Political implications of the 2019 European Parliament elections

Article written by James Azzopardi – Executive, MEUSAC
Published on Malta Today – 13.03.19

Between May 23 and 26, the European Parliament (EP) elections will be held across 27 EU Member States. While a formal UK request to extend Article 50 (subject to the EU’s approval) might still possibly mean that it will participate in the elections, until now it seems that there will be 705 seats up for grabs.

The EP is giving a lot of weight to this year’s elections, stating that ‘this time it is not enough to just hope for a better future. This time each and every one of us needs to take responsibility for it and to choose their future’. In a bid to complement this notion, the EP has also launched an online campaign (thistimeimvoting.eu) aimed at not just asking citizens to vote, but for citizens to ‘persuade others to vote too’, as these elections will determine how Europe will act in the coming years to address concerns about jobs, business, security, migration and climate change.

Why is the EP focusing so much on the issue of voting? One of the more obvious answers is that voting is one of the core raisons d’être of the institution itself. In fact, it is the only EU institution wherein citizens directly vote for candidates which would mostly reflect their ideals in the EU itself. While this may be wrongly underestimated, it can never be overstated.

Along the years, the EP has evolved from a mere talking shop, to one of the core EU institutions, forming part of the co-decision process (ordinary legislative procedure), alongside the Council of Ministers. This was in fact one of the changes brought about by the ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon, which introduced new law-making powers to the EP. Another key change which, to a certain extent ‘strengthened’ the Parliament, is the introduction of the Spitzenkandidat (German for lead candidate) process.

First utilised prior to the 2014 elections, the Spitzenkandidat is, in a nutshell, the method linking the EP elections to the election of the President of the European Commission. Thus, by having each major political group in Parliament nominating their candidate for Commission President, the Spitzenkandidat of the largest party would then have a mandate to assume the Commission Presidency.

Apart from affecting the Spitzenkandidat process’ outcome, some also argue that high voting turnouts can further legitimise the democratic validity of the EP, in light of the ongoing criticism that “EU institutions and their decision-making procedures suffer from a lack of democracy”. This issue is coined by the term ‘democratic deficit’. By voting, or even abstaining, Europeans have voiced their concerns on their estrangements with the Union. Disaffection with Europe has always been expressed in the low turnouts at European elections in certain Member States, which reached an all-time low in 2009 with an EU average of just 43%. This noticeably contrasts with the high, free-voter turnout in Malta in either European or even local elections.

The EP itself represents the core of the EU, its citizens, and as such, it must not be taken lightly. Accordingly, the political implications of this year’s elections, given the contemporary social scenarios, should not be overlooked.

Different projections and predictions seem to have common denominators: the two ‘big’ political groups (Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, and the European Peoples’ Party) will lose seats, while the foremost right-wing populist party group (Europe of Nations and Freedom), will gain seats (Figure 1). According to the projections of the European Parliament in collaboration with Kantar Public, ENF in fact stands to experience the largest gains (+22) in this year’s elections.

While both S&D and the EPP are experiencing internal turmoil, this potential scenario could confirm that a shake-up is needed in the way these political groups and their members approach their respective local and European politics. While the S&D are prospectively facing ideological crossroads, the EPP are experiencing internal issues of their own, particularly the ongoing tussle between its Spitzenkandidat Max Weber and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, with the latter and his party (Fidesz) facing calls to be expelled from the political group.

This state of affairs can be one of the reasons contributing towards extremist groups increasing their vote share. Even though these political groups would still remain relatively ‘small’, one should not underestimate the EP as a platform for any political rhetoric (a prime example being the effect Nigel Farage has had in his home country and, arguably, in other European countries as well).

In the midst of all this, the Franco-German tandem came up as well. French President Emmanuel Macron presented a rather positive rhetoric in his op-ed describing his vision of a stronger, EU-centric approach, while also serving as a platform for his party’s EP election candidates. While the op-ed itself called for a “European renaissance”, Germany’s CDU chief Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer responded President Macron with a contrasting view of her own, stating that ’a new Europe cannot be founded without the nation states’.

It is in this scenario that citizens are now asked to vote and voice their opinions. With strong views on the EU and how its future should be moulded from either side of the spectrum, this year’s vote might really be one of the most decisive in both the EU’s and the European Parliament’s recent history.

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