Home » Adam Boulton: European Parliament elections – why battle between EU’s big guns matters for the UK

Adam Boulton: European Parliament elections – why battle between EU’s big guns matters for the UK

2024 is known as the year of elections because in these 12 months more voters in more countries than ever before will exercise their right to cast a vote to choose who governs them.

That is the march of democracy – even if nobody was convinced when President Putin was elected, again, in Russia.

The UK is in the throes of a general election campaign which could end 14 years of Conservative rule. Americans will decide whether Donald Trump returns to the White House in November.

In India, a victorious Prime Minister Narendra Modi is licking his wounds after his Hindu nationalist BJP underperformed in the world’s largest election.

Right now, the world’s second-largest election is taking place; this weekend and just over the seas surrounding Great Britain.

It has attracted little attention here, even though the UK took part in it right up until 2019. Even though previous elections of this kind kept Nigel Farage alive as a political force. And even though its outcome may be the most directly consequential for the UK, at least in the short run.

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Elections for the European Parliament got under way from Thursday in the Netherlands. Pic: AP

This election is also part of a unique experiment. Voters in many countries are electing members of the world’s only functioning trans-national parliament in which MEPs from different countries come together in blocs according to their political ideologies.

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Since Thursday, nearly 400 million citizens in the European Union’s 27 member states have had the chance to elect a total of 750 members to the European Parliament (EP).

Appropriately, the EP election started on the 80th anniversary of D-Day, 6 June, in the Netherlands, with Ireland voting on Friday, and most other member states at the weekend, including Belgium which is also holding a national election on Sunday.

This seems appropriate because the parliament is designed to be a peaceful unifier of democratic Europe. It is ironic because some of the parties expected to do well this year have links going back to Franco, Mussolini and Hitler.

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From Wednesday: ‘Far right breaking all of European right’

The parliament is the only directly elected EU institution. It is less powerful than most national parliaments. EU policy is directed by the Council of Ministers, who are the elected leaders from individual member states. Plans are carried forward by the Commission, an appointed bureaucracy.

The parliament debates, amends and puts proposals into law, as well as overseeing the Commission’s budget, actions and appointments from current president Ursula von der Leyen.

Lots of politicians move between the EP and their national parliaments. Whether they are candidates standing or not, the results of these elections often have a major impact on what happens in home countries.

For example, during Britain’s membership of the EU, Nigel Farage failed seven times to win first-past-the-post elections to become an MP at Westminster.

Thanks to proportional representation however, he served continuously as an MEP for South East England from June 1999 to January 2020, when the UK left the EU as a result of the Brexit referendum. He made full use of the salary and expenses available to him from the EP.

Pic: AP
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Despite never sitting as MP, Nigel Farage served as an MEP from 1999 to 2019. Pic: AP

Farage has the distinction of having led two different British parties to victory in the EP elections – with very serious consequences.

In 2014, UKIP beat Labour and the Conservatives, panicking David Cameron, the then-Conservative leader, into holding the EU referendum.

Five years later in 2019, when the UK had still not completed its exit from the EU, Farage led what was then called the Brexit Party to first place in the EP election. The Conservatives came fifth. Theresa May fell and Boris Johnson became prime minister with his slogan “get Brexit done”.

The UK is no longer part of the EU. We have our own general election to choose MPs, not MEPs. Farage’s latest party, Reform UK, is standing in the general election.

Across the rest of Europe, the radical right is on the rise. There is talk of Europe’s “Donald Trump moment” amid cost of living concerns.

Populist parties are widely expected to make gains according to opinion polls. If they do, the shakeout between rival blocs on the right will impact on issues including the Ukraine war, mass migration, climate change, and trade.

All matters on which whoever wins the UK election will be hoping for greater co-operation with European neighbours.

Giorgia Meloni, prime minister of Italy and leader of Fratelli di Italia, at a rally for the European Parliament elections. Pic: AP
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Giorgia Meloni, prime minister of Italy and leader of Fratelli di Italia, at a rally for the European Parliament elections. Pic: AP

The results of the EP elections in France, Germany and Italy will greatly influence the direction in which the internal politics of those major UK allies develops.

The contest can also be seen as a battle for the soul of euro-populism – pro-Russia or pro-NATO – between its two feuding queens: Marine Le Pen of the French National Rally (NR), formerly the National Front, and Giorgia Meloni, prime minister of Italy and leader of Fratelli di Italia (FdI).

In Germany, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AFD) is on course to come second ahead of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats.

NR, led in the EP by the charismatic Jordan Bardella, is expected to win 33% of the votes in France, much more than President Emmanuel Macron’s party. And Le Pen is already the most popular candidate ahead of the presidential election in 2027 – when Macron must stand down.

Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella at a National Rally event ahead of the European Parliament elections. Pic: AP
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Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella at a National Rally event ahead of the European Parliament elections. Pic: AP

Radical right parties are already in power or supporting governments in eight EU countries and are expected to come back in Austria’s election due this month.

In total populist parties may end up with more MEPs than the centre-right European Peoples Party (EPP), which has long dominated the parliament, and the struggling Socialists and Democrats.

But it is not clear that the warring factions on the right will unite to act together or work with the mainstream EPP, made up of conventional conservative and Christian Democratic parties.

They have in common ethnic nationalism, anti-wokeism, Islamophobia, hostility to migrants and net zero, and suspicion of climate change and multilateral institutions including the EU, UN and NATO. They differ on the economy – free markets and state intervention – and, above all, on Russia.

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Giorgia Meloni’s FdI, Poland’s Law and Justice party and others European Conservatives and Reformists group are giving strong backing to Ukraine.

But the Identity and Freedom group, dominated by Le Pen’s FR, support a settlement handing territory to Russia, while the AfD, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Austria’s Freedom party belong openly to the Putin fan club.

The radical right will only be able to exert its full influence in the parliament if Meloni and Le Pen can reach an accommodation on such matters as Ukraine or whether von der Leyen should be given a second term as Commission president.

File pic: AP
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The European Parliament will decide whether Ursula von der Leyen continues as Commission president. Pic: AP

This seems unlikely but it has not stopped von der Leyen touring the EU seeking support and making it clear that Europe will give less priority to green policies in the next parliament than it did in the current one.

The largest grouping in the EP recommends who the Commission president should be. In practice, national leaders in the council have usually imposed their own candidate.

Increasing factionalism is preventing the EP from having the influence it would like. Ten groups have official status giving them funding and status on committees, with a further three unofficial groups.

After this election, there may be no sufficiently dominant group emerging to take up a leadership role.

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The split in the mainstream right in the EU is in part a legacy of Britain’s membership of the EU. The ECR only came into existence when David Cameron defied Angela Merkel and pulled the Conservative Party out of the EPP.

Whether the UK is in or out, neither the UK nor the EU are sheltered from the winds of radical right-wing populism.

We here may be too busy to pay much attention to the world’s second-largest election. We won’t be able to ignore its consequences.