LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - The European Parliament is limbering up for its least irrelevant election. Voters in the European Union – which still includes the United Kingdom – started heading to the polls on Thursday in the latest iteration of continent-wide democracy.
French President Emmanuel Macron says it’s the most important election since 1979, when the representatives who shuttle between Brussels and Strasbourg were directly elected for the first time. He’s right, though that’s not a high bar. European elections are typically an opportunity for a minority of EU citizens to signal dissatisfaction with their domestic leaders: Less than 43% of eligible voters marked their ballots in 2014. Even if turnout increases this year, home issues are set to dominate. Even so, when the results are revealed on Sunday evening they will reverberate in Brussels and in national capitals. Breakingviews explains why.
Right-wing and eurosceptic groups have long been represented in the 751-seat parliament. This year, however, nationalist groups are hoping to capitalise on the anti-establishment wave that has swept the continent in the past three years. Led by the likes of Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, the parties are taking their anti-elite message to the heart of the EU.
Mindful of the United Kingdom’s difficulties in leaving the bloc, most parties no longer explicitly advocate quitting the EU or dumping the euro. Nevertheless, their demand that power be returned to member states represents a direct challenge to the integrationist impulse that has guided the EU for most of its 62-year history.
Not that much. Even if anti-establishment groups gain seats they will be outnumbered by the centre-right and centre-left groups that have historically controlled more than half the parliament’s seats. Even if the upstarts capture more than a quarter of the assembly, it’s far from clear that parties which advocate putting their countries first can work together at the European level. Salvini’s League and the 5-Star Movement, which are coalition partners in Italy, are members of different groups in the European Parliament. Besides, the parliament’s powers remain constrained. Responsibility for initiating new rules rests with the European Commission, though parliamentarians debate and modify legislation. The parliament also approves the commission’s new president and the EU budget. Any coalition hoping to veto one of these decisions would need the help of at least one of the more mainstream groups. However, a strong performance by the eurosceptics could ramp up pressure on the commission to loosen its stringent budget rules.
Not quite. The parliament has long demanded a greater say in determining the commission’s top jobs. In 2014, groups in the assembly appointed lead candidates – the so-called Spitzenkandidaten – on the understanding that the candidate from the largest party would be installed as president of the commission. That propelled Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker into the job.
However, that informal system may not survive in 2019. The centre-right European People’s Party, currently the largest group, has anointed its German chairman Manfred Weber. But if it loses ground to fringe parties, as polls currently suggest, his claim will be diminished. That could clear the way for Europe’s member states to install someone like Michel Barnier, the French commissioner currently overseeing Brexit – or even an outsider like Christine Lagarde, the French head of the International Monetary Fund.
The choice of president will in turn determine who ends up leading the European Council, which brings together the heads of the member states. It could indirectly also influence the choice of head of the European Central Bank. Big countries like Germany and France will expect to have a representative in each of those jobs. If the French get the top commission job, Germany might push Jens Weidmann, the hawkish president of the Bundesbank, to lead the ECB.
In some countries, a lot. The prime focus is the United Kingdom, which was forced to participate after extending its EU membership to October. The prospect of voting for parliamentarians who may never take their seats has turned the election into a poll on EU membership. Nigel Farage’s newly formed Brexit Party is projected to capture about 30% of the seats by luring voters from the ruling Conservative party. That could encourage the Conservatives to pick a new prime minister who favours a harder Brexit than the one advocated by Theresa May. But a good showing by explicitly pro-EU parties will also strengthen the case for a second Brexit referendum.
In Italy, meanwhile, the vote will provide the first real test of the relative popularity of the members of the ruling coalition, which took power a year ago. If Salvini’s League does well, he may seek to take advantage by pushing for an early general election. In France, the vote will be a test of Macron’s political resilience after months of sometimes violent protests, and could determine the fate of his prime minister, Edouard Philippe. In Poland, it will be a barometer of a liberal resurgence against the ruling Law and Justice party.
The election seems set to make the assembly more vocal, and messier. The arrival of more delegates whose preference is to dismantle the body will be a challenge. Nevertheless, the EU is also overdue some more democratic representation. “The fundamental question for the future of this European Union structure is to ensure it is democratic,” Manfred Weber recently told Breakingviews. If the parliament directs some of the anti-establishment energy into a more positive direction, it may be even less irrelevant when voters next head to the polls in 2024.
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