Europe at Crossroads Heads Toward Crucial Elections

(CN) — A resurgent populist right is clashing with a resurgent populist left, and moderates are floundering. Steve Bannon is sucking up media time and Russian hackers are working to get an election result they like. The electorate is fed up with the status quo and pundits are gushing: “This is the most important election ever.”

The sun rises over Parliament Square with a statue of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the foreground in London. (AP file photo/Matt Dunham)

No, it’s not a description of elections in the United States, but a snapshot of the state of affairs ahead of the European Parliament elections on May 23-26.

“Historically, European elections are staid, barely noticeable affairs,” Politico, the news outlet, wrote recently.

Not this time.

The elections are viewed as a decisive moment for Europe, and commentators are framing them as profoundly consequential due to likely gains by the far right.

For the first time Europe’s two dominant blocs — center-right conservatives and center-left social democrats — are expected to take less than half of the chamber’s seats. The social democrats, in particular, are expected to flop.

“This could be a very disruptive election, as many are predicting,” said Ben Tonra, a politics professor at University College Dublin in Ireland, in a telephone interview.

The European elections take place every five years and are one of the world’s biggest exercises in democracy. This year, more than 140 million voters in 27 countries will elect members to one of the world’s largest democratic bodies — the European Parliament, with its 700-plus seat chamber.

The elections come at an extremely difficult time for Europe, and a strong showing by anti-EU parties could make the EU even more fractious and divided than it already is.

That’s a worry for many. “We need to find a common strategy,” said Morgan Guérin, a senior economist and European analyst at the Institut Montaigne, a French think tank. “We need to push for a stronger Europe together, to be stronger at the global level.”

Briefly, here are some of the Europe’s biggest challenges:

Under President Trump, the United States is drifting away from a Europe that relies on U.S. firepower and diplomacy. Great Britain, too, is splitting away due to Brexit. At the same time, Russia is a growing menace and is accused of meddling in the EU elections.

Economically, Europe is on a path of slow growth, leaving many people upset over stagnant wages, unemployment and lack of opportunity. Refugees and immigrants from Africa and the Middle East add to Europe’s strains, stoking xenophobia and far-right nationalist sentiment.

“This is the noxious climate in which Europe’s parliamentary elections will take place in May,” warned a prominent group of intellectuals, among them writers Milan Kundera and Salman Rushdie, in a manifesto published at the end of January in European newspapers.

“Unless something changes; unless something comes along to turn back the rising, swelling, insistent tide; unless a new spirit of resistance emerges, these elections promise to be the most calamitous that we have known,” the manifesto states. “They will give a victory to the wreckers.”

George Soros, the billionaire investor and pro-democracy philanthropist, echoed that warning in an opinion piece in The Guardian newspaper.

“Europe is sleepwalking into oblivion and its people need to wake up before it is too late,” he wrote. “If they don’t, the European Union will go the way of the Soviet Union in 1991.”

He called on pro-European voters to go to the polls in May, but was pessimistic. “Unfortunately, anti-EU forces will enjoy a competitive advantage.”

One potential advantage is low turnout, because Europeans don’t show much interest in the EU elections. Turnout has fallen ever since the first EU elections were held in 1979; it dropped to about 42 percent in 2014. Anti-EU parties have done well at lackluster elections because they’ve able to get their supporters out to vote.

Low turnout reflects a deep dilemma: Many Europeans view the EU as a distant but omnipresent, overly bureaucratic and undemocratic enterprise imposing laws and financial burdens they don’t like.

The EU Parliament is the only body in the EU that voters across Europe vote for. To give it more democratic legitimacy, it has been given more powers. For much of its history, the Parliament was a consultative body, but it now plays a key role in determining EU policies.

EU decisions are made jointly by national governments and the European Parliament, on the basis of proposals made by European commissioners. The commissioners are appointed by national governments and are accountable to the Parliament.

The parliamentary elections help determine who takes over top jobs in the European Union, with large transnational party groups — such as conservatives, social democrats and liberals — all proposing their top candidates for the post of EU Commission president. The political makeup of the parliament will influence who is chosen for other posts, such as the EU’s foreign policy chief.

What’s different about these elections is the buzz and political jockeying across Europe that’s taking place ahead of them. The buzz is all about Europe’s right wing and topics dear to them: immigration, crime, nationalism, and bashing the EU.

“What the populists and Euroskeptics have achieved is some kind of true European debate,” Guérin said. “But I don’t think it is positive, because we wanted to have this debate on other issues.”

Tonra added: “In a sense, we have been cursed with an answer of our prayers,” referring to how the EU has long lamented the lack of interest in its elections.

With a sense of dread, then, many pro-Europeans head toward an election they fear will deliver success to populists.

Kevin Körner, a senior economist and policy researcher at the Deutsche Bank, said polls show anti-EU and Euroskeptic parties likely to take more than one-fourth of the seats in Parliament.

“If anti-European groups perform even better than projected, the (European Parliament) could become increasingly split in two camps: one pro-European and one anti-European,” Körner said in an email.

The far right parties are seeking to unite, and if they can do that, they could pose an even bigger threat to goals of making the EU more integrated and powerful, analysts said.

Someone familiar to Americans is trying to help achieve this: In recent months, Steve Bannon, Trump’s former campaign strategist and White House adviser, has been crisscrossing Europe in an effort to bring together far-right forces. He’s been given a lot of attention in the media, particularly in the English-speaking press.

His influence is disputed. “I don’t think anyone in Europe is taking him seriously in any shape, fashion or form,” Tonra said.

Still, Tonra said the attempt by anti-European parties to form an alliance will define European politics.

“It will be interesting to see how much the populist right can marshal their forces,” Tonra said. “It will be fascinating to see if parties as distinct as Five-Star Movement (in Italy) and the Front National (Marine Le Pen’s recently renamed National Rally) can put together a coherent political platform.”

If they do, the political temperature could go up by quite a few degrees.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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