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Why the European Parliament election matters for the world
AS April moves into May, this week sees the kick-off of the final leg of the landmark European Parliament election campaign. The May 23-26 ballot is assuming much bigger importance this year in what may, in effect, be a referendum on the six-decade integration project of the Brussels-based club.
And the election is not just important for the future of the continent, but also the rest of the world as the EU remains an economic superpower with its collective GDP rivalling that of the United States, and remaining larger than that of China. It is also the world's biggest exporter with the scores of nations for which Europe is their leading trade partner ranging from China in Asia to Brazil in South America.
One reason why this year's election has added spice within Europe is the growing prospect that the United Kingdom will take part in the ballot. Some three years after the 2016 referendum, UK candidates will take part unless British Prime Minister Theresa May can get her withdrawal deal passed soon.
The continuing impasse over Brexit is just one reason why French President Emmanuel Macron is depicting the contest as a choice for or against Europe. With anti-integration, Eurosceptic parties across the continent hoping for big gains, Mr Macron is seeking to rally liberal, internationalist forces which have been buoyed by Sunday's Spanish election which saw a resurgence in fortunes for the strongly pro-Brussels Socialist Party.
Liberal, internationalist forces are trying to capitalise on the fact that Eurobarometer surveys last year found more people than ever consider their country's membership of the EU to be a good thing (62 per cent). This was the highest figure in a quarter of a decade, and 68 per cent of people believe that their nation has benefited from EU membership.
Yet, important as this is, the challenge is that the election also takes place in a context of major voter discontent and apathy. This is fuelled by the fact that the European Parliament, specifically, is generally not trusted by many in the continent for whom Brussels seems very remote to their day-to-day lives.
Voter turnout at European Parliament elections has declined, slipping from 62 per cent in 1979 to a record low of 42 per cent in 2014. In some countries, turnout only just got into the double digits last time around.
This apathy comes despite the steadily growing powers enjoyed by the European Parliament. Originally created in the 1950s, it assumed enhanced political legitimacy in 1979 when it became a directly elected chamber.
Since then, the legislature has assumed veto power over annual EU budgets of some 140 billion euros (S$214 billion), and secured powers to amend or block a wide range of draft laws that are devised by the European Commission. The new members of the European Parliament will also have significant opportunity to influence the choice of the next president of the European Commission, widely viewed as the key office holder in Brussels.
This is because key groups in the Parliament forged an agreement before the 2014 election, for the first time ever, that the choice of candidate for president to succeed Jose Manuel-Barroso should be nominated by the voter bloc that secures the most seats. While national governments have ultimate power over the appointment, the legislature's voice was louder than ever on the important decision to select Jean-Claude Juncker who has held the post for the last half-decade.
Yet, for all of this, it is the Eurosceptic, anti-politics element of this year's election that may capture the most attention and at this point in the campaign, there appears to be significant wind in the sails of anti-EU parties. Here, they are seeking to build on the 2014 elections which saw major gains for anti-integration parties which spanned the ideological spectrum from the extreme-right to far-left.
Over the last five years, the rise of these parties has already complicated decision-making in Brussels, including in the economic policy arena. This is because Eurosceptic parties are generally anti-free trade, and the European Parliament has veto power over many international treaties. And there is a real possibility that anti-integration parties could win enough seats in the legislature this time around to significantly influence and potentially stymie legislation, rather than just rant about it as is often now the case.
Another reason for the high visibility given to Eurosceptic parties this year is the role of former Donald Trump aide, Steve Bannon, who will speak on May 11 in Berlin at a rally organised by the far-right Alternative for Germany. Mr Bannon is also prominent in Italy, having actively campaigned in the general election last year, and claimed credit for bringing the coalition government of far-right The League and populist Five Star together as a governing entity.
Nevertheless, latest polls indicate that the balance of power in the Parliament will most likely still be held by a pro-integration majority, possibly a grand coalition of the centre-left and centre-right. While this will be reassuring to many in the continent and beyond, it cannot be taken for granted, given the disenchantment of millions of people against the status quo in Brussels.
The increased popularity of Eurosceptic parties reflects a wide range of factors, not just popular discontent with growing European integration. Broader issues include deep disquiet with long-established national political parties and systems, concern over immigration, as well as discontent over the post-2008 economic downturn and subsequent austerity measures.
Several of these factors have also driven wider political volatility in Europe in recent years. Across the EU, many have taken to the streets to protest, and national governments in more than half of the 28 member states fell or were voted out of office in the two years from Spring 2010 to 2012 alone.
Taken overall, the forthcoming European Parliament elections may well be the most consequential ever. With Eurosceptics seeking to make big gains, the result could hinge on turnout and whether voters from the centre ground of European politics come out in large enough numbers to ensure that the preponderance of power in the legislature continues to be held by a moderate majority.
- The writer is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics