European parliamentary elections will take place on May 26. I’m old enough to remember the early elections in which my wife’s socialist cousin refused to vote on the grounds that the EU had no power and the elections didn’t matter.
Ah, the good old days.
Nowadays, the EU has vast power, so the elections are not so easily dismissed. However, it’s possible that the results of this election might cause the EU to lose some of its power over member countries.
That possibility is discussed with some alarm in this New York Times report by Steven Erlanger. Once we get past Erlanger’s snark and derision of populists and their concerns, we learn that populist candidates might win almost one-fourth of the seats in the new parliament.
That might not sound like a strong showing, but consider that the Greens are excited over the prospect that they will win roughly one-third the number of seats populist parties can reasonably expect to occupy.
In a fractured parliament, control over roughly one-fourth of the seats can give a faction substantial influence. Erlanger says that, with this level of representation, populists could “create serious delays and difficulties in the next parliament.” Moreover:
In addition to passing or rejecting laws, European lawmakers have new powers that could allow populists to block trade deals, approve the bloc’s budget and play an important role in determining who will replace the European Union’s most powerful leaders.
Mujtaba Rahman, the Eurasia Group’s managing director, puts it this way:
For the first time, we’ll see meaningful populist representation at the European level, so there is at least a risk of a populist insurgency trying to take over or paralyze institutions from within, with implications for Europe’s capacity to act.
In an ironic twist, the unwillingness of EU leaders to cooperate with Brexit strengthens the populists’ position in the upcoming elections. It means that the British get to participate in them. According to Erlanger, Nigel Farage’s party will swell the ranks and influence of populists in the European Parliament, where Britain has roughly 10 percent of the seats.
The populists have a problem, though. They don’t get along with each other very well. Thus, even with a strong electoral showing, their influence might be diluted. Nonetheless, I think liberal Dutch legislator Marietje Schaake is right when she says the populists, though they won’t agree on everything, “can make a mess.” A mess, that is, of the left’s efforts at centralized control over the citizens of member nations.
That’s why the leftist European establishment is alarmed. It paints the election as a choice between the Europe of French president Macron and that of populist Hungarian prime minister Orban.
This is half right, I think. If the establishment left prevails, the march towards the Europe Macron desires will proceed apace.
However, if the populists gain significant influence, the result won’t be “the Europe of Orban.” France won’t adopt the policies of Hungary, but Hungary may have more freedom to reject policies imposed on it by France and Germany.
Or maybe not. As Janis Emmanouilidis, a Europe expert from the Brussels-based European Policy Centre, boasts: “The EU has displayed considerable resilience in the past, and that will also be the case in the future.”
That’s a nice way of saying that elections don’t matter much to the EU. It keeps forging ahead with its grand designs no matter what voters say.
Maybe, my wife’s cousin’s conclusion still applies, though her reasoning does not. Maybe European parliamentary elections don’t matter that much, after all.