The European Elections are coming. By May 26, EU citizens of 28 member states (yes, 28, after the latest Brexit delay) will cast their vote to elect the new Members of the European Parliament, in what has been already described as an historical election.
Nationalist and Eurosceptic political discourse (and the reaction to it) is deeply affecting electoral campaigning, both at EU and national level, and is likely to usher in a new class of young MEPs more prone to radical views on the role of the EU. The parallel uncertainty regarding the electoral results of the two mainstream EU political groups, EPP and S&D, and the rise of new EU political formations, may bring about the most politically fragmented chamber ever in the history of the European Parliament. We do well to remember that elected MEPs do not sit together according to country of origin. Rather, they sit and vote with their political families, which can be significantly redefined by an election such as the one approaching. Add to this the potentially disruptive role of UK voters and all the ingredients for a tense start of the mandate are in.
Still, simply framing this election as a pro-EU Vs anti-EU referendum risks leaving out other and probably more important drivers of EU citizens’ electoral choice. What is sure is that the EU we have known until now is not taken for granted anymore, neither by the Eurosceptics EU leaders, nor by many EU citizens. In an increasing volatile political scenario, what are then the main issues likely to orientate the EU electorate?
Migration and Security
Arguably playing the role of the Trojan Horse of (far)right-wing political formations, migration policies have become an inescapable topic in political debates across the continent. Since the migration “emergency” of 2015-16, the issue grew so quickly in political polling that almost all candidates are now stressing the need for more border controls and for a reform of the EU asylum mechanism – how to concretely reach these objectives is another story. Furthermore, a survey by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) shows clearly how we do not all respond to the word ‘migration’ in the same way. While for many, the term conjures up images of the inward flow of immigrants at EU borders, we must not overlook the many identified in the survey as equating ‘migration’ with the loss of compatriots and family members, those leaving home to look for work and better living conditions. The reality on the ground is more complex than the “invasion syndrome” represented by the far-right.
Besides, in relation to the wider topic of security, both terrorism and radicalisation seem to garner a wider consensus across the political spectrum as the most dangerous threats to EU citizens overall. Notably, the same ECFR survey also shows a growing concern for the rise of far-right nationalist parties across the EU. Geopolitics finally comes to mind, especially on the EU Eastern border, where EU citizens from Poland and the Baltic countries are more likely to look for candidates promoting a tougher EU stance on Russia. Pro-Russian sympathies elsewhere (Italy as a first example) might however balance the Eastern votes, regardless of the increasing worries about alleged Russian-led misinformation campaigns on social media targeting the EU electorate.
Economy and Inequality
In every member state, apart from Denmark and Germany, only a minority of voters think their economy is performing well. According to a poll by Friends of Europe, more than 40% of EU citizen from the Visegrad countries (PL, HU, CZ, SK) and South-Eastern Europe believe that the EU should do more for the respective national economies. More and more EU citizens from peripheral parts of the EU are looking at these elections in order to change the status quo and off-set what they see as a selfish advantage of North-Western EU economies
But this is only one part of the story. As the EP Spring 2019 Eurobarometer survey and the recent push of the EU Commission on the #SocialEurope agenda suggest, EU citizens are expecting more from the Union to reduce socio-economic inequalities. Measures such as the harmonisation of EU wages, the enforcement of social protection standards for mobile and precarious workers, a minimum level of guaranteed healthcare across the EU, the fight against youth unemployment, as well as supporting skills development and education exchange schemes – do we need to mention ErasmusPlus? – are likely to attract a good share of public interest. An overwhelming 90% of respondents to Friends of Europe’s survey confirmed that they would like the EU to be more than just a Single-Market. The social policy dimension is certainly an important playing field in this sense.
Climate Change and the Need for a “Just Transition”
Following the increasingly grim warnings by the scientific community and the recent surge in environmental activism across the EU, “tackling climate change”, “sustainable growth” and “carbon-neutral economy” have become the new buzzwords of the political debate. All EU contestants seem to be ready to commit to a green agenda: from the 360° green transformation proposed by the Greens, to the more cautious “common sense” approach of the conservative front. However, objectives and strategies differ.
National and regional sensitivities come into play here. EU citizens from Nordic and Western member states with a longer tradition of “greening” the industry are more in favour of radical changes, while voters from regions linked to coal production and other industries with high CO2 emissions are worrying more about the socioeconomic repercussions of the energy transition. Achieving a “Just Transition” is deemed essential, not only by EU leaders wishing to avoid another “Gilets Jaunes” surge, but also and foremost by the young EU electorate, which identifies climate change and the social policy as twin political priorities.
The Future of the EU: winning back citizens’ trust
The EP Spring 2019 Eurobarometer survey confirms the strong belief (68%) that EU countries overall have benefited from being part of the EU. The unfolding Brexit drama may also be part of the bigger picture pushing Eurosceptics to abandon plans for leaving the EU. But it remains clear that the EU electorate is looking at these elections for a change from “business as usual” in Brussels. The challenges are plenty. Stressing the need for more democratic accountability in EU decision-making, increasing transparency of EU budget spending, or ensuring a deeper connection of EU institutions with citizens of the Union are nothing new. But this time around the combination of political distrust in national governments and in the EU apparatus may create powerful political cocktails, and create opportunities for more radical actors and “outsiders”.
ECFR’s analysis indeed shows that the “System believers” – EU citizens who believes that both the respective national government and the EU basically work – are now a minority. The Spring Eurobarometer also confirms that among the main reasons for not voting, distrust of the political system and “my vote will not change anything” options are attracting the majority of undecided voters and abstainers. Still, as already mentioned, the majority of EU citizens is looking for a more proactive Union and is not in favour of moving back to a more nation-based decision-making setting. In a European election that relies on national lists and nation-based electoral campaigning, the ability of national candidates to seize upon sensitive issues at local level still remains crucial. However, the growing public awareness of the transnational dimension of many challenges ahead – climate change, migration policy and the EU socioeconomic dimension for instance – and stronger expectations from the EU to tackle them, especially by young voters, may well count more than in the past for the final electoral outcome.
More EU rather than less EU, but definitely a different EU, is what the majority of its citizens expect. How this will translate into turnout for these elections is however a matter of debate. High levels of abstention for the European elections are quite common, with only 42.4% of the EU electorate voting in 2014 – the #ThisTimeIamVoting campaign of the EU Parliament is trying to change this.
Can the fear of a populist and Eurosceptic surge motivate the “silent majority” of pro-Europeans? Can we expect distrustful EU voters to cast their ballots to transform the future of the Union? And if so, in which direction? We have only a few more days to find out!
Alessandro Calissi, T&P Junior Consultant