The European Parliament is holding elections in May. However, the normally staid procedure is of outsized importance this year, in the wake of growing populist discontent, coupled with the exit of one of the Bloc’s Member States. This year’s election, therefore, has been referred to as a sort of referendum on the entire European project.
The European Parliament is part of the EU governing body, and its only directly elected institution. It acts as kind of a check on the governments of member countries, countering criticism that the EU is driven by elites. Although the EU body is mostly known for its role in crafting legislation, the Parliament’s purview, in fact, spans much further. It has veto authority over EU trade agreements, has the power to endorse or reject a Brexit deal, is responsible for approving the EU’s 140 billion euro spending plan, and is also in charge of approving the leadership of the European Commission. Most importantly, for the matter at hand, is the understanding that the European Parliament serves as a barometer for public opinion, and can agitate for actions, via national governments or the Commission, in both external and domestic affairs.
While elections to the body are held every 5 years, this year’s election is the first to be held since a member decided to quit the union. According to recent surveys, most citizens (62 per cent) regard being in the EU as a good thing, and 68% believe their nation has actively benefited from the arrangement. However, many EU citizens also look at Brussels with suspicion, and turn more attention to national political personalities.
Populism and Euroscepticism
The total 751 members of Parliament represent the 500 million citizens of the European Union, although that number will be reduced to 705 once the UK exits the EU. While it is a known fact that Britain’s exit destabilizes the Union, assuming the UK completed its withdrawal by the March 29th deadline, many of its Eurosceptic representatives will no longer have a voice in Parliament – leaving a potentially more united institution in their wake. However, should Brexit be delayed, Britain would hold elections along with the rest of Europe – thereby providing representatives to a body the British people have ultimately voted to withdraw from.
Countries like Italy, Hungary, and Poland have had a series of disputes with Brussels, notably over migration policy, rule of law, funding for welfare policy, and other issues that have encouraged the growth of nationalist, Eurosceptic parties – both in national elections, and in the upcoming Europe-wide run. Eurosceptic parties are expected to do well this election season – which could lead to an internally sabotaged mess, or even total legislative paralysis, if sufficient Eurosceptic parties are voted in. This may result if parties like Salvini’s League, and Le Pen’s National Rally win enough seats to form an anti-EU bloc in the assembly.
France’s populist protest yellow jackets also plan to form their own party, to stand for European elections, and Hungarian PM, Viktor Orban, hopes to help elect an anti-immigrant majority bloc to the EU Parliament. Salvini, already in cooperation with Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, similarly hopes to unite with his party’s Polish counterpart to spark a new “European Spring”, with his sights set on replacing the current influence of Germany and France.
Meanwhile, France and Germany recently signed a new friendship treaty.
“We are preparing a new equilibrium and new energy in Europe and Poland and Italy, [which] absolutely, will lead this new European spring,” said Salvini. “We have a new plan for Europe (…) I’m not sure whether we share a common destiny, but we are working on it. The Franco-German axis may be replaced by an Italian-Polish axis.”
“I don’t have a crystal ball, but the goal is to become the second largest movement, maybe the first (…) in the next European Parliament elections,” he added.
Law and Justice Party spokeswoman, Beata Mazurek, said on Twitter that talks between Salvini and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the powerful leader of the governing right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, “opened the way for further contacts on speeding up the development of EU countries and providing the EU with an appropriate and strong position on a global scale”.
Complicating this potential alliance, is the fact that Poland’s Law and Justice Party has been trying to soften its Eurosceptic positions, especially in the face of Polish (and general European) distrust of Moscow, in contrast to Salvini’s warm feelings towards Russia.
“Salvini is one of the most openly pro-Kremlin leaders in Europe (…) [while] Kaczynski has been trying to show PiS’s pro-EU face recently,” said Michal Baranowski, the head of the German Marshall Fund’s Warsaw office. “Some of the views in Italy regarding Russia are met with concern in Poland across the political spectrum.”
Apprehension across Europe increased when the USA pulled out of the INF treaty, removing a crucial piece of Europe’s security architecture, and potentially kicking off an arms race between Russia and the USA, with Europe caught in the middle.
Deepening integration of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) has become a cornerstone of the debate regarding the future of the European project. Launched in 1992, the EMU refers to the policies that are put in place – at an economic and fiscal level – to drive convergence of EU Member States in three stages, including both the 19 eurozone members, as well as non-euro states.
While the European Union materialised an unprecedented number of reforms in the aftermath of the eurozone debt crisis, to restore financial stability on the one hand, and increase confidence in the financial system on the other; many of the Union’s vulnerabilities – that were underlined during the crisis – remain.
The last Euro Summit of 2018 (14 December), posed significant progress within the scope of eurozone reform, following the group’s decision to create a eurozone budget. However, the details of this agreement will not be decided until June – after the European Parliamentary elections. The budget could ultimately become a strategic step towards the creation of a fiscal union – something Member States remain heavily divided on.
The completion of the Banking Union and the Capital Markets Union are now considered crucial steps forward. However, Germany has opposed the creation of the final pillar of the Banking Union – a European-wide deposit guarantee system – which would act as a type of insurance that would protect depositors’ savings.
In late January, European Central Bank President, Mario Draghi, made an impassioned plea before the European Parliament, to strengthen the eurozone by completing pending reforms in the Banking Union and Capital Markets Union. The result, explained Draghi, would be increased unity within the euro area, as well as a strengthening of the currency beyond EU borders – something instrumental in retaining the Bloc’s sovereignty.
“Standing together within the Economic and Monetary Union allowed us to retain sovereignty that would otherwise be lost by individual countries, in a highly integrated world economy,” he said. “Our togetherness represents a unique competitive advantage, and we should capitalise on this.”
“Today, most challenges are global, and can be addressed only together. It is this ‘togetherness’ that magnifies the ability of individual countries to retain sovereignty over the relevant matters, sovereignty that would otherwise be lost in this global world.” With regard to promoting Europe abroad, he added, “In a world with deep economic and financial interlinkages, international cooperation is essential, and we can more effectively promote European ideas and interests by speaking together.”
During celebrations of the anniversary of the euro, European Parliament President, Antonio Tajani, said that it was clear that effective instruments to boost investment, support the real economy, and foster social and regional convergence, were still lacking, and that the European Parliament had a budget set aside to tackle these issues. In his address to Parliament, Tajani also stated that he remained convinced that the euro project “was the right approach.”
Going Carbon Neutral
Europe also has ambitious goals to reduce its carbon footprint, in a bid to address global climate change, starting with cutting greenhouse emissions 20 per cent by 2020, 40 per cent by 2030, and going fully carbon neutral by 2050. These goals require a massive integration of renewable energy, along with a reduction of energy consumption. Nonetheless, the implementation of EU carbon reduction targets relies on the full cooperation of absolutely all member states – no one country can achieve this alone. National governments have until the end of 2019 to draft their own plans to comply with the EU’s ambitious climate-change goals.
Addressing climate change is of top urgency among member states. In Brussels, a 70,000 strong march demanded that the EU do more to combat global climate change. It was the fourth such rally in two months to gather more than 10,000 participants. Climate change legislation has also passed in Spain and Cyprus. Meanwhile, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, and Sweden have co-signed a joint letter addressed to EU Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete, calling for “a clear direction” towards net-zero emissions.
Ultimately, it is believed that addressing climate change will help Europe address inequality – which is a main source of discontent that fuels nationalism and Euroscepticism. Creating new opportunities in new industries is something Spain, in particular, has sought to address.
However, EU members remain divided on the strategy forward. Germany has opposed the imposition of higher targets for CO2 emissions on cars; Poland is still reliant on coal-fired power stations, and the yellow jacket protests in France were kicked off by the government’s attempt to raise taxes on motor vehicles – a tax that has since been reverted.
It is clear that the EU is far from perfect. Nevertheless, it is also a dynamic, democratic project that allows each member state to have an outsize impact via cooperation. Whether it comes to finance or climate change, the best chance the continent has is to hang together. To do that, the continents’ citizens need to come together too, including at the ballot box this May.