The most important European parliamentary elections in four decades — since direct elections were introduced in 1979 — will take place this week and the consequences remain extremely unpredictable. Voting takes place from 23 to 26 May, with the results announced on the last day, but it may well take many weeks more for the new balance of power to emerge.
It is not just the fact that the UK, which was supposed to have left the EU on 29 March, is still taking part. The delay of Brexit until 31 October, following deadlock in the UK parliament over the withdrawal agreement negotiated in Brussels, means that a full slate of 73 UK MEPs will be elected although it is uncertain how long they will remain.
For the rest of the continent, most of the media attention will be focused on the rise of nationalist-populist movements, largely on the right, and the fragmentation of traditional party politics in the other 27 member states.
That is equally true in the UK, where the Brexit shambles has seen support collapse for both the ruling Conservative party, in favour of the upstart Brexit party, and the Labour opposition, squeezed between the Brexiters and a string of anti-Brexit parties including the Liberal Democrats, Scottish and Welsh nationalists, and the Greens, as well as the newly-launched Change UK party formed by Labour and Conservative defectors.
Current poll predictions would see the nationalist insurgents, including the Brexit party in the UK, winning around one-third of the 751 seats in the parliament. The biggest contingents will come from France and Italy. If they succeed in joining forces as a single group in opposition to the pro-EU majority in the European parliament, they could cause severe disruption to the EU legislative process.
Yet that is by no means certain. The Eurosceptic and far-right parties in the parliament have been notoriously fractious, representing by definition primarily nationalist platforms. Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister and leader of the anti-immigration Lega, has been struggling to form a broad alliance. He appears to have Marine Le Pen’s National Rally from France on board plus the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and Geert Wilders’ PVV from the Netherlands.
They were all on the platform at a rally in Milan on Saturday, attended by several thousand supporters, many fewer than the 100,000 expected. And the whole event was overshadowed by a corruption scandal that has overwhelmed their Austrian ally, Heinz-Christian Strache of the Freedom party, forcing his resignation as vice-chancellor in the Austrian government.
Although they all agree on curbing immigration and the powers of Brussels, the insurgents disagree on free trade (Le Pen is a protectionist, the AfD for free markets), and on closer relations with Russia (one good reason why Nordic Eurosceptics and Poland’s PiS did not take part). They have failed to persuade Viktor Orban, Hungary’s self-professed ‘illiberal democrat’ prime minister, to bring his Fidesz party on board, but Salvini says he hopes to get Nigel Farage’s Brexit party to join.
The Eurosceptics are not the only ones who will pick up more seats. Both the liberal ALDE group (if they are joined by Emmanuel Macron’s LREM party) and the Greens/European Free Alliance (in which the Scottish National party sits) are expected to grow.
But all the polls agree on one thing: the two big pro-European political ‘families’ in the parliament — the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) — will both lose support. For the first time since 1979, they will not command a parliamentary majority between them. Instead of ruling with a de facto ‘grand coalition’, they will have to rely on the ALDE group, or the Greens, or both, to ensure the passage of EU legislation.
Two other factors could upset the pollsters’ predictions. One is the sheer volatility of the electorate. A YouGov poll in April for the European Council on Foreign Relations suggested that 100 million European voters were still undecided or as many as 70 per cent of those saying they would definitely vote. The second is turnout: there is a good chance that for the first time in 40 years, there will be an increase. The latest YouGov poll suggests that many voters are deeply concerned about the rise of nationalist forces in their countries and fear for the long-term survival of the EU.
As one of the three pillars of the EU legislative process, alongside the European Commission, which proposes legislation, and the Council, where the 28 member states meet as the ultimate decision-making body, the European parliament matters. It has been steadily growing in power and authority, forcing its way to the decision-making table on all budgetary matters, on trade deals, single market rules, environmental agreements and the like.
It also claims the right to decide on the next Commission president, as the lead candidate (Spitzenkandidat) of the biggest party that emerges from the coming election. That will be the first big test for the new parliament when it convenes on 2 July.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the outgoing president, was Spitzenkandidat for the EPP in 2014. In spite of the misgivings of several EU leaders, he got the job. Although the EPP is still expected to be the largest party, it may not be able to command enough votes to insist on Manfred Weber, its Bavarian Spitzenkandidat, to win this time round.
He has no previous government experience. He is not a popular candidate in the parliament, both because he lacks any government experience, and because he is seen as having been too close to Hungary’s Viktor Orban. Moreover, in the European Council, there is growing opposition to the Spitzenkandidat system, led by President Macron.
Over the longer term, the test will be on how the emerging parliamentary groups learn to cooperate. The Eurosceptics will happily cause as much confusion as possible to play to their domestic audiences.
It will certainly make the European parliament a less predictable player in EU politics — just when the union is facing a whole host of unresolved challenges: managing migration, stabilizing the eurozone, boosting employment, resolving the Brexit stalemate and halting climate change. With or without Brexit, it won’t be easy.