Liberals vs. Nationalists: Europe Picks the Next EU Parliament

A woman enters a polling station located in West Blatchington Windmill near Hove, south east England, as polls opened Thursday in elections for the European Parliament. (Steve Parsons/PA via AP)

(CN) — At a moment of public dissatisfaction with the European Union and rejection of its pro-business and pan-European policies, Europeans began voting Thursday in elections that will determine the makeup of the European Parliament and, by extension, who will lead the EU’s powerful institutions, chief among them the executive branch.

Official election results for the 751-seat Parliament, which meets in Brussels and Strasbourg, France, will be announced Sunday night once voters in all 28 EU member states have cast ballots, in remote villages to Europe’s metropolitan capitals.

These are the only transnational democratic elections in the world, but this fact leaves many Europeans feeling distant and disinterested in the outcome. Turnout for European elections has fallen consistently since they first took place in 1979, from 62 percent to 42 percent in 2014.

These elections are considered a second-tier contest compared to national elections, and often voters use their ballots as a protest to give voice to frustrations they have with domestic politics.

Still, the results can upend national politics. For instance, a strong showing for the League, a far-right party in a coalition government in Italy, could spur the League to seek more power in the cabinet or even new elections there.

Despite much hand-wringing over the rise of far-right nationalist parties eager to dismantle and neuter the EU’s bureaucracy, the European Parliament is expected to remain in control of centrist pro-European forces.

Polls suggest the two traditional centrist main blocs — conservative Christian Democratic parties on the right and socialist-democratic parties on the left — will pick up the most votes. These two parliamentary groups are generally comfortable with maintaining the status quo and have long controlled the levers of power in the EU.

But for the first time these two blocs may not form a majority, as they shed votes to smaller, and often more radical, parties demanding bold changes, such as the Greens on the left, who want the EU to take even more swift action on climate change, and far-right parties that portray the EU as undermining national identities.

If they lose the majority, the two main blocs may rely on the votes of the third-largest group in Parliament — liberal democratic parties guided by French President Emmanuel Macron — to pass key laws and make decisions, such as the appointment of the next head of the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch. The alliance of liberal democratic parties is expected to grow, in large part thanks to Macron’s new party in France, the Republic on the Move.

Fundamentally, then, the Parliament and other EU institutions are expected to remain on their current track: Pushing countries to restrict public spending, pushing for tougher environmental and digital privacy laws, pushing for more European might on the international stage, pushing against Russia while also pushing for more cooperation with the United States, more action on climate change and market liberalization.

Still, underneath this business-as-usual picture of how these elections will affect policymaking in Brussels, the EU’s capital, there is a lot of fermentation.

Far-right parties are on track to be winners in the elections — and this has given rise to months of quarrelsome politics, doomsday warnings and soul-searching.

If the far right gains, it will be attributed largely to low turnout and a sense among Europeans that these elections are not as consequential as national elections, leaving people feeling free to cast protest votes.

Nonetheless, the success of far-right parties reflects growing dissatisfaction with the EU, plus nationalism and xenophobia. These sentiments are bubbling up in the wake of Europe being hit with a series of terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists and since it’s come under strain by the arrival of large numbers of asylum-seekers fleeing poverty and war in the Middle East and Africa. High levels of unemployment and economic stagnation in many countries since the 2008 financial collapse are making matters worse. 

In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, which is openly hostile to the EU and immigrants, is projected to narrowly beat Macron’s liberal party, and the League in Italy is expected to win convincingly. A plethora of other far-right parties across Europe are expected to gain seats. In all, far-right parties could hold as much as a quarter or more of the Parliament’s seats.

Led by Matteo Salvini, Italy’s anti-immigrant interior minister and leader of the League party, far-right parties have vowed to band together and become a force in Parliament, but it’s far from clear whether they will be able to collaborate effectively.

“In terms of perception, protagonists on both sides of the debate are clearly framing these elections as a showdown between liberals and nationalists for the soul of Europe,” wrote Ben Tonra, a politics professor at University College Dublin. “Politically, this could then be spun as a watershed moment, either stemming the tide of the populist right in Europe or dealing a crushing blow to the European liberal world.”

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

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