Europeans are becoming more and more worried by the day. With US President Donald Trump dismantling the fundamentals of the multilateral system and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, conducting a large-scale misinformation campaign designed to undermine European political systems, the European Parliament (EP) election scheduled for May 2019 might seem like a relatively minor concern. The EP is, after all, only one of the European Union’s governing bodies and, in many ways, the least powerful of them. In its legislative role, the institution cooperates with the Council of the EU and bases its work on proposals from the European Commission. And, despite having the ability to pass resolutions on a wide range of subjects, the EP has no formal role in foreign policy.
Unfortunately for beleaguered internationalist Europeans, the election really does matter. The vote could see a group of nationalist anti-European political parties that advocate a return to a “Europe of the Nations” win a controlling share of seats in the EP. With anti-Europeans on their way to winning more than one-third of seats in the next European Parliament, the stakes in the May 2019 election are unusually high. While there are significant divides between them on substance, anti-European parties could align with one another tactically in support of a range of ideas: from abolishing sanctions on Russia to blocking the EU’s foreign trade agenda, to pulling the drawbridge up against migration.
This would put at risk Europe’s capacity to defend its citizens from external threats at exactly the time when, given global turmoil, it needs to show more resolve, cooperation, and global leadership. Consequently, underestimating the importance of this election could have a very high cost for liberal internationalists across the EU. In the battle for EP seats, turnout will be critical in determining how anti-European forces fare. If nationalist parties marshal the clearest, loudest, arguments, and significant numbers of anti-Europeans turn out to vote, the views of Europe’s silent majority will be drowned out in the new parliament. And, regardless of whether anti-European parties increase their share of EP seats, the battle of ideas that they are launching looks set to reshape Europe’s political landscape for years to come.
The battle of ideas in which Europeans are engaged will doubtlessly continue after the EP election. But the result of the May 2019 contest will largely set the boundaries of this battle for years to come. The key battles in May 2019 will take place in Germany, France, Italy, Poland, and Spain, which collectively account for more than 50 percent of EP seats. Nonetheless, preserving a pro-European majority in the EU in the medium and long term will require hampering the rise of nationalists elsewhere, from Sweden and the Netherlands to Estonia and Croatia. In this sense, pro-Europeans from all EU member states have no time to lose.
EU heads of state and government plan to adopt a new document on the future of Europe at an informal summit in Sibiu, Romania, in May 2019. And there are European leaders who occasionally signal a possible opening, as with Juncker’s recent expression of support for European unemployment insurance. But these efforts are insufficient given the task at hand. To that end, pro-European parties and groupings should realise that the fight is now under way. If they allow Eurosceptics to seize the initiative and frame the discussion, and gain further political momentum at home, this will be a strategic error they cannot recover from.
‚The 2019 European Election: How Anti-Europeans Plan to Wreck Europe and What Can Be Done to Stop It‘ – Study by Susi Dennison and Pawel Zerka – European Council on Foreign Relations / ECFR.