This Time Different: The tenth European Parliament election

March 2024

Europe’s security policy, economy and the far-right: Too much is at stake for this to be a business-as-usual election.

By Lykke Friis

EU Elections flags_Lykke Friis
IMAGO / allOver

Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, or for that matter Rishi Sunak are household names across Europe and all are on the ballot in this global super election year. However, to most Europeans, names like Manfred Weber, Terry Reintke, or Valérie Hayer will require them to consult their search engines. It would reveal that these politicians are all running from prominent positions in the upcoming European Parliament election. From June 6 to 9 this year, as many as 400 million Europeans will take to the polls to elect 720 members of the European Parliament.The event will be thetenth election since 1979 when European heads of state and government added a directly elected second chamber to its supranational decision-making process.

Since then, the European Parliament has gained more competencies in every round of treaty reform. Paradoxically, this has not convinced more Europeans to exercise their right to vote. Indeed, turnout has fallen from a high of 61.9 percent in 1979, to 42.1 percent in 2014. The previous election in 2019 was the first to see this trend reversed with a turnout just topping 50 percent. Nevertheless, every one of the previous nine elections has been overshadowed by domestic politics where voters could express dissatisfaction with their national governments. The big question is whetherthis election will be any different. Will turnout rise and will we finally see a campaign that is largely fought on genuinely European issues? While domestic issues will continue to play a role, there are good reasons to believe we could be in for a change. Indeed, too much is at stake for this to be a business-as-usual election.

Europe’s security is at stake

For the first time since 1945, Europe has experienced a full-scale military invasion. The invasion harkens back to the founding ideals of the EU by recalling that peace cannot be taken for granted in Europe. And Ukraine is not just fighting for its own liberation but for Europe’s liberty and security. In fact, for the first time since the Cold War, several European ministers of defense have warned their citizens that Russia could attack a NATO-country within as little as three years.

However, as the war drags into its third year, other voices ask: how long will this war last? Why should European citizens have to foot the bill for higher energy prices and defense budgets? Underlying these questions is a dangerous proposition: wouldn’t it be sensible for Europe to put a stop to its weapon deliveries to Ukraine and push for a negotiated settlement?

The second issue that has raised the stakes in this election is climate change. Not only have energy-related CO2-emissions in 2021 reached their highest annual level ever, but Europe is also experiencing an increasing number of extreme weather events. In the upcoming campaign this will be a strong argument for speeding up the EU’s green transition. Under European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the EU has positioned itself as the driving force behind Europe’s decarbonization journey and even a global standard-bearer for the green transition. A clear indication of von der Leyen’s intention to carry this legacy forward can be seen from the European Commission’s decision to recommend a 90 percent greenhouse gas reduction target for 2040, relative to 1990 levels in February. The EU’s ability to deliver on the promise of the European Green Deal will be a key test of the bloc’s continued relevance and its ability to command legitimacy among Europeans. But unlike the last election in 2019, advocates for an ambitious climate policy will be confronted with growing opposition. We only have to look at the rebellious farmers who have recently taken to the streets across the EU, including in France, Poland, Germany, and the Netherlands. For many farmers, the Commission’s 2040 target, if agreed, is likely to be perceived as a threat to their future. The Commission’s initial response to the widespread farmers’ protests shows that their message has gotten through: in early February, von der Leyen scrapped an ambitious proposal to halve pesticide use.

Industry has enormous decisions ahead of it

A similar, if less heated debate is raging over the future of European industry. For some, more ambitious climate goals are the path of choice to higher European growth. For others, an ambitious 2040 target is a cul-de-sac that will only weaken Europe’s global competitiveness.      

Thirdly, a recent dramatic spike in the number of asylum seekers and irregular migrants coming to Europe from the Middle East and North Africa, not seen since the migration crisis is 2015,has once again catapulted migration to the top of the European agenda. This has only been exacerbated by the high number of Ukrainian refugees still living in the EU. Just before Christmas, a brand-new pact on migration and asylum with stronger border controls and a mandatory solidarity mechanism for tackling migration was agreed. However, for many parties, not least those to the right, this is an insufficient solution. They believe that a more radical toolbox, such as the so-called Rwanda model, where irregular migrants and asylum seekers would be relocated to Rwanda or another third country for processing, asylum, and resettlement should be developed.

Finally, the European election will be taking place in the long shadow cast by a second election showdown between Joe Biden and Donald Trump in November. Most European governments see another four years with Donald Trump as a potentially existential threat to Europe. Just take Trump’s recent speech at a rally in southern California in February, where he made it very clear that he would not come to the rescue of European NATO members who had not “paid up,” i.e., spent 2 percent of their GDP on defense. “No, I would not protect them. In fact, I would encourage them [Russians] to do whatever the hell they want,” he said. As a result, European governments are at least rhetorically pushing “Trump-proof” policies: for example, strengthening European defense. Others, such as Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, are hedging their bets on Trump’s reelection in the hope of weakening the EU and the global rules-based order.

Far rightists could score big

These crises could lead to a mobilization of the fringes of the political spectrum. After all, many of these issues, such as migration, play to the strengths of the far right. Seen from this perspective, it is anything but surprising that think tankers and pollsters are heavily engaged in developing projections for the upcoming election. The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) published one such pan-European poll in January 2024. Its core prediction is that Europe is in for a major shift to the far right. Indeed, in nine member states so-called anti-European populist parties such as Rassemblement National (RN) in France, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany, and Fidesz in Hungary are expected to top the polls. In nine other countries, anti-European populist parties are set to come in second or third. In practice, this could lead to a situation in the parliament where parties from the far right obtain as much as 25 percent of the vote.

Such an outcome, should it materialize, will have an impact on European politics. At a minimum, it could strengthen the backlash against environmental regulation that we have already seen during the current mandate and harden EU’s migration policy. In the past year, members of European Peoples’ Party (EPP) and the liberal Renew Europe group have voted with the far right in a number of key votes, such as the recent plenary vote on nature restoration. Should the coming election deliver a strong result for the far right, this trend is likely to be reinforced. Indeed, while a watered-down version of the law was eventually passed, the above-mentioned ECFR analysis highlights the vote on nature restoration as an example of a vote that would have been affected by a more right-wing parliament.

A more right-wing parliament could also provide Putin with more so-called “Trojan horses”: far-right politicians who developed close ties with Russia prior to and after the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the 24 February 2022. These Trojan horses are unlikely to be outright pro-Russian, but they could amplify calls for a negotiated settlement between Russia and Ukraine. In the medium- to long-term, this could spell trouble for the EU’s Ukraine policy, by eroding support for an increasingly expensive war. Finally, the election could indirectly impact priorities in the European Council, where EU leaders meet to set EU's political agenda. After all, the continued rise of France’s Rassemblement National (RN) inthe polls has already prompted President Emmanuel Macron to embark on a de facto containment policy by moving to the right.

Top-of-the-shelf politicos should engage

This is not to say that a strong showing for the far right in the June election will fundamentally change the course of politics in the EU. After all, the European Parliament’s “super grand coalition” of the EPP, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), and Renew Europe are predicted to command a majority among them, albeit a slimmed down one. Where this slimmed down majority could prove decisive is in specific policy areas like environmental, migration policy, and possibly also the EU’s support for Ukraine.

Yet, at the end of the day, opinion polls only give an indication of the final outcome. What could impact the result would be if heads of state and government would depart from their tendency to disengage from European elections – and instead make a strong case for their European policies. They could drive home the message that this time it really is different – because so much is at stake.

Lykke Friis

Lykke Friis is director of Think Tank EUROPA in Copenhagen. Since 2020, she is also co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). From 2009-2011, she served as minister of climate, energy, and gender equality of Denmark. From 2011-2013, she was member of the Danish parliament for the Liberal Party.

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