The first European Parliament elections took place in 1979 when the European Union then was known as the European Community, consisted of only nine member states. The United Kingdom was one of the nine members; Hungary and Poland’s membership of the EU was unimaginable at the time.
While the EP was recognised as a ‘talking shop’ with almost no influence on policy initiation and policy shaping then, as it stands now with the institutional changes introduced by the Maastricht (1992) and the Lisbon (2007) Treaties, the EP’s status in the EU’s institutional settings were significantly upgraded. It is now playing a significant role in passing EU laws together with the Council of the EU and European Commission.
However, it is not an exaggeration to argue that May 2019 European Parliament Elections is the most crucial election out of all votes that took place since 1979, which further makes the EP a more critical institution than ever before.
The background against which this election is taking place makes it all a bit alarming for everyone who cares about the future of the EU, and the fate of nation-states in the EU.
Since 2007/2008 global financial meltdown, several crises shook the EU from its roots, I mean the European debt crisis, the Greek financial crisis, the Refugee crisis, solidarity Crisis and I would like to add another one to this list which is the developing Rule of Law Crisis, followed by Brexit.
There has been a lot of thinking and speculation about how to reform the EU so that it is fit for the current needs of the EU citizens and the current political, social, cultural and economic climate across Europe.
For too long the liberals and the progressives have thought that they are the only ones who have plans for the future shape of the EU and when they can agree among themselves, they could then reform the EU. Perhaps they were right, but it looks like they did not act on it when they could have, in favourable circumstances and with friendly partners.
Next month’s EP elections shed a light on not how slowly and steadily right-wing and Eurosceptic populist movements and political parties are surging across Europe, but how in full swing they are preparing to run in the elections, talking to each other, forming alliances, and strengthening their hands.
As we see with the hard-line anti-immigration Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who is also the leader of the Northern League (Lega Nord), travels other European countries, like Hungary and Poland, in the hope of forming Eurosceptic alliances.
Apart from that, they do offer an alternative future to the EU. The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who is well known for his anti-immigration, anti-liberal democratic and anti-Brussels rhetoric, does not shy away from offering his way forward for the EU. In his April 2019 speech, Orban said:
“When the European Union was formed – I mean let us remember what we read about it – it had a big soul and a small body. Today the situation is reversed: it has a shrinking soul and an ever-expanding body. How did we get here?”
I agree with Orban that the EU expanded dramatically, particularly with the big-bang enlargement of 2004, which included Hungary and Poland. Orban is also spot on at diagnosing what the problem is at the heart of the EU, and that is to do with its soul: ‘disunited soul,’ by which I mean there is a lack of agreement on a united way forward for the EU though Orban fails to see that his political standing is part of the problem he is describing.
In the same speech Orban describes immigration as the main factor building up to this division in the EU, but not any immigration, he refers to immigration from Africa and Islamic countries as the most threatening. Which then according to him leads to an identity crisis in the EU, political leadership crisis, demographic problems, declining competitiveness and the antagonism between Western and Central Europe.
Following are some of the things he puts forward to deal with the EU’s problems which predominantly concern the EU’s migration policy (i) the task of dealing with migration must be taken out of the hands of the bureaucrats in Brussels and returned to national governments no country will be obliged to accept migrants against its will; (ii) eliminate migrant cards and migrant visas at a stroke; (iii) Brussels must not give any more money to George Soros’s immigration organisations; (iv) the EP and the European Council should install anti-immigration leaders at the top of EU institutions.
One other example is the leader of the Polish Law and Justice Party Jarosław Kaczyński, who is following the footsteps of Orban in adopting an illiberal political system, embraces Orban’s vision for EU. Kaczyński sees reforms giving national sovereignty more significant sway over policy as he looks to dilute federalism. Therefore it was not a surprise when he started a campaign against adopting Euro.
While Orban and Kaczyński is seen in some circles as the most established and effective Eurosceptic leaders, operating in the most powerful party groups, out all of the other leaders, not mentioning former leader of the UK Independence Party Nigel Farage, their weakest point is that they treat the EU’s current troubles only from a narrow-angle. For every problem and for every policy setback the EU has, the remedy is the same: ‘cut down immigration’ and ‘preserve the Christian values and culture.’ I am afraid the EU has more complex problems, and we need multidimensional and ground-breaking solutions to leap forward.
One final point I like to make concerns Brexit, which is the other issue that raises anxiety among the liberals.
Having voted to leave the EU in 2016, and depending on the fate of Theresa May’s deal in the House of Commons, the UK is highly likely to take part in the EP elections.
The British political parties have already begun to select their candidates and are currently running their election campaigns. The UK that is participating in the EP elections and bringing in new British Eurosceptic MEPs with their Brexit agenda is not in the interest of the EU.
Former leader of the UKIP established a new political party, called Brexit Party and is already garnering much attention; YouGov polls the Brexit Party as the 1st party with %27 of the votes in the EP elections. As of now, we do not know if the Brexit Party has any interest in anything other than Brexit.
It is pretty much a single-issue political party with little information as to how Farage would achieve Brexit. Therefore having the UK that is in the process of leaving the EU participating into the EP election, and the Brexit Party gaining the most seats out of the UK’s share, is very concerning for everyone in the EU, be that you are in the progressives’ loop or Orban like-minded leaders’ circle.