More than 400 million European citizens are heading to the polls in order to elect their chosen 751 MEPs in the ninth European Parliamentary elections. Voters in the UK and the Netherlands the first to took part in the process, followed by people in the Czech Republic and Ireland on May 24th, and then Slovakia, Malta and Latvia on May 25th. The remaining EU countries will vote on May 26th.
While the turnout of the previous elections showed a steady decline from 62% in 1979 to 43% in 2014, this election introduces serious challenges to the European collective project, especially with the increase in Euroscepticism within several states. Hence, this month’s polls could be considered the most important European election ever to take place.
It is essential to keep in mind that while the elections are contested in each country by their national political groups, the European Parliament itself is structured by political affiliation, or blocs, and not the nationality of their MPs.
There are eight political blocs in the EU-Parliament: the grand coalition of the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D); and the opposition, which constitutes of the Eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD), and the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) and others.
This opposition has recently increased its Eurosceptic representation, not only from the central right, but also from the left as the populist stream has gained a stronger footing in European politics over the past few years. This Eurosceptic trend is in addition to the increasing dissatisfaction of European citizens with the decision-making processes outside their national borders. This development has been influenced by several challenges that the European project has had difficulties to resolve, such as the immigration crisis, climate change, jobs and the economy.
Susanna Dyre-Greensite, a young Danish candidate for the European parliament for the Folkebevægelsen Mod EU (People's Movement against the EU) argues that as we move towards an ever-closer union, more and more decisions are made farther away from local democracies.
“One of the most important reasons for the rise in Euroscepticism is that people feel increasingly detached from the political decisions made at the EU level. Citizens simply don't have the opportunity to fundamentally change much of the legislation they disagree with. Even if they vote for new national politicians or new MEP's, these are still constrained by the policy directions outlined in the Lisbon Treaty,” Dyre-Greensite said. People are asking for less EU, being called uniformed, and given more EU. The official EU reaction to Brexit is an excellent example of this.
Since the 2014 elections, several geopolitical crises and political upheavals have shaken the Continent. The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the dramatic political and economic relations with Moscow was one, as was the migration crisis in 2015, the Brexit crisis in the UK in 2016, and the deteriorating political and economic relations with the United States under president Donald Trump and his ‘America First’ agenda.
These crises led to the rise of a genuine and fascinating debate over the European model and identity. The focus on national differences in a vision of One Europe that was prevalent before in different countries has been replaced recently with the increase of national interests.
In Germany, the largest European country by populace and representation in the parliament, Angela Merkel has decided not to run for another term as chancellor. This comes at a time where Germany has challenged other European countries with its immigration openness and strict economic module. France, the second largest country, has suffered prolonged agitation from its more dissatisfied citizens, represented recently by the rise of the Yellow Jackets movement against the government of President Emmanuel Macron, who has called for a “European renaissance” in a desire to implement his reform agenda.
Simultaneously, Macron is running neck and neck with the anti-EU National Rally, the rebrand of Marine Le Pen’s National Front. Elsewhere, the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini (whose far-right populist Party, Lega Nord, is in charge) have called for a stop to immigration, while in Denmark two new ultra-right anti-immigrant and anti-Islam parties have made it onto the Danish electoral ballot paper for the first time. All these challenges have been also struck by the recent Brexit negotiations and the accumulation of the current national parliamentary elections in Poland, Denmark, Lithuania, Croatia, Estonia, Finland, Romania, Portugal and Spain - with Euroscepticism present in the majority of these countries.
While many will also blame the rise of Euroscepticism for the rise of anti-immigration sentiments, and hence the rise and strengthening of the populist stream across Europe, questions regarding the efficiency of the European legislative process and the ways Brussels deals with the different national differences are as significant.
Dyre-Greensit presents the reasons for her dissatisfaction. “I am sceptical about the European project for four reasons. First, because I believe there is a serious democratic deficit, that can't easily be reformed from within. Second, because the EU hasn't taken climate change seriously enough. Third, because the EU poses a threat to the Nordic welfare- and labour market model. And finally, because the EU far too often prioritizes its own short-term economic gain over human rights and welfare in other countries.” She calls for a green, progressive perspective to the EU.
The environmental concerns have their share as well in in this turmoil, especially in areas such as corporate lobbying. The EU sometimes holds back member states from enforcing progressive climate legislation, when such legislation can clash with the laws of the internal market. Denmark, for example, is not allowed to ban the sale of diesel- and gasoline cars, even though the Danish parliament wishes to do to.
Secondly, member states must support the EU at international climate negotiations and can therefore not, unlike Norway, set more ambitious international standards than what the EU can agree on, says Dyre-Greensite.
What seems to be indispensable for the European project to tackle these tribulations is to organize its structure in a way that does not present a fixed module that applies for all countries in the same way. It should rather offer a colourful reorganization of its very complex bureaucracy and customize European interests through maintaining the interests of its member states at the same time. Otherwise, the Brexit nightmare would be nothing but the start of a new, politically and economically unintegrated and unstable Europe.