The upcoming European Parliament elections will be a test for the European Union's commitment to democracy as previously fringe political movements threaten to take over the helm of the EU.
In democracies, elections are an opportunity to provide a fresh mandate for governing. They offer a chance for the electorate to decide the shape of their political leaders. Understandably, the voters expect their choices to be honoured and respected.
There are two reasons why the upcoming elections for the European Parliament, scheduled for May 23-26, could unravel the cosy status quo for Europe’s traditional centre-right and centre-left political parties and propel to the forefront parties from what was once considered the political fringe.
The first reason is that since the last European election in 2014 there has been a sharp rise in populist and nationalist movements across the continent. These movements have also enjoyed success at the ballot box in Italy, Finland, Estonia, Greece, Spain, France, Austria, Germany and the UK among others.
Whether it is France’s National Front making it to the final round of presidential elections, or the creation of the populist Lega and Five Star Movement governing coalition in Italy – five years ago these election victories would have been inconceivable.
The European Parliament does not have a traditional “government” and “opposition” makeup found in parliaments at the national level. Instead, the European Parliament is organised by different political blocs, or groupings, of like-minded political movements from different countries agreeing to join forces to push a common political agenda.
Even before the upcoming election, different populist and nationalist groups are starting to form. Last week the deputy prime minister of Italy, and leader of the far-right Lega party, Matteo Salvini, held a meeting in Milan with leaders of like-minded political parties across Europe calling for a unified far-right movement to form as a political group in the European Parliament after the next election.
Right now, roughly one-third of parliamentarians in the European Parliament either want to see the destruction of the EU or at least see the organisation radically reformed. However, they are not organised into a single grouping and cannot leverage their influence.
With the recent rise in Euroscepticism across Europe, an even larger number of parliamentarians with hostile views of the EU will be elected. If these parliamentarians can come together as a single group, they will hold a significant amount of power.
The second issue that could undermine the status quo and bring more Eurosceptics into the parliament is how your average voter treats European elections. The European Parliament only became directly elected in 1979, and in every election, since then voter turnout has decreased.
In 1999 voter turnout for European elections fell under 50 percent for the first time. In the most recent election in 2014, voter turnout across Europe was a dismal 42.5 percent. Slovakia holds the dubious record of lowest voter turnout of all 28 member states in the 2014 election at 13 percent.
Elections with low voter turnout often see a better performance by non-traditional parties because their supporters tend to be more energised to vote. Also, not only are many Europeans not interested in voting in EU elections, those who do vote in the polls often do so as a protest against the incumbent national government. Rarely do people vote in European elections on issues directly pertaining to Europe.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, European Parliamentary elections use the proportional representation (PR) electoral system. The PR system encourages multiparty results and gives political space to parties on the political fringe to gain seats.
Even though the European Parliament has been given more powers over the years, and even though it is the only directly elected decision-making institution in the EU, it is also the weakest institution. So why do these elections matter at all for Europe?
The reason why these elections matter is because changes in the 2009 Lisbon Treaty changed the rules for the European Parliament’s role with the formation and selection of the EU Commission — the executive branch of the EU.
In theory, the president of the commission should be selected based on the outcome of the EU elections in consultation between the member states and the European Parliament. So, for example, if Eurosceptic and populist parties form the largest grouping in the European Parliament, the proposed president of the commission should be aligned politically with this grouping.
Herein lies the problem. Would the political elite from the traditional centre-right and centre-left political parties across Europe accept someone from Italy’s Lega or Germany’s AfD becoming the president of the commission—or would they try thwarting it? This could be a true test of the EU’s commitment to democracy.
Then there is the added complication of choosing the rest of the EU Commission. Once the commission president is selected, he or she must work with the other member states nominate the other commissioners.
Currently, each member state, minus the one from which the commission president came, get to submit a commissioner. Unsurprisingly, the person nominated by each member state will likely reflect the political views of their national government. So unlike in 2014, the proposed Commission of 2019 will naturally have many more nationalists, populists, and Eurosceptics.
Another added complication is the fact that under the terms of the Lisbon Treaty, the European Parliament can only approve or reject the commission as a whole. Whereas in the past, the parliament had more flexibility in choosing the commission because individual commissioners could be vetoed or approved.
The rise of Eurosceptic and populist parties across Europe will make the formulation and approval of the next EU Commission more difficult than it has ever been before. This will serve as a true test of the EU's commitment to honouring the wishes of the people over the desires of the political elite.
Whether it’s the refugee crisis, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, the political stagnation resulting from Brexit, or sluggish economic growth in the Eurozone there are a lot of challenges facing the European Union.
This is why the upcoming elections will be important to watch, and this is why the political elite in Europe need to respect the outcome of the elections and deliver a commission reflecting the political reality in the European Parliament.
Failing to do so will only increase the already large democratic deficit in the EU and push more and more people to the far left and far right.
This is the last thing that Europe needs.
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