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EU elections: A new era for European politics?

This election will signal the end of traditional party dominance, and see the strong emergence of the populist radical right.

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The current balance of power will change with the influx of populists at the EU Parliament and a regrouping of forces could emerge resulting in more ad-hoc coalitions.

FROM May 23 to 26, citizens of the European Union (EU) will head to the polls to elect a new parliament representing more than 500 million people across 28 member states.

For a political event held every five years, the ramifications of this election may extend far beyond the walls of the Brussels and Strasbourg assemblies, with ripple effects on other European institutions and national politics.

The stakes are particularly high with nationalist populism being on the rise at the expense of establishment parties who are expected to lose their joint control of the legislature for the first time in 25 years. Such an electoral result would bring to life a fragmented parliament.

What are the implications? This could lead to a slower and more complex policymaking process, but more important, shape the future direction of the EU. Yet, even if populist parties make significant gains, my conviction is that converting these into power over legislation will not be an easy task.

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My hope is for the moderate political forces to act as agents of progress and unity, and not fall into the trap of adopting populist narratives. After all, populists act as parasites; they do not necessarily need to win elections to spread their politics within the mainstream parties, from whom they threaten to take voters.

In such turbulent times with Brexit looming, immigration concerns on the rise, and populism at its heights, what is certain is that this election will signal the start of a new era in European politics. A few years ago, populists were introducing themselves to the EU as a group of somewhat disorganised polemicists. Tomorrow, they might be dictating its future.

A FRAGMENTED EU PARLIAMENT

Various opinion polls signal that the EU elections could result in a fragmentation of the EU Parliament. The European People's Party (EPP), which represents the centre-right of the political spectrum, as well as the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats (S&D) from the centre-left, are expected to face significant losses. Concurrently, the populist and nationalist Europe of Nations & Freedom (ENF) are projected to receive around 9 per cent of the vote, while the Eurosceptic European Conservatives & Reformists (ECR), the Greens, and the Left parties will preserve their share of seats. The eventual composition of the parliamentary groups is unclear given the uncertainty over the unity of the Eurosceptic Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) group, and Hungary's Fidesz's future in the EPP. Italy's Five-Star Movement allegiance is also under question, as it has expressed its intention to team up with like-minded anti-establishment parties and form a new grouping within the Parliament.

Particularly important is the role of President Macron's La République En Marche (LREM), which could propel the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) to potential linchpin in a coalition with the S&D or the EPP.

Lastly, there is the question of what will happen post EU Parliament elections and after the United Kingdom leaves the EU. Out of the UK's 73 seats vacated by Brexit, 27 will be re-allocated to 14 countries that were previously under-represented, including France (5), Spain (5) and Italy (3). The remaining 46 seats will be held in reserve for new countries that may join the EU in the future.

Such a divided Parliament with a strong representation of nationalistic and Eurosceptic views could slow down processes and impact the effectiveness of the parliament.

For example, on trade policy, although the EU Parliament is only indirectly involved in the negotiating process, it can provide or deny approval of an agreement prior to authorisation by the Council (Lisbon Treaty 2009). Further to this, the EU Parliament also decides on the appointment of the next European Commission and its president. Therefore, a more fragmented parliament could delay the selection process of the next commission, the primary trade negotiating body. A report by VoteWatch Europe forecasts that the number of pro-trade EU Parliamentarians would increase slightly. The same report, also suggests that the percentage of Parliamentarians strongly opposed to free trade would rise from 11 per cent to 16 per cent. Although VoteWatch notes that the balance of power on trade-related decisions is unlikely to change much in the next parliament, populist parties may seek to establish tactical coalitions. In such a scenario, in which establishment parties no longer have the absolute majority, nationalists could significantly slow down the EU's external trade agenda.

In an EU Parliament with no clear majority and multiple radically different visions for Europe, a first and fundamental challenge will be steering the political aspirations of these groups. In order for populist parties to win legislative powers at the EU Parliament, successfully blending these diverse and dispersed forces will be necessary. Undoubtedly, not an easy task.

While the majority of Europe's populist parties share common characteristics in terms of being nationalistic, Eurosceptic and anti-immigration, many of them also represent different political ideologies making collaboration challenging, if not questionable. Germany's Alice Weidel, Viktor Orban from Hungary, Poland's Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and Matteo Salvini from Italy, all aspire to bring power back to the nation state and away from Brussels.

However, they have no collective agenda for Europe. Over the past few months Matteo Salvini has met with both Le Pen, from France's National Rally (NR), as well as Orban from Hungary, demonstrating a willingness to explore common ground. However, they face a fundamental challenge: how can they align their interests at the EU level without alienating their respective voters? Furthermore, their ability to coordinate their activities with one another and working closely together by setting aside political disagreements has never been one of their strengths.

Although EU citizens seem dissatisfied with establishment parties, the majority supports the EU. According to a November 2018 Eurobarometer survey conducted by the European Commission, 68 per cent of EU citizens stated that their countries had on balance benefited from EU membership.

Where does that leave us?

Speaking from Warsaw on April 28, Italy's Five Star Movement leader said that he wants to team up with like-minded anti-establishment parties and form a new grouping within the EU Parliament taking power away from the centre left and right. Although it is unlikely that we will see a coalition of Eurosceptic forces pitted against mainstream parties, populist parties could very well gain enough support enabling them to block or delay vital decisions. In this case, all other parties will have to come even closer together, setting aside ideological differences, in order to allow for the EU to continue moving towards the goal of "an ever-closer Union".

It is not possible to predict the exact composition of the next EU Parliament, nor is it possible to know what the effects will be on the future of the EU overall. What seems certain is that this election will signal the end of traditional party dominance, and see the strong emergence of the populist radical right. With the anticipation that the current balance of power will be morphed by the influx of populists at the EU Parliament, a multifaceted regrouping of forces could emerge resulting in more ad-hoc coalitions.

POPULIST, RIGHT WING

One could think of Italy as a microcosm of what could happen to the EU: Two populist groups have emerged as the main forces to form a government taking over from the centre forces - The Five Star Movement, which is an anti-establishment populist party, and the League, a far right party. Precisely, the danger that lies ahead for the EU elections is for populist anti-establishment and radical right wing parties coming together and replacing the moderate progressive centre. History tells us that this kind of political cocktail mix can be detrimental to the stability and predictability of policymaking.

As my fellow Europeans head to the polls on May 23, my hope is that they see participating progressive moderate parties as agents of change and progress, and not defenders of the institutional status-quo. Dissatisfaction with the establishment should not translate into a weaker Europe. It is by working in unity that Europe can address more effectively social injustice, climate change, encourage international trade, and reinforce the EU's global influence.

  • The writer works in Singapore for a multinational company, having previously served at the European Chamber of Commerce (Singapore).