Monday 17 June 2019

As populism takes hold, Euro parliament vote has never been so important

‘Illiberal democrat’: Populists like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban are eyeing up European Parliament elections. Photo: Reuters
‘Illiberal democrat’: Populists like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban are eyeing up European Parliament elections. Photo: Reuters

Mary Fitzgerald

And they're off. With the most critical European Parliament elections of the body's lifetime due to take place in May, the first weeks of 2019 have seen opening gambits by populists determined to sway the ballot.

From Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini to Hungary's "illiberal democrat" Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Europe's populists have been stressing just how important they believe this election - due less than two months after Brexit - will be.

The European Parliament has long suffered a kind of ignominy in the eyes of mainstream political parties on the continent, treated as either a training ground for neophytes before they were whisked back to the national stage, or a comfortable retirement home for those in the twilight years of their political careers.

Those who have taken it more seriously were, ironically, those on the populist far-right and the far-left who shared not only a common Euroscepticism, but also the belief that the EU they resented could best be disrupted from within one of its own institutions. Several of the parties that have shaken Europe in different ways in recent years - from Ukip in Britain to the far-right Front National (now National Rally) in France - have been led by figures like Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen who have served as MEPs. I remember reporting on European Parliament sessions a decade ago when MEPs from the likes of Ukip were ridiculed, those from the Front National kept at arm's length but not considered much of a threat.

This time, everyone is taking the May elections, that will usher in a new crop of MEPs, very seriously indeed.

The Eurosceptic populists, riding high on successes in national polls, see unprecedented opportunity. The anti-populist, pro-EU forces fear the upending of a decades-old status quo within the Parliament that could have all kinds of consequences for the European project.

The May election comes amid a number of other key ballots eyed by the populists. Denmark, whose government has taken an increasingly hardline stance on migration, votes this spring. Poland, another country where government and population is becoming increasingly nativist, goes to the polls later this year. In Germany, the far-right AfD party is hoping to make gains in September elections.

For much of last year, French President Emmanuel Macron was the main challenger on the continent to Eurosceptic populists who peddled a defensive nationalism rooted in opposition to immigration and globalisation while emphasising Europe's Christian heritage. But Macron has since been knocked sideways by the so-called Yellow Vests protests at home, and his opponents on the European stage, particularly Salvini and Orban, rushed to fill the rhetorical vacuum.

Salvini - who told a rally in 2018 that the European Parliament elections would be "a referendum between the Europe of the elites, of banks, of finance, of immigration and precarious work" versus "the Europe of people and labour" - spoke of "this historic chance" during a recent visit to Poland. There, he met Poland's ruling party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski - a kindred spirit - and vowed to create "a new European Spring" with like-minded parties across the continent.

Meanwhile, another kindred spirit, Orban, has framed the European Parliament elections in explicit anti-immigration terms, telling journalists this week that the vote could be pivotal in achieving his goal to see "anti-immigration forces the majority in Europe".

However, the populists of different varieties and nationalities fare in the May vote, what many in Brussels expect is the collapse of the grand coalition - that is the two blocs representing the centre-right and the centre-left - that has dominated the Parliament for decades, presently holding over half of its 751 seats.

An end to that centrist alliance would mean that the next European Parliament will be a very different beast: far more diverse, far messier and with the kind of politicking that could delay legislation.

Another reason this next parliament will be key is that later this year the European Commission will be looking for a new president. Salvini has talked of presenting himself as a candidate for the job. A parliament packed with the kind of populists may not be enough for that to happen but it helps.

The stakes have never been higher for a Europe-wide ballot that has suffered low turnout for decades.

There has never been a European Parliament election as decisive as this one.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editors Choice

Also in World News