January 2, 2019 / 10:48 AM / 17 days ago

Breakingviews - EU rebels will lay siege to Brussels

MILAN (Reuters Breakingviews) - European Union rebels will lay siege to Brussels in 2019. Voters across the bloc will go to the polls in May to choose a new European Parliament. Simmering anti-elite sentiment and disenchantment with EU rules are expected to give nationalist parties a bigger voice. Sceptics could even infiltrate the European Commission.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban delivers a speech during a debate on the situation in Hungary at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, September 11, 2018.

The election is shaping up to be the most important since parliamentary delegates were first chosen by direct universal vote in 1979. Though the assembly will shrink to 705 seats from 751 following Britain’s departure, its clout in shaping the EU has been growing.

In contrast with its initial role as a consultative body, the parliament – along with the backing of member states – must now approve EU legislation, such as 2014 rules for winding down banks, or upcoming money-laundering controls. The assembly can also reject the European Commission president, giving it a big say in choosing Jean-Claude Juncker’s successor.

The assembly has traditionally been dominated by Europhile groups like the centre-right European People’s Party and the centre-left Progressive Alliance to Socialists and Democrats. Though eurosceptics such as the French National Front and UK Independence Party have long sent representatives to Brussels and Strasbourg, they have been fragmented and largely irrelevant.

This could change in 2019. Far-right parties including Germany’s Alternative fuer Deutschland and the Sweden Democrats have tapped into anti-immigration sentiment to score electoral gains at home. Italy’s governing coalition partners, the League and 5-Star Movement, have a combined 60 percent in opinion polls despite openly clashing with Brussels about the country’s budget.

Established anti-EU parties and new ones such as Hungary’s xenophobic Jobbik and Poland’s anti-establishment Kukiz’15 could collectively take around 25 percent of the seats in the next European Parliament, according to a Breakingviews analysis of national opinion polls tracked by pollofpolls.eu, a website. Throw in Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party and some left-wing radicals, and eurosceptic MEPs could control close to the one-third of the seats required for a blocking minority.

Anti-European voices may also be heard in the Commission, which drafts EU laws. Each member state sends one delegate, with portfolios carved up through horse-trading. Italy, Poland and Hungary, for instance, may dispatch candidates who echo their governments’ nationalist approach.

The rebels may struggle to form a common front, though. In the parliament, nationalist and other eurosceptic parties are split between three different groups. They often disagree on issues like curbing immigration or budget rules. The same is true for the Commission, which tends to take decisions collectively or by majority voting. Two or three dissenting voices could not significantly alter the Commission’s course, though they could water down legislative proposals.

European institutions can probably withstand an insurgency of eurosceptics. Nevertheless, the elections will be another test of public confidence in the 70-year-old European project.

- This is a Breakingviews prediction for 2019. To see more of our predictions, click reut.rs/2R6H5pG

Breakingviews

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