Europe faces a moment of truth in May. Voters will choose a new parliament, and far-right parties and populists could make big gains.
The European Parliament debating chamber in Strasbourg, France (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Far-right and populist parties could make big gains in elections to the European Parliament in May, threatening plans to bring the bloc’s nation states closer together.
With at least tacit support from U.S. President Donald Trump, the European parties have posted strong results in some national elections and have even entered some governments.
While they have some fundamental differences, they share strong opposition to immigration, anti-Muslim rhetoric, a distrust of European Union structures and a general suspicion of ruling elites and globalisation.
Exhibit A: Hungary’s far-right premier Viktor Orban called this month for the establishment of an anti-immigration axis of like-minded countries that could take over running the European Union from the centre-right bloc that has held sway for decades.
“I wish for Europe to have a political force that is to the right of the European People’s Party, a Rome-Warsaw axis that is capable of governing, capable of taking responsibility and opposed to immigration,” he said in a speech earlier this month, taking aim at the transnational centre-right party that dominates the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission.
Orban was echoing similar calls from Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who advocated a Rome-Warsaw axis to build a new anti-immigration Europe, and from Austria’s right-wing chancellor Sebastion Kurz.
The EU has been struggling with an influx of hundreds and thousands of immigrants fleeing war, poverty and persecution, mainly from Africa and the Middle East. While Mediterranean countries like Greece, Spain and Italy have complained they were shouldering most of the burden, central European states have refused to accept immigrant quotas ordered by Brussels.
Parliament could change the face of the EU.
On May 23, the 27 EU member states will vote for members of the European Parliament (MEPs), currently 751, for a further five years. The number of members is likely to change if, as expected, the United Kingdom leaves the EU.
While eurosceptics tend to dismiss the transnational parliament as a talking shop for well-paid politicians, it does have powers.
- The Parliament can amend laws coming from the EU Commission, which proposes legislation, implements decisions and manages the day-to-day business of the EU. The Parliament can hold the Commission to account and can force it to resign. The Commission is currently headed by President Jean-Claude Juncker, who comes from Luxembourg.
- It elects the president of the European Council, which is made up of heads of government of member states and which defines the EU’s overall political direction and priorities. Former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk is currently president of the European Council.
- It decides on the EU budget and influences how money is spent.
The new parties could form the second-largest bloc in the new Parliament after the EPP if they succeed in overcoming major political and ideological differences between them.
With key appointments to be made for a new Commission, Council president and head of the European Central Bank, a parliament with radically different ideas and ideals from those of the past could change the face of the EU.
A unified or divided Europe?
One of the likeliest targets of radical new parliamentarians is a programme of reforms of the EU advocated by French President Emmanuel Macron, which would see much closer integration of member states’ economies and finances.
Macron has called for the establishment of an EU finance minister, a joint budget of eurozone members, those using the euro currency, and the creation of a body to oversee economic policy throughout the bloc. He has also called for the creation of a European army to fill a gap created by Trump’s lukewarm support for NATO.
Macron’s proposals have received some support from Germany but are likely to be resisted by several eurozone countries that have struggled with debt and those that have not adopted the single currency.
Macron envisages the establishment of a two-speed Europe that would allow countries wanting further integration to press ahead while permitting others to remain with the status quo.
The vision is in stark contrast to one set out by Orban, who said there would be two civilisations in the EU — “one mixed Muslim-Christian in the west and one traditional, in central Europe.”
THREE QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
- What are the European Parliament’s powers?
- What does Hungary’s prime minister mean by the “Rome-Warsaw axis”?
- What are the arguments for and against tighter EU integration?
Colin McIntyre led Reuters coverage of the end of communism in Eastern Europe as chief correspondent in the region in the late 1980s. During 34 years at Reuters, he covered the last days of the Vietnam War and was posted to Indonesia, Ireland and London.