2019 European Elections Threaten to Bring the EU to Standstill
With the European elections just two weeks away the EU’s future is looking far from certain - the union is beset by crises and the resolve of its member states is being tested like never before. Much has changed since Europeans last took to the polls: Ukraine had its borders forcibly redrawn when an increasingly hawkish Russia invaded and annexed Crimea; global drought, poverty and violence drove record numbers of refugees to the shores of the Mediterranean; and China has continued its march as a formidable economic and political force. There has also been the small matter of Brexit and the emergence of a populist movement that has made electoral gains across the continent. The current moment, evidently, is one of flux, and the full implications of the transforming political landscape are still to be fully understood.
For these reasons, the upcoming elections hold great significance, and in terms of the EU going forward, could yet be defining. The centre ground across much of Europe has been vacated, no longer thought equipped to deal with the problems the continent faces, and populism from both the left and right has rushed to fill the political void. These changes will be reflected in the results of the elections, quite in what form, though, remains to be seen.
What could such changes spell for EU politics? And should we be worried? Here we take a look at the paths down which the union may potentially turn, and consider the immediate future of the biggest trading bloc the world has ever seen.
The complexion of Parliament
The vote - scheduled for 23-26 May – will dictate which 751 MEPs sit in the European Parliament (EP). In its current constellation, the European People’s Party (EPP) representing the centre-right, and Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), representing the centre-left, form a majority, together making up 54% of the assembly’s seats. This has been hugely beneficial in terms of creating law. Owing to the cooperation of the groupings, the mechanics of EU politics, notoriously both slow and disjointed, have been lubricated, and through negotiation and compromise the last 5 years has seen a steady flow of legislation passed. However, if national politics and polls are anything to go by, this looks sets to change, and radically. The EPP, for instance, looks set to be punished at the polls. Since 2012, centre-right parties have lost popularity across the continent - a trend encapsulated by the Sarkozy induced capitulation of Les Republican in France. More recently, the bloc has also suffered from disunity, unable to agree on how best to deal with a Hungarian government intent on dismantling democratic checks and balances. The wedge issue continues to disrupt the group's cohesion, and the Hungarians remain controversially suspended.
Across the floor, the S&D isn’t expected to fare much better. Since the financial crash, its member parties have seen their domestic support slide. In fact, social democracy across Europe looks moribund. German, Dutch, and Italian centre-left parties, in particular, have all had their share of the vote decimated, and there is little sign of the tide changing. Only in Portugal, and perhaps to a lesser degree Spain, is there anything resembling social-democratic revival.
It looks, then, as though big change is dawning. Next month we could potentially be looking at an unrecognisable European Parliament, fragmented and divided between integrationists and nationalists, Europhiles and Eurosceptics, and right and left wingers. But could this mean for actual legislation?
The effects on legislation
Well, such an impasse, as some observers are predicting, would almost certainly make the already difficult process of passing legalisation even trickier. While this might detract from the parliament’s legislative efficiency, a more 'open-to-all' decision-making process may have a positive effect on public interest in democracy at the EU level. However, if populist parties gain enough power to block crucial decisions, as its perfectly plausible they may, all the other parties will have to pull together to keep the EU functioning - and there is no guarantee that will be feasible. In such a scenario, movement on issues like migration and Eurozone reform - likely to be centre-stage during campaigning - would almost certainly stall.
For Emmanuel Macron this development, this potential legislative logjam, would be especially frustrating. The French President had made integrationist reform a priority of his; a commitment that has taken on additional personal significance because of the problems he is experiencing at home. Throughout his presidency he has been especially vocal about the need for reform of the Eurozone, suggesting that Europe should harmonise its tax policies and establish a minimum wage in each country. Italy’s far-right Lega party - projected to increase its number of seats by around 20 - is expected to lead a serious challenge to these proposals, and have already shown their disdain for EU prescriptions when they agreed, with their Five Star Movement partners, to a sharp increase in domestic public spending. This flew in the face of repeated admonishments from the EU that Italy must rein in its public spending amid fears it could trigger a debt crisis.
Other mooted proposals for further EU integration include the creation of an EU Finance Minister, a joint Eurozone budget, and the establishment of a body tasked with overseeing bloc-wide economic policy. With a larger Eurosceptic faction in parliament these, too, are likely to be kicked into the long grass. Hungarian Premier and populist stalwart Viktor Orban has disparagingly likened such calls to an attempt to build a ‘liberal empire’, and instead has talked up a Europe based ‘strong nation states’ and ‘Christian culture’. To achieve this he believes that migration must be better controlled. This leads us to the area where, besides merely stifling policy, right-wing parties may have the power to seriously influence policy agenda. Although diverging on multiple issues, there is a consensus among them for stronger collective border controls and the militarization of borders. Also discussed has been a possible expansion of policing operations across North Africa, aimed at blocking African migration routes to Europe - the nationalist right has long favoured military solutions to social problems.
Post May elections
Evidently, an influx of EU-phobic, right-wing MEPs would make the tone of parliamentary debate harsher and legislation harder to pass. At the same time, it could also set the stage for mainstream MEPs to speak out more stridently in defence of European values and the European project more generally; an activity the Brexit remain campaign conspicuously neglected. Routinely, we fail to recognise all that the EU has brought us in its short history – workers rights, environmental protections, lasting peace - too often these are taken for granted. It really wasn't so long ago that none were guaranteed. If we truly are about to enter a battle for the continent’s future, progressives among us better prepare a positive, aspirational vision. And given the false sense of security that seems to have descended, a gentle reminder of the EU’s past achievements could make for a useful start.