With less than two days until the vote begins, campaigns for competing visions for the future of the EU are in full swing. The 2019 European parliamentary election takes place in a climate of deep uncertainty about the stability of the Union and the direction of the European project. In the wake of Brexit, support for the EU among citizens of the remaining 27 countries is at an all-time high. At the same time, so-called Eurosceptic parties are predicted to make the greatest gains.
Since the last European elections in 2014, immigration and anti-immigration sentiment have touched every corner of the EU, and while research shows that concerns about immigration have fallen, following sharp drops in the volume of both conventional migration and refugees seeking asylum, the issue of immigration remains high on the political agenda for some European nations.
Eurosceptic nationalists blame the EU for the 2015 surge in refugee arrivals. Federalists argue only European cooperation can control migration. The interlinked issues of economic growth and unemployment top voters’ lists of concerns in countries hit hardest by the socio-economic woes of the last five years, but are less of a priority for citizens in countries that fared better.
It seems the only thing that voters from all 28 nations can agree on is the need to tackle climate change, the issue has shot up in voter opinion polls to become the standout issue of the 2019 elections.
Combating Climate Change
With over 200 natural disasters, predictions of global heating of between 3 and 4 degree Celsius by 2100, and widespread reporting that the Earth is officially experiencing a sixth mass extinction, 2018 has lifted climate breakdown and ecological crises to the forefront of voters’ concerns.
In a Europe-wide survey of EU voters, 43 percent of respondents agreed that “combating climate change and protecting the environment” was an issue they wanted to see given priority in electoral campaigns. Among the survey respondents who considered themselves “very likely” to vote in the upcoming election, climate and ecological crisis emerged the single most important across Europe as a whole.
Experts project the Green political group to gain control of five seats in the European parliament. For the German green party, the 2019 European elections could be a chance to build a momentum that culminates in the party reaching the critical mass required to form part of a coalition in the next German national election.
“For the Greens, it is important to convert good poll results into electoral success,” Cerstin Gammelin wrote in Suddeutsche Zeitung this May. “The party has been on the up for months; a decent European result will boost the party as it fights regional elections that offer the promise of coalition power.”
The climate issue is a greater priority in Sweden than anywhere else, with 79 percent of Swedish respondents highlighting it as a crucial issue for the 2019 elections. It is also the top issue for German voters and the second most important issue for French voters.
In September 2018, 15-year-old Swedish student Greta Thunberg began skipping class on Fridays to sit outside government buildings, accusing her country of not following the Paris Climate Agreement. Since then, young people all over Europe have been striking from school on Fridays to demonstrate in the streets. The Schools 4 Climate action has contributed to creating a global student protest movement aiming at driving world leaders into action on climate change, and in the process has raised the urgency of the issue in the minds of many EU voters.
“Climate issues have been around for a long time,” said Nicklas Kallebring, opinion analyst at international market research firm IPSOS, in an interview with Swedish newspaper DN, “but they have been lifted the last year by drought, fires and the demonstrations of young people.”
Economics and Labor Security
“Economy and growth” is the most-cited in Italy, according to the most recent Eurobarometer survey. As expected, the issue remains a major political priority for the nations which have endured the greatest economic turbulence in recent years — Greece, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Cyprus, Croatia, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Slovakia and Latvia. “Youth unemployment” is the most-commonly listed primary issue for voters in both Spain and France.
In France, both the far-left and far-right parties are campaigning with policies of economic protectionism. Alexandre Lemarie of French newspaper Le Monde writes that far-left party La France Insoumise supports “solidarity protectionism” for the European Union, and has even proposed a “kilometric carbon tax” — the further the product is shipped, the more it is taxed. Other parties support at carbon tax at the EU border, while the two most popular French parties, Macron’s centrist liberal En Marche and the Republican Party (LR), support U.S.-style protectionism that favors European and French products and awarding of public contracts.
Nationalism and Euroscepticism
As nationalism and right-wing populism have gained sway in national politics across Europe, these ideologies and their proponents are expected to influence overall results in the European elections. Eurosceptic political groups in the European parliament are expected to do well in 2019, with Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) and Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) projected to gain four and 25 seats respectively. The projected numbers for the far-right EFF represent the highest gain for any political group, both in relative and absolute terms.
Mark Leonard, a seasoned EU observer and director of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) has said that “anti-European parties are gaining strength and could paralyze the EU.” A recent study by ECFR predicts such groups will do well in this year’s European elections, enabling them to “frustrate activity, undermine the security and defense of Europe and ultimately sow discord that could destroy the EU over time.”
What will the impacts of this influence be on Europe as a whole? Success in the European elections could be used by Europe’s nationalists as springboard for success in national elections, the ECFR says. “Their greatest impact on the elections might be on a wave of national elections in Denmark, Estonia and Slovakia this year, which could bring nationalists to power as coalition partners, frustrating the work of the European Council.”
In Italy, a nationalist-populist coalition which took power on an anti-immigration platform after last year’s Italian election. One of the coalition parties, the right-wing League party, has formed an alliance for the upcoming European elections with far-right parties in Germany, Denmark and Finland: Alternative for Germany (AfD), the Finns Party and the Danish People’s Party.
Each of the far-right parties campaigning in the European elections shares a stance hostile to immigration. Although the issue has lost significant attention since the last European elections in 2014, and is still trending downwards as a priority compared to 2018, for Italy it ranked on equal footing with economy and growth, with 62 percent of Italian voters responding that the issue was an election priority for them.
Some 50 million Britons can vote on May 23, although there is a chance that the 73 lawmakers they elect may not get a chance to sit in the European Parliament. The European election in Britain is seen by many as a referendum on Brexit, an opportunity for voters to be heard on the issue as the debate continues on how, and whether, to leave.
The UK is legally obliged to participate in the European elections, unless it approves a Withdrawal Agreement by May 22 — unlikely given that there is now less than 24 hours left before that deadline. Nigel Farage’s brand-new Brexit Party was launched just two months ago, but is topping European election opinion polls at around 30 percent and higher. Nigel Farage’s previous party, UKIP, is credited with pressuring the UK government into holding the Brexit referendum in 2016.
With Brexit now scheduled for Oct. 31 at the latest, some EU analysts have argued for a delay in key parliamentary appointments, including the next president of the European Commission, to avoid calling into question the legitimacy of both the president and the approval process. According to London-based think tank The UK in a Changing Europe, should a candidate be approved or rejected by a slim margin, the 73 British MEPs could be decisive in determining the outcome.
Against the background of a drawn-out Brexit, EU sentiments among citizens of the other 27 EU nations have polarized. While Britain’s exit has emboldened some Eurosceptic campaigns, the expected surge in votes for Eurosceptic parties contrasts with a higher-than-ever approval rating for the EU. An estimated 61 percent of Europeans believe their country’s membership of the EU is a good thing, and 68 percent said they believed their country has benefited from EU membership.