Make or break for the EU? Europeans vote in June with far right on the rise

Brussels: They are elections whose purpose many do not see, for an institution whose role few fully understand; an international ballot still viewed primarily in national terms, by voters who see it chiefly as a low-risk way to vent national frustrations.

“They’re not really about the EU and they don’t really matter” was long the popular take on elections to the European parliament, whose latest edition, from 6 to 9 June, will once more fill the 705 seats of the only directly elected EU body.

That take was never really true, and has certainly become less so since 2009, when the Lisbon treaty put the parliament on a more equal footing with national leaders in deciding what the EU does and how much it spends, plus more influence on who runs the bloc.

This time, it looks likely to be less accurate than ever. On the upside, polling shows that more of the EU’s roughly 400 million voters than ever before believe the bloc is important, are interested in the 2024 elections and intend to vote.

But with nation-first Eurosceptics on the rise across the EU and predicted to make gains – although far from enough for a majority – in parliament, analysts also say this election could come to be seen as a “make or break moment”.

According to a Eurobarometer poll of 27,000 people published in December, 57% of voters are interested in the elections, six points more than in the run-up to the previous European elections in 2019, and 68% intend to vote – up nine points.

A record 72% think membership has been good for their country, while 70% feel the EU matters in their daily lives. But voters are also worried about the future: 73% fear their standard of living will decline this year.

Georgina Wright, a senior fellow at the Paris-based Institut Montaigne thinktank, said voters were increasingly convinced by Covid and a string of geopolitical crises that there are some issues “that clearly can’t be resolved at a national level”.

Questions tied to Russia’s war against Ukraine, such as the EU’s role in Europe’s security, as well as the cost of living crisis, migration and the green transition and its costs would be paramount, Wright said, although “a lot can change” before June.

The European parliament election remains to a large extent “27 national campaigns, and 27 national elections”, she said. “It’s not yet properly pan-European, and its problem remains that many people don’t really know what the parliament does.”

But this time they “will be voting with the EU in mind”, Wright said.

“Not because they love the EU, but because there’s growing understanding that some matters can only be addressed at EU level. The EU debate is no longer pro or anti, but ‘what kind’”.

Most of Europe’s nationalist parties have dropped or rowed back on any plan to follow Britain out of the EU. But in nearly a dozen EU member states, including France and Germany, far-right parties are in government or number one or two in the polls.

Polls suggest Geert Wilders’ anti-Islam party would win even more seats now than when it finished first in November’s Dutch election, and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) is 10 points clear of Emmanuel Macron’s centrist alliance on 28% to 30%.

Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy remains comfortably ahead in the polls on 29%, Austria’s FPÖ is on 30%, and in Germany in December the AfD won its second municipal election in six months and stands at second place on 22%.

Forecasting the results of the European parliament election is hard, because the two organisations that do so – Politico Europe and Europe Elects – rely on extrapolations from national polling, and in the European ballot voters often behave differently.

Both sets of polls, however, predict a clear gain for the far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) group, which includes AfD, RN, FPÖ and Matteo Salvini’s Lega, and could emerge with more than 85 seats from its present 76.

The European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), which includes Poland’s Law and Justice (Pis), Brothers of Italy, the Finns party, the Sweden Democrats and Spain’s Vox, is also forecast to advance, moving to about 80 MEPs from 61.

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Those gains are accompanied by modest predicted losses for the centre-right European People’s party (EPP) and centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), a bigger fall for the centrist Renew group, and a sharp drop for the Greens, who are forecast to lose up to a third of their seats.

EPP and S&D are still expected to finish first and second with more than 170 and 140 seats respectively, and with Renew on 83 MEPs and the Greens on 45 the so-called “centrist” bloc in parliament should still have a comfortable overall majority.

That does not look like an earthquake. It should leave the EPP in charge of the European Commission, potentially with a second term for the current president, Ursula von der Leyen, and S&D at the head of the European Council of national leaders.

Perhaps the biggest upset would be if the hard-right ID group were to beat Renew into third place, in which case it might demand a significant post in the commission. Nonetheless, some analysts see these elections as a potential EU turning point.

Thus far, said Wright, Europe’s far-right parties – which also made significant advances in 2019 – have not been able to significantly influence the EU policymaking process for the simple reason that they have failed to cooperate with each other.

That may be about to change, said Catherine Fieschi of the European University Institute in Florence. “They’re not about to take over,” she said. “But they are more numerous, they are getting smarter and they could work with the centre-right.”

Several key factors have changed since 2019 and before, Fieschi said. European parliament elections are “no longer the nationalists’ only chance to win an election – increasingly, they are winning influence and power at the national level”.

That has brought the ID group closer to ECR, many of whose members are in, or supporting, rightwing governments, because electoral success has forced the hitherto more radical, hard-right ID to adjust. Most voters do not want to leave the EU or the euro.

At the same time, the member parties of the centre-right EPP have drifted further and further right in search of far-right votes. “It’s no longer a question of the nationalist and far-right groups working together, ECR with ID,” Fieschi said.

“The question now is will the centre right work with the far right: EPP with ECR.” Key to that, she said, will be the stances of Meloni and Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, whose Fidesz party has yet to rejoin another group after quitting EPP in 2021.

“Imagine if Orbán joins ECR, which works with EPP,” Fieschi said. “That’s the [European] green new deal blocked, EU enlargement on hold … So my worry is these elections really could be a make or break moment, that leaves the EU frozen as a middle power.”

The EU would still deliver for its citizens, Fieschi said, reigning in the worst excesses of a polarised world, doing what it can on the environment. “It will keep holding the fort at a time of immense geopolitical and economic uncertainty,” she said.

“And let’s be honest, that’s not bad. But it would also be a huge missed opportunity.”