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The International Desk w/ Lisa Boudet

Hundreds of millions of citizens of European Union member states are expected to attend voting booths throughout all 28 countries, from May 23rd to 26th, to elect their European Parliament representatives.  Lisa Boudet of Tuesday Wire’s International Desk reports.

Voting for MEP, Members of the European Parliaments, will kick off on Thursday, in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. More than 370 million electors are eligible to vote, but voter turnout has traditionally been very low, with an average of only one out of ten elector casting a ballot.

The European Union’s institutions complexity and layers, as well as a lack of understanding of the Parliament’s role, are believed to be responsible for European citizens’ disdain for the elections. Three key institutions make up the main supranational powers of the European Union. The European Council defines the EU’s overall political direction and priorities. It is made up of Heads of States from member states, and has more of a strategic power. Most of the Legislative power falls in the hands of the European Commission, which is the equivalent of an upper legislative chamber, as it is the sole institution allowed to draft bills. Despite its name, the European Parliament cannot propose legislation but only amend, reject or pass it. It can also request certain bills from the Commission, but this is not binding. However, one of its main power is the vote of the budget, which gives it great leverage.


Who is elected, and how?

Voters will elect all 751 current members of the Parliament - a number that could go down to 705 if the United Kingdom leaves the EU. Each member state is allocated a certain amount of representatives based on its total population. This is why Germany, which has the biggest population, will elect 96 MEP, whilst Luxembourgers are only voting for 6 MEP. All twenty-eight member states elect their representatives proportionally, so that seats are allocated to parties and their list of candidates based on the percentage of votes they receive, with each party needing at least five percent of votes to enter the Parliament.

Within the Parliament, representatives tend to join in paneuropean groups of shared ideology and interests. Twenty-five members are required to create a political group. On the eve of the 2019 elections, there are eight groups, with the centre right European People Party and centre left Socialists and Democrats making up the majority of the Parliament. The European Conservatives and Reformists, made out of right-leaning eurosceptics, make up the third biggest group.


What are the challenges for this year’s election?

A lot has changed or moved within the last 5 years, since the 2014 European parliament elections, with new challenges emerging.

The idea of a borderless, global entity has been challenged by the number of refugees trying to reach the shores of Greece and Italy. It has caused the reinstatement of border controls in many countries of the Schengen zone in central Europe.

The status quo of the usual binary option between centre left and centre right is more than ever questioned around the globe and particularly in Europe. Most European countries have seen their centrist parties defeated in national elections, or at the very least extremely challenged. Far-right-affiliated parties have made it into parliaments in Spain, Germany, Estonia. They came fairly close to securing the top job in France or The Netherlands, and are effectively in power in Austria, Italy, or Hungary. Parties which display a populist or nationalist rhetoric also made considerable electoral gains in Scandinavian countries, but also in Slovenia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and even the UK. Basically, their following has massively expanded, at the expense of parties deemed more moderate. Eurosceptic parties have flourished all around the continent, and if their representation at a national level is anything to go by, there is a chance they will be massively voted for in these European elections.

Currently, Eurosceptics and Far rights groups make out just under fifteen percent of the MEPs in Strasbourg, but that number is expected to grow. Even though populists are not expected to obtain a majority at the parliament, a boost in seats could lead to the possibility of creating a powerful coalition.

Divisions within far rights parties could jeopardise an alliance

This weekend, Europe’s far right leaders showed a united front around Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini. At a rally in Milan, he was surrounded by ten leaders of other nationalist parties, including France’s Marine Le Pen or The Netherlands’ Geert Wilders. Their principal rallying point is their views on immigration, which according to them needs to be cracked down to “protect European civilisation”. They also share a habit of criticising strong European figures such as French and German leaders Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, as well as European commission Jean Claude Juncker.

However, tensions between these allies could arise sooner than expected, because of a difference of stance in regards to Russia. Denmark and Estonia are extremely anti-Russia, which Italy and France’s candidates are not. Poland could also stay away from an alliance because of issues with Russia.

And the resignation of Austrian far-right vice chancellor might not help either. The whole government crumbled after a video spread showing the Vice Chancellor offering public contracts with the niece of a Russian oligarch, in exchange for support in securing a win during the national election.

The fear of a massive rise of far right parties at the EU parliament has led to pro-Europe demonstrations in Germany. Tens of thousands of Germans marched against nationalism across the country, hoping to get moderates to vote.

Climate change could turn the Greens into Kingmakers.

Another issue that has gained momentum in the last five years is climate change. The urgency was already there in 2014, but the Paris agreement of 2015 and multiple alarming reports these last few years have led to a more global awareness. It has also proven to be a contentious point, creating a divide between the sceptics and the alarmists.

Observers are now wondering whether Green parties around Europe could benefit from this newfound interest, and if the large protests asking for climate action around Europe could translate into votes.

Green parties or those who put environmental policies forward have also gained momentum lately throughout Europe, especially in Northern Europe, like in The Netherlands, Germany, and in Scandinavian countries.

Green parties have also benefited from the recent fragmentation of politics, and gained some ground amongst the traditional left to centre-left electorate, offering a more radical alternative than social democracy. It is predicted that the current joint majority of the alliance between the centre left and the centre right could be lost. It will be hard for the centre right to find people to ally with further to their right. If the Greens perform well, they could help form a large pro-EU alliance.   

UK’s European elections, a second referendum?

The last obvious change in Europe has been happening in the United Kingdom. Slowly, the UK’s spot in the EU has been questioned. First, it was the surge of euroscepticism with Nigel Farage’s UKIP party, which was quickly followed by the Brexit vote in 2016.  

But it is actually the lack of Brexit that is creating a lot of confusion for voters in the UK. Initially, Brexit was meant to happen in March, purposely to avoid any participation of the country in the European elections. But the absence of a vote on the proposed deals, and the delay that followed, has led the UK to reluctantly run candidates for the European Parliament elections. Seventy three seats are currently allocated to the UK, so what happens when / if  Brexit does happen? Some of the seats will be abolished, while others will be redistributed to member states. British voters will effectively choose representatives for only very short term.

The vote could effectively turn into a second referendum of sort, since the proportional election will help determine which of the pro or anti brexit side amasses the most votes.

Voting intention polls currently show both sides being neck and neck, although Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party seems in a good position to collect the most votes. The outcome of the European Parliament election in the United Kingdom could put pressure on Theresa May and influence the negotiations with the EU. In case of a large victory of the Brexit party, European leaders could be less eager to prolong British membership.


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