rom May 23 to 26, the next European Parliament (EP) will be selected in what is probably the most consequential election for the European Union (EU) of this generation. With the backdrop of Brexit looming large, these particular elections are being closely watched, as they will serve as the first-ever test of Europe’s populists to organize across national borders. These elections will also serve as a referendum on several of the EU’s key national leaders who have been facing populist challenges at home, such as French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Yet despite the unexpected “success” of Brexit, it is not at all certain that the wave of populist support will continue unabated. While populists look set to gain seats overall, their lack of cohesiveness could dampen their larger plan of wresting control from Europe’s mainstream center-right and center-left parties, the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D).
In response to criticism that power in the EU resided mainly with unelected officials in Brussels, the 2009 Lisbon Treaty greatly strengthened the EP by giving it the power to amend and approve all legislation proposed by the European Commission (EC), the European Union’s executive body, in addition to other substantial competencies. These much-praised democratic reforms were a particular windfall for right-wing populists. Many of the best-known Eurosceptics, like Jean-Marie Le Pen of the French National Front or Nigel Farage of the new Brexit Party, have used the EP as a bully pulpit to rally popular support for their policies, while simultaneously receiving generous paychecks from the European Union.
For the May 2019 elections, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini announced the formation of a Europe-wide coalition to challenge the EPP and the S&D in Parliament. However, rather than seeking to take their countries out of the Union like Farage, Orban’s and Salvini’s goal is to gain control of EU institutions, in order to stop—or even reverse—the course of European integration and enlargement. This is the first time in European postwar history that significant political forces are rejecting the idea that the only way forward for Europe is deeper integration and enlargement on a supranational level.
Brexit supporters, whether on the left or the right, had no single definition of what it would mean to leave the EU. Now almost three years later, Britain’s Conservative and Labour parties are still split between Remainers and Leavers, only adding to the difficulty of finding a common practical vision for Britain’s future after Brexit.
A key reason for this shift may be the chaotic spectacle of the United Kingdom’s attempt to leave the Union. Brexit supporters, whether on the left or the right, had no single definition of what it would mean to leave the EU. Now almost three years later, Britain’s Conservative and Labour parties are still split between Remainers and Leavers, only adding to the difficulty of finding a common practical vision for Britain’s future after Brexit.
The loose populist coalition that has set its sights on the EP is riven by similar splits and contradictions among various right-wing parties. Hungary’s Fidesz, France’s Rassemblement National (the former National Front), and the German Alternative für Deutschland are all, for example, overtly pro-Russian, which is anathema to Poland’s Law and Justice party. Italy’s Lega wants to redistribute migrants across Europe, which Eastern European populists bitterly oppose. Much like the Brexiteers, the Orbán-Salvini coalition does not appear to have any clear vision for what their “Europe of nations” would look like, either philosophically or in practice. For example, what would happen to the EU budget is a big question mark, as the bulk of EU money currently supports economic development programs benefiting the EU’s poorer peripheral regions where, ironically, populists have won the most support.
Populist parties are currently projected to more than double their share of the 700-plus seats in the next EP, from five percent to more than 14 percent. While not enough to veto legislation or block personnel decisions, this result could give the group the ability to hold up decision-making and siphon off legislative control from the traditionally dominant EPP and S&D. The political chaos that could ensue would make the EU an even less dynamic partner for the United States and doom much needed reforms. A result that could potentially weaken EU institutions also makes May’s elections a prime target for another round of Russian political interference.
Despite being on track to gain seats in Parliament, recent EU-wide polls suggest that populist support may be losing steam, with more than 62 percent of EU citizens saying that membership in the EU is a “good thing.” Even with Salvini’s and Orbán’s efforts to make migration a central election issue, European voters appear to be at least equally concerned about domestic issues like corruption and unemployment, topics on which the populists have poor track records. Recent elections in Slovakia and Finland signal that a backlash against the populists could be brewing. Zuzana Čaputová’s election to the Slovak presidency shows how allegations of corruption against populists can lead to mass mobilization against them. The narrow victory of the Finnish Social Democrats was their first in 20 years, heading off a far-right Finns Party that has been a significant presence in Finnish politics for several years.
Along with the harsh lessons of Brexit, the lack of unity on policy and the increasing importance of good governance mean that the populists’ drive to take control of the EU from within may founder. All the same, those hoping to defend the European project would be wise not to take it for granted.