Why European Parliament Elections Suddenly Matter

(Bloomberg) -- Elections for the European Parliament used to be dull affairs. This time is different. The continent-wide vote May 23-26 is shaping up to be something of a referendum on the whole 60-year European Union experiment, in part because it will come in the wake of Britain’s planned departure from the bloc. The ramifications from this expected clash of values and policies will extend far beyond the assembly itself, with ripple effects on other European institutions and on national politics.

1. How is it that Europe’s future will be on the ballot?

In many countries, the role of the EU now dominates domestic politics too. And for the first time, there’s a real possibility that anti-EU parties could win enough seats to disrupt legislative business rather than just rail against it, as Nigel Farage of the U.K., Marine Le Pen of France and Matteo Salvini of Italy have done. Emmanuel Macron, who defeated Le Pen in the 2017 French presidential election, says the upcoming contest is a choice for or against Europe. The political cross-currents flared in early February when France withdrew its ambassador to Italy, where Salvini is deputy prime minister, over alleged Italian meddling in French domestic affairs.

Why European Parliament Elections Suddenly Matter

2. Which are the anti-EU parties?

Particular attention will be on Salvini’s League and Le Pen’s National Rally parties to see if they manage to form a bigger anti-EU faction in the European Parliament. Traditionally, euroskeptic forces have been divided and failed to form a single bloc in the assembly. In any case, most candidates will run under the mantle of domestic parties that are part of European political families, like Christian Democrats (home of German Chancellor Angela Merkel) or Socialists (encompassing the party of Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez). This facilitates the forming of alliances in the EU Parliament after each election. In anticipation of that post-ballot power play, Salvini has tried to unite nationalist forces across EU countries including Poland under a common program, while Macron’s “Republic on the Move” party has chosen to campaign in a coalition with Europe’s Liberal political family.

3. What do the anti-EU parties want?

Generally, they’ve moved away from rhetoric about destroying the EU to insisting on taming it, for instance by restoring internal borders. Steve Bannon, the onetime chief political strategist of U.S. President Donald Trump, has set up a Brussels-based organization called The Movement to provide polling support to populist parties that favor national sovereignty and immigration curbs.

4. Have voters had enough of the EU?

The European Parliament conducted surveys last year on citizens’ attitudes toward the EU and found that more people than ever -- 62 percent -- regard their country’s membership of the bloc to be a good thing. An even higher percentage -- 68 percent -- believe their nation has benefited as a result. On the other hand, many EU citizens view lawmakers and bureaucrats in Brussels with suspicion and pay much more attention to national personalities. In the last EU legislative election, in 2014, voter turnout hit a record low of 42.6 percent, comparable to previous midterm U.S. congressional elections.

5. How does the ballot work?

All 705 seats in the next European Parliament will be contested across the EU, with most member nations functioning as single constituencies. While the assembly’s size has grown over the years as the EU expanded to more than 500 million people, the U.K.’s planned withdrawal on March 29 will reduce the number of seats from the current 751. Each country has a share proportionate to its population; some nations might also hold national or regional elections at the same time. The twice-a-decade vote is one of the biggest democratic exercises on Earth. Within each country, seats are awarded to parties according to the proportion of votes, a system that paves the way for insurgent national groups to harvest protest ballots.

6. What is the European Parliament, exactly?

It’s like the lower house of a bicameral legislative branch -- the EU’s version of the U.S. House of Representatives or the U.K. House of Commons. In the EU case, however, the upper house isn’t an assembly of individuals but rather the governments of member countries. The European Parliament helps govern the EU as its only directly elected institution, countering criticism that the bloc is a project driven by elites. The assembly grew out of a body that dated back to the 1952 European Coal and Steel Community, the EU’s precursor, with members being appointed by the bloc’s national parliaments before the first direct elections took place in 1979.

7. What are its powers?

It decides on the EU’s 140 billion-euro ($159 billion) annual spending plan and crafts European laws on everything from banker bonuses and electricity flows to car emissions and e-cigarettes. It approves the leadership of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm. It has veto authority over EU trade agreements and -- crucially -- will have the right to endorse or reject the Brexit divorce deal. It also passes resolutions and organizes hearings on issues of public interest. While lacking a serious role in traditional foreign-policy matters, the body also acts as a barometer of public opinion in Europe and can agitate for action by the commission and national governments in external as well as domestic affairs.

8. Does it ever make front-page news?

The EU Parliament came of age politically in 1999 when it forced the resignation of the entire European Commission leadership team under then-President Jacques Santer because of a scandal affecting France’s appointee. Since then, it has continued to gain legislative powers through European constitutional changes and political clout through assertiveness. The last two commission presidents have been forced to make changes to their leadership teams as a result of Parliament objections to individual nominees. On the legislative front more recently, the assembly successfully agitated for a proposal -- still being debated -- to end the biannual seasonal clock change in Europe.

9. How does Brexit fit in?

The impact of this historic event on the European ballot taking place less than two months later may depend on whether Britain departs in an orderly fashion. Some say the current political paralysis in the U.K. over Brexit is a boon for pro-EU forces. In any case, Europe’s mainstream parties have been busy laying out an agenda for the EU after Brexit in a bid to highlight the bloc’s resilience and capacity for deeper integration.

10. What if, come late May, the U.K. is still in the EU?

That would pose a tricky test because EU law requires every member country to have representatives in the European Parliament. The matter is as political as it is legal, with the options boiling down to the U.K. and the rest of the EU ignoring the letter of the law for expediency, or Britain filling its 73 seats and the bloc postponing the planned reduction in the European assembly’s size until Brexit actually happens. Either scenario would create a good deal of awkwardness.

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