How much longer can this union survive, is it still viable, or are we facing an imminent shift in the political configuration of the 9th European Parliament? The answers to these questions will inevitably depend on the outcome of the European Parliament Election at the end of May 2019.
Traditionally, the voters with average political commitment tend to take less interest in the elections to the European parliament than they do when called upon to choose their representatives in the national or regional legislatures. Consequently, at EU elections voter turnout is usually lower and furthermore, even those who do cast a ballot are less inclined to become acquainted with the candidates’ platforms. This is not uncommon since European politics can seem less relatable than national or local politics, especially to people of limited political culture. For that reason, during EP election campaigns national parties often cut down on the messages that address actual EU policies, and tend to rely on the domestic prestige of the candidates.
This year’s elections, however, might be an exception. Because of the turbulent processes throughout Europe, there is ground for real political debate about the future both of the European Union, and of the European continent. Naturally, at a time of difficulties, the average citizen becomes less indifferent to politics, and the same logic can be applied to the current situation of the EU and the consequent more acute need for a debate about the direction the Union is taking. The elevated significance of the elections in the spring of 2019 has been highlighted by more than one European leader. It would hardly be an overstatement to say that the stakes are unusually high.
The voting intention opinion polls for the upcoming election show that, in spite of the fact that the EPP will definitely remain the largest block in the EP, the two main political players are likely to lose the majority they have long been holding in the European parliament. For the first time in several decades, the prognosis suggests that the MEPs of the centre-right and of the centre-left combined will amount to less than fifty percent of the seats in the European parliament.
Of course, this is not at all an isolated phenomenon – it is the natural consequence of a disturbing trend of increasing support for the anti-system parties at the expense of decreased support for the traditional mainstream parties that tend not to stray too far from the centre of the left-right political spectrum. Another manifestation of this rather recent tendency is the rise of all sorts of populist movements (Euroscepticists, the so-called “alt-right”, radical nationalists, far-leftists, extreme environmentalists, etc.) that we are witnessing in the past years. For instance, after Front national’s victory at the 2014 European Parliament elections in France (which may have been shocking to some but many would say that we should have seen it coming) the Movement for a Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) is looking at a considerable boost of the number of MEPs in the next European Parliament. This is not exactly a surprising turn of events – at times when they feel insecure and threatened people manifest a greater propensity for capsulation that creates the illusion of safety and protection. Hence, they turn to those who declare themselves anti-establishment and offer radical decisions. In the meantime, both the EPP and the S&D which are both pro-European parties and stick to somewhat more moderate rhetoric, are under threat of sustaining some losses, which is likely to tilt the fragile balance of powers, currently supported by the ‘grand coalition’ between centre-right and centre-left.
While discussing the future configuration of the European Parliament, a factor that cannot and ought not to be ignored, is the third one of the original three Groups – the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. In spite of losing their traditional position of a third-biggest formation in the 8th European Parliament to the European Conservatives and Reformists, the ALDE appear to be the only ones among the original three Groups that may not only not sustain further losses after the elections of May this year, but actually gain more seats in the next European Parliament than they currently hold, according to forecasts. This has to be due partly to the expectations that Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche! (LREM) which currently has no official European affiliation, will join ALDE’s ranks in the EU parliament, come May. Considering the fact that the Juncker Commission was, after all, supported by the ‘super grand coalition’, it could be speculated that a new majority could be achieved with the participation of three instead of two major players.
It cannot go unacknowledged, that the uncertainty in which Brexit is veiled1complicates the situation even further. Of course the EPP is not expected to gain much, should it be decided that the United Kingdom will after all elect MEP’s in May 2019, since the Conservative Party abandoned its affiliation with the EPP a decade ago. Nevertheless, the fact that there is still no clarity on the matter so near the date of the elections, contributes to the general uncertainty of the political conjuncture in Europe.
So what is the European People’s Party best course of action in the precarious situation that we are currently facing?
On the one hand, the European Union needs stability in its Institutions more than ever. Even from the position of a largest parliamentary group, by no means can the EPP provide for the absolute majority needed to approve spitzenkandidat Manfred Weber as President of the European Commission relying only on its own MEPs. Most likely some form of ‘grand’ or ‘grander’ coalition will be formed – if not permanently, then at least ad hoc for the sake of achieving absolute majority when needed for the crucial decisions concerning EU’s fate, so as not to let the populist forces take command over the vital processes in the Union.
On the other hand, the EPP could assert more strongly its right-wing profile. Hard as it may be to compete with the socialist rhetoric which has always sounded more appealing to the masses, we ought not to lose our identity. Grand coalition or not, the EPP should be clearly ideologically distinguishable from the S&D. It may be a bold statement but political blandness could be the EPP’s greatest sin before its adherents.
In times when the future of the Union might be in jeopardy, as more people driven by their fears respond to Eurosceptic ideologies, the primary consideration should be the consolidation of the pro-European forces in the EP. Even though it is little likely that the radicals are able to form a stable and big enough coalition to start calling the shots in the hemicycle, the traditional parties have an obligation to maintain the balance and stand as a counter-weight to the populist rhetoric that corrupts the Parliament and is detrimental to democracy. The next big division line in European politics could be between those who would rather see Europe united and those who want us to degrade to separation and isolationism. For the sake of winning this biggest of battles the EPP will have to align with the others who support and promote unity. Doing so however, we should not forget who we are and what we stand for in the first place.