For much of the globe, the upcoming election cycle will be dominated by next year’s US presidential and congressional ballots. However, going under the radar is a hugely important ballot in Europe, for which campaigning has now kicked off, that will determine the direction of the 27-member EU.
The European Parliament elections in June next year are not just important for the future of the continent, but also the rest of the world, as the EU remains an economic superpower. It is also the world’s biggest exporter, with scores of nations having Europe as their leading trade partner, ranging from key emerging markets like China in Asia to Brazil in Latin America.
These will be the 10th European Parliament elections since the first direct ballot in 1979. Symbolically, they will be the first in which there are no candidates from the UK in the wake of that country formally leaving the EU.
Another reason the elections might be particularly consequential is the potential application of the so-called Spitzenkandidat (top candidate) system to select the next European Commission president. In the run-up to the 2014 European Parliament elections, this new system was unveiled by legislators. It means that the choice of candidate for president should be nominated by the voter bloc that secures the most seats.
In 2014, Jean-Claude Juncker, the candidate of the largest group at the time, which was the right-of-center European People’s Party, was eventually nominated and elected as European Commission president. European party leaders aimed to reassert the system in 2019, with them selecting lead candidates and organizing a debate.
The European Parliament is generally not trusted by many around the continent, for whom Brussels seems very remote
However, in the aftermath of the ballot, another German conservative — Ursula von der Leyen, who was defense minister in former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s last government — was chosen as president, even though she had not been a declared candidate prior to the election. Meanwhile, Manfred Weber, the declared lead candidate for the EPP, which had again gained the most seats, was not nominated after objections from key national leaders.
While a potential Joe Biden-Donald Trump US
presidential race will steal the
headlines, the European Parliament vote matters too,
including for its influence in the
choice of the next European Commission president
The experience of 2019 showed that, ultimately, national governments have final power over the appointment of the European Commission president. However, the legislature’s voice has become louder.
To this end, a wide number of EU stakeholders have called for the Spitzenkandidat system to be revived. The EPP and other parties, including the European Greens and the Party of the European Left, have announced their intention to nominate such a main candidate in 2024.
The EPP is widely forecast to again win the most seats (albeit potentially a lower number than it has now). If this comes to pass, it may increase the prospects for a second Von der Leyen presidency. However, the precise balance of power in the next parliament is highly uncertain.
In part, this is because the election takes place in the context of voter discontent and apathy. This is fueled by the fact that the European Parliament is generally not trusted by many around the continent, for whom Brussels seems very remote to their lives.
Voter turnout at European Parliament elections has declined, slipping from 62 percent in 1979 to a record low of 42 percent 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 legislature, including veto power over annual EU budgets, the power to amend or block a wide range of draft laws that are devised by the European Commission, and veto power over many international treaties.
As polls stand today, the most likely headline from the 2024 elections, despite the expected EPP victory, is a potential surge in support for right-wing and euroskeptic parties at the expense of centrist parties. Indeed, the rightist European Conservatives and Reformists could well become the third-biggest group.
That would be a big shift from the 2019 elections for the European Conservatives and Reformists, whose supporters include Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy and Poland’s ruling nationalist Law and Justice party. The far-right Identity and Democracy group, which includes Alternative for Germany, is also on course to make sizable gains.
This shift would replicate a trend in European national politics in recent elections. In nations from Greece and Italy in the south to Finland and Sweden in the north, politics has moved in a conservative direction.
Yet, while the right is set for gains, a traditional grand coalition of the EPP, the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats and the centrist Renew Europe will probably keep a clear majority over any new right-leaning alliance. The Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats looks set to retain its place as the second-largest group, while Renew is forecast to broadly match the European Conservatives and Reformists in terms of seats won.
That said, this grand coalition has recently been shaken by the EPP’s willingness to partner with the European Conservatives and Reformists to oppose the European Commission’s Green Deal legislation. The growing controversy of this agenda is also reflected in the possibility that the election’s biggest losers in terms of seat numbers might be the Greens.
As much as the biggest winners could be the right, the election takes place in a different context to 2019. Then, there were worries that the traditional center ground of moderate European politics could lose the preponderance of power in the legislature, with the ballot becoming a de facto referendum on the six-decade-plus integration project of the Brussels-based club.
This is why the election matters not just for Europe, but also the wider world. While a potential Joe Biden-Donald Trump US presidential race will steal the headlines, the European Parliament vote matters too, including for its influence in the choice of the next European Commission president.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.
Source: Arab News