Europe's voters to decide the face and future of its union

Expected gains by Eurosceptic parties would threaten the EU's unity and long-held European values

The stars of the European Union (EU) sit on the side of a European Parliament election campaign bus in the Bavarian city of Aschaffenburg, Germany, on Monday, May 13, 2019.  The stakes are high for this year's elections to the European Parliament, with widespread predictions that a growing chorus of populists will see historic gains at the expense of establishment parties. Photographer: Alex Kraus/Bloomberg
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Voters in a starkly divided European Union head to the polls next week to decide the political future of a bloc suffering an unprecedented identity crisis. With Eurosceptic parties projected to win more than one-third of seats in the next European Parliament, the stakes are unusually high.

In the long term, crossing this threshold would enable these parties to obstruct the parliament’s work on foreign policy, eurozone reform and freedom of movement, and possibly tarnish European values including liberty of expression, the rule of law and civil rights.

In the shorter term, the vote might affect the policies of national parties looking to the European elections as a referendum on their governance.

Since EU citizens last cast their ballots in 2014, the continent has grown almost unrecognisable. For the first time, the EU is approaching elections with one of its founding members – Italy – having become a majority Eurosceptic country and another – Britain – leaving the bloc in a stark reminder of how brittle its political union can be.

Europeans are likely to wake up on May 27 even more polarised. The centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) – the largest group in parliament and the emblem of the conservative establishment – and the Socialist group (S&D) are on track to lose a combined 100 seats and will be in a minority for the first time.

Those faithful to the European project but who are calling for its reform have been negotiating a difficult political alliance, with French President Emmanuel Macron still sitting on the fence in the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) uniting centrist liberal parties.

Eurosceptic parties may sweep one third of the 751 seats, but they are also hardly a united front. International trade agreements, the relationship with Russia and the redistribution of migrants are some of the factors that – despite numerous attempts at unification – still separate the flurry of parties sharing a sovereigntist vision for the Old Continent.

Renaissance or demise?

Mr Macron has said the upcoming elections will be "decisive for the future of our continent”. To win the battle, the French president's reformist front has spun some of populist mantras – taking back control, tightening security, protecting European companies – and turned them to Europe’s favour.

His “Renaissance project” envisions a major conference to overhaul the continent's political structures and the creation of multiple new institutions. These include a European council of internal security to establish a common border police and a European asylum office; a European army to give the bloc the capacity to launch military operations; a reform of European competition and trade policies to sanction or ban companies in Europe that "harm our strategic interests” and evade taxes.

French President Emmanuel Macron, speaks during a press conference with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, Wednesday, May 15, 2019. World leaders and tech bosses meet Wednesday in Paris to discuss ways to prevent social media from spreading deadly ideas. (Yoan Valat/Pool Photo via AP)
French President Emmanuel Macron's rise to power and policies are the subjects of a course introduced by the Sciences Po university. via AP

But French domestic political drama is spilling into the EU vote. At a national level, the Renaissance list – linked to Mr Macron’s La Republique en Marche party – is treading water in the 20-22 per cent polling range, neck-and-neck with the far-right party of Marine Le Pen.

The vote comes at a crucial time for Mr Macron. He narrowly escaped political lynching from the Gilet Jaunes movement over a fuel tax and he recently concluded a series of meetings with local municipalities to find a solution to the crisis.

According to Susi Dennison, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, the vote is “going to be a kind of referendum on how effective that consultation process was [and whether] he is meeting the concerns of the French people at this tense time”.

Mr Macron “is the figurehead of the progressive pro-European alliance” and, should Ms Le Pen’s party prevail, it risks being “seen as a symbolic victory for the anti-European forces”.

Current polls see ALDE in third place with 95 of the 751 seats, behind the conservative EPP and the socialist S&D.

Should Mr Macron land second place behind Ms Le Pen's party on election day, observers say he is likely to sack several ministers in a government reshuffle, including an uncharismatic lead candidate for the EU election, Nathalie Loiseau.

All roads lead to Rome

Italy is the thorn in the side of the European conservatives. For the first time, a founding member of the EU has become a majority Eurosceptic country and that raises the question of whether it will draw others into its fold.

This is precisely what Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister and leader of the far-right League party, is hoping to do. Ms Le Pen has thrown her weight behind Mr Salvini's pan-European right-wing bloc, the European Alliance of Peoples and Nations (EAPN), born out of the former Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF).

Italian Deputy Premier and Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, addresses a rally in Rome, Sunday, May 5, 2019. (Angelo Carconi/ANSA via AP)
Italian Deputy Premier and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini addresses a rally in Rome, Sunday, May 5, 2019. ANSA via AP

So far, the EAPN has garnered support from nationalist parties in Austria, Germany, Denmark, Estonia and Finland and is projected to be the fifth-largest group with 71 seats.

Its ranks do not include Poland’s Law and Justice party and Hungary’s Fidesz Party, both of which share ideological affinities with the EAPN on issues of migration and Euroscepticism but are wary of the League’s pro-Russia positions. They are instead aligned with the conservative EPP, dominated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and projected to win 171 – down from 221 in the 2014 elections.

But EPP's president Joseph Daul said earlier this month that if Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban continues to denigrate the EU he will be kicked out. Mr Orban’s party was suspended in March in a row over an anti-immigration poster campaign that featured unflattering photos of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

British Conservatives and the Spanish far-right Vox party are also likely allies who have so far stayed out of the group. They will instead join the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), a Eurosceptic, anti-federalist political group projected to occupy 63 seats at the European parliament. The group focuses on reforming the European Union, as opposed to its total rejection.

Pretty face of new populism

The rising star of the Netherlands’ right-wing front, Thierry Baudet, also looks set to send a strong Eurosceptic contingent to the European Parliament. Forum for Democracy (FvD) is now leading opinion polls ahead of centre-right Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

Mr Baudet is transforming the image of right-wing populism in the Netherlands, which has long been dominated by hate peddler Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom. The 36-year-old – handsome, humorous and well-educated – is offering voters a more palatable option.

In terms of policy, the party is equally Eurosceptic and anti-immigration, albeit less overtly Islamophobic than Mr Wilders’ had been.

Pieter Cleppe, head of the Brussels office at Open Europe, said Mr Baudet “has managed to convince some voters from the centre right that otherwise would never have voted for Geert Wilders”.

Beyond immigration, a selling point has been the opposition to climate change measures. "Thierry Baudet has been very strong in dismissing the policies aimed at tackling climate change which he thinks are more about taxation and the social democratic agenda. That's something Wilders had not been doing," Mr Cleppe told The National.

FvD is projected to win 12 per cent of Dutch votes thanks to a campaign focused on three themes: climate, migration and purchasing power.

The party announced it will join the ECR, despite being in favour of a referendum on “Nexit” – the Netherland’s exit from the EU.

The Dutch Christian Union (CU), already a member of the group, was displeased by the decision. The CU said that "both the CU and ECR take a critical approach to Europe, but our main objective is to reform the EU from within. Forum wants a Nexit, so it does not want to reform, it wants to break off." The CU also opposes the FvD's stance on migration and its pro-Russia attitude.

According to Mr Cleppe, the UK’s exit from the EU might end up pushing the populists closer. Should Britain withdraw its MEPs from Brussels after Brexit, the European Parliament would lose 73 seats and the ECR would lose its UK conservative ally.

“If British MEPs leave, it’s not out of the question that all populists will unite” under Mr Salvini’s alliance.

While this marriage of convenience might fray over international alliances, trade and even migration policies, they would be a force to be reckoned with. Should Europe need another wake-up call, this would be one the bloc could no longer ignore.