The other big election

Voters across 28 European Nations will choose their representatives amid a surge of populism and against the backdrop of Brexit 

By Author  |  Published: 19th May 2019  12:32 am
big election
British Green Party MP Caroline Lucas (left) poses in front of their electric-powered Stop Brexit campaign bus with supporters during a European Parliament election campaign in Brighton, southeast England. Photo: AFP

Voting in India’s longest general elections ever is set to culminate with the seventh and last phase of voting ending today. While we eagerly await the results on May 23, another massive exercise in democracy — a multi-national ballot — gets under way in Europe on the same day. About 400 million Europeans from 28 countries will vote from May 23 to May 26 to choose lawmakers to represent them at the European Parliament (EP) — European Union’s only democratically elected institution — for the next five years.

Europe’s voting marathon kicks off on May 23 in the Netherlands and in Britain — if the UK is still an EU member by then. UK’s failure to secure a Brexit deal has left it in the bizarre position of needing to field candidates despite its planned departure from the EU. Voters in Ireland turn out the following day. Those in the Czech Republic, Latvia, Malta and Slovakia vote on May 25 and the remaining 21 EU nations cast their ballots on May 26.

This election is generating a lot of interest. The surge of populism across Europe is being felt as anti-Euro parties intend to create trouble from inside the EP. EU citizens vote for the candidates or parties of their country of origin or residence. The minimum age is 18 except in Austria and Malta (where it’s 16) and Greece (where it’s 17). Voting is compulsory in Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece and Luxembourg.

Powers of European Parliament

Voters in each EU nation choose some of the 751 lawmakers in the EP, which sits in both Brussels and Strasbourg, France. This number would be reduced to 705 seats if Britain approves Brexit before the elections.

Seats in the EP are given proportionally based on a nation’s population. Economic indicators or size of the territory don’t matter. Cyprus, Luxembourg and Malta have the fewest seats with six each, while the EU’s most populous member, Germany, has 96 seats. France has 74 and UK 73. The results will be released on May 26 after the last polling station is closed.

Voting processes vary from one country to another. In Ireland, the voters rank the candidates, as many or as few as they wish, in order of choice, while in France they will vote for a party and not for individual candidates. Bulgarians can indicate their candidate preferences within the party list they choose and Estonian citizens can vote online.

The EP’s powers are slowly growing. It has helped improve air flight safety in Europe, cut down the use of plastics, end mobile telephone roaming charges within the bloc, boost data privacy, set climate change ambitions and reduce carbon dioxide emissions from cars. The EP also has a say in treaties ranging from trade talks to Brexit.

Along with the European Council that represents the member states, the EP formulates the EU budget (€165.8 billion in 2019) and legislates on important issues ranging from food standards to LGBT rights. In March, the EP voted in a new law banning single-use plastic items like plates and cutlery by 2021.

The EU’s powerful executive arm, the European Commission, proposes laws while EU lawmakers amend and negotiate their content with national governments, which are the real front of European power and are represented by the EU Council.

Often, the big impact of the EU elections is on the domestic politics of individual EU nations, like support in Britain for the anti-Europe UK Independence Party in 2014 or the massive gains in France by Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front party. The polls are also used by disgruntled citizens to cast protest votes against their own national governments.

Election Issues 

How Europe handles migration is a very significant concern for voters in Italy, Hungary, Poland, etc. Economic concerns often influence voters, and Britain’s future in the EU looks like being a factor again.

An EU survey of public sentiment in April found that voters were most concerned about the economy, unemployment, immigration, the environment and climate change, terrorism and promoting human rights, democracy and social welfare.

Once elected, members are organised by transnational groups that reflect their political affiliation. The current parliament has eight groups. The most recent projections from April 18 suggest that the center-right European People’s Party will remain the biggest bloc in the EP with an estimated 180 seats, dropping from 217 seats in 2014. The center-left Socialists and Democrats group is also expected to lose ground, sliding from 186 seats to 149.

Among other mainstream parties, the liberal ALDE alliance is expected to capture 76 seats, eight more than in 2014, while the Greens could rank fourth with some 57 seats, up from 52. However, the liberals now appear set to create a new group with French President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist party.

As for the far-right and nationalists, the Europe of Nations and Freedom group, which combines parties like Italy’s League, Britain’s UKIP and France’s far-right National Rally, is predicted to win 62 seats, compared to 37 currently. New parties such as the Brexit Party in Britain are listed as ‘other’ in a mixed bunch that is forecast to expand from 21 seats to 62. The party with the largest number of seats appoints the president of the European Commission.

Populist and nationalist parties have found rising support in national elections in many EU countries, but their pan-European impact would depend on whether they can form a strong political group in Brussels. That certainly is their goal. Italy’s hardline interior minister, Matteo Salvini, head of the League party, is trying to put together a populist group of national parties that he says aims to fundamentally shake up EU politics.

big election
British Green Party MP Caroline Lucas (left) poses in front of their electric-powered Stop Brexit campaign bus
with supporters during a European Parliament election campaign in Brighton, southeast England. Photo: AFP

After the Elections

Forming such a group is not easy — 25 lawmakers are required, with at least one-quarter of the EU’s 28 nations represented — but it’s important because it opens up valuable access to EU funds and political influence. Beginning on May 27, the newly elected EU lawmakers will start haggling to form parliamentary groups.

The present European Parliament’s term ends July 1 and the new parliament will take their seats in Strasbourg the following day. At the first plenary on July 2, they will elect the president, 14 vice-presidents and five other senior officials in the House, as well as decide on the number and composition of parliamentary committees.

Between July and October, the assembly is called on to endorse those candidates, notably the new president of the European Commission. Parliamentary hearings will then begin to confirm EU commissioners in charge of specific policies.

Brexit Hanging

Brexit or ‘British exit’ from the EU was cleared through a public referendum on June 23, 2016, with the Leave side winning by nearly 48% to 52%. Since then, negotiations have been on between the UK and the other EU countries on the terms of the exit and what happens thereafter. Disagreements over the deal, also known as the Withdrawal Agreement, have pushed back the actual exit scheduled on March 29, 2019.

The key issues that need to be sorted out include the amount of money the UK needs to pay the EU in order to break the partnership, status of UK citizens living in other EU nations and EU citizens living in the UK, and avoiding the return of a physical border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland when it becomes the frontier between the UK and the EU

The deal was agreed by the UK and the EU in November 2018, but the British MPs who need to approve it have voted against it three times, the most recent being on March 29. The new deadline is October 31, though the UK can leave before if the prime minister can get Parliament’s nod. But a failure to do so opens options ranging from leaving the EU without a deal or even the Brexit being cancelled entirely.

The government had been talking with the Labour to arrive at an elusive consensus so as to get enough votes in parliament. The latest round of talks between May and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn broke down last Friday with Corbyn stating that “we have been unable to bridge important policy gaps between us.”

Irish Border

The biggest sticking point is over what happens at the Irish border. The boundary on the island of Ireland between Northern Ireland — part of the UK — and the Republic of Ireland is currently invisible. London, Brussels, Dublin and Belfast all want it to stay that way. However, making this compatible with Brexit is a circle yet to be squared since after the UK leaves, the Irish border will become an EU external frontier.

The British government aims to leave the EU’s customs union and single market, meaning checks would be required on products coming in and out. Britain, Ireland and the EU have pledged to avoid any physical infrastructure, or ‘hard border’. Many also fear it could upset the delicate peace process that ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

The EU proposed a ‘backstop’ in the draft deal that envisaged keeping Northern Ireland as part of the bloc’s single market and customs union, meaning it would have to accept EU rules on quality standards and apply EU tariffs.

May’s Conservative minority government is propped up by the Democratic Unionists (DUP), Northern Ireland’s pro-British and pro-Brexit party. Many Conservative MPs and the DUP say the proposal was unacceptable. They argue it would effectively carve off Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK and create a border in the Irish Sea. While the DUP will not accept Northern Ireland following trade rules set by the EU, European states will not agree to any arrangement that undermines the EU’s cherished single market.