen’s advocacy of an increasingly integrated Europe and comparatively compassionate response to the 2015 migrant crisis places her views in conflict with the increasing share of right-wing Eurosceptics and nationalist voices which now comprise a large portion of the EU parliament post-election. Additionally, she is a conservative politician which could likely place her at odds with the ideology of the strengthened Green alliance. Within the parliament the Green’s parties have formed the fourth largest alliance and a new conservative Eurosceptic alliance ‘Identity and Democracy’ has become the fifth largest. Negotiating with these larger group factions, particularly in the case of the progressive groups in the parliament who together can form a majority, will likely become increasingly important for the centrist parties' operations.

Von der Leyen faces a complex political future as Commission President and she was not elected with the firm majority she would ideally have wanted. The immediate challenge will be Brexit which could potentially take place the same day as her appointment, on the 31st of October, as stated by the new British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who insists the United Kingdom will leave the EU on that date with or without a deal. Beyond Brexit, the EU also faces the looming climate crises, concerns surrounding Europe’s foreign relations and critically, the EU will be challenged to perform efficiently for an increasingly disillusioned public which may be a difficult task in a splintered parliament.

Kate Backshall is an International Economic Affairs Master's student at the University of Bordeaux and is a recent International Relations graduate from Melbourne's Deakin University.

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