Across Europe, voting begins Thursday in European Parliament elections, which will continue through Sunday. The elections are hotly anticipated across the continent, with many people wondering how the results will affect the future of the European Union and the bloc’s dealings with the rest of the world. With the help of our correspondents in Europe, we answer five key questions about the elections and the legislative body.
What is the European Parliament?
The 751-member legislature is most notable for being, as Deutsche Welle puts it, “the only democratically legitimized supranational institution in the world.” In other words: It is the only assembly made of various countries where the people of those countries can directly vote for their representatives. It is also notable for the large numbers of voters in its elections. More than 370 million people are eligible to vote, making these the second largest elections in the world, behind India’s.
Members of European Parliament are sent as representatives of the 28 countries in the E.U. Each country decides how the elections are held. Anything goes as long as the ballots are secret and women and men can both vote. (The voting age is 18 everywhere but Austria, where it is 16.) Seats are apportioned to each country according to the size of its population. Germany, the E.U.’s most populous state, has 96 representatives, while small countries like Cyprus, Malta and Luxembourg have six each. That said, members of the European Parliament — or MEPs — do not always vote along nationality lines. Once elected to the European Parliament, they join larger parties and coalitions.
MEPs are elected to five-year terms and have a say in the bloc’s finances, international presence and general direction. Since the Lisbon Treaty of 2009, which expanded the body’s powers, the European Parliament has appointed the head of the European Commission, the E.U.’s executive body, approved or rejected international agreements such as a recent trade pact with Singapore, and decided on the E.U.’s full budget. The body is involved in decisions on a vast array of topics, including agriculture and fisheries, environmental issues and migration policies.
Who are the key players to watch for in these elections?
There are eight political groups in the European Parliament. Forming a group requires at least 25 members from at least seven countries. The largest groups are the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the center-left Socialists and Democrats. Both are expected to lose seats as voters show an appetite for more-extreme views on the left and the right.
The EPP is likely to lose seats to more-nationalist and Euroskeptic parties. This will be especially crucial in the case of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party. The EPP suspended Fidesz in March over its rejection of E.U. migration policies. Now Orban is calling for the group to join forces with far-right parties such as Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s League party, and French politician Marine Le Pen’s National Rally. The head of the EPP has already ruled out such an alliance, but, as Politico noted, Orban has said “he would find it hard to stick with the EPP if it forms an alliance with ‘pro-migration’ parties on the left.”
It’s also worth keeping an eye on the fortunes of Britain’s Euroskeptic Brexit Party, which is led by Nigel Farage. A recent poll showed the Brexit Party has more support than Britain’s mainstream liberal and conservative parties combined — a little bit ironic considering that if the party had its way, Britain would already be out of the E.U. and not be represented in European Parliament at all.
Meanwhile, on the left, other parties are expected to gain ground. According to the Associated Press, polling in April showed that the progressive Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, backed by French President Emmanuel Macron, is projected to gain eight seats, bringing its number to 76, and that the Green party could win 57 seats, five more than it now holds.
Ultimately, the new Parliament could reflect what is occurring in governments all around Europe: a weakening of the center that is forcing political realignment on the major issues shaping the world.
Wait, there’s a Brexit Party? What does that mean for Brexit? (From the London bureau’s William Booth and Karla Adam)
Yep. This is an election few thought would occur in Britain, given that the country voted three years ago to leave the E.U. and was to have quit the bloc two months ago. The questions are understandable. Will Britain’s 73 new representatives to the E.U.’s legislative body serve for days, weeks or years? Who knows? The chaos is made more sensational by the forecast that this nascent, single-issue party is going to blow everyone else out of the water, with the potential to influence how Brexit turns out and how long Prime Minister Theresa May stays in office. The demands of the Brexit Party seem simple: Get us out of the E.U. Now. Honor the 2016 referendum result.
A big win for the Brexit Party could push May and her Conservatives to hurriedly pass a deal before parliamentarians take up their seats in July, or, as Farage prefers, leave the E.U. with no deal. Writing in the Guardian, former Labour prime minister Tony Blair described the stakes: “This is not a vote to choose a prime minister or a government. It is a vote for the Farage Brexit — or against it.”
Alternatively, a good showing from the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats or Change UK might embolden those in the British Parliament who want a second referendum on Brexit.
What about the far right? What does it hope to gain? (From Brussels bureau chief Michael Birnbaum and Berlin bureau chief Griff Witte)
Since the last election in 2014, the E.U. has been hammered by a refugee crisis, multiple mass-casualty terrorist attacks, a vote by the British people to exit the bloc, a security scare fueled by the Kremlin and a fitful economic recovery after the global financial crisis. Such issues are pulling voters to the fringes, and far-right and other parties that are hostile to the E.U. appear poised to control more seats than ever before.
From grand palazzi in Rome to Art Nouveau villas in Budapest, Europe’s anti-migration right-wingers have been prepping their battering rams to knock down the doors of the European Parliament. No one expects them to win a majority, but their aim is less to legislate than to obstruct. A greater far-right presence could have a disproportionate effect on how the E.U. functions, putting the far right in a position to play spoiler. And a legislature with less ability to get things done would feed the narrative of the E.U.'s nationalist critics, who argue that the bloc is fundamentally broken.
But for Europe’s critics to wield maximum influence, they will need to work together — something they have failed to do so far.
With all these Euroskeptic players involved, is there a threat of Russian interference in these elections? (From Brussels bureau chief Michael Birnbaum)
It doesn’t seem likely. At least yet. Parliament, politicians, security services and social media companies that were bracing for an onslaught from Russia have been surprised that, so far, they seem to have avoided one.
Experts are cautious about saying Russian interference has been neutralized, but the anxiety has shifted somewhat inward, as many of the disinformation tactics pioneered by Russia have been domesticated and are being replicated on both extremes of the political debate in Europe.
That said, Russia is still working openly to promote political division in Europe. The Sputnik news agency has offered wall-to-wall coverage of the “yellow vest” protests that have shaken France. The German-language homepage of RT, formerly Russia Today, recently featured a banner debunking “myths” that the former West Germany was superior to communist East Germany. But the scale of what has been identified is nothing compared with the past — or with what the Europeans had anticipated.
In part, far-right parties in Europe have not needed Russia, because some of their domestic supporters have mimicked Russia’s strategy of promoting disinformation and amplifying it through the use of automated social media accounts.