Some 400 million Europeans from 27 EU member states are being invited to cast their ballots next month for a new European Parliament. Kevin Körner, who covers the European elections for Deutsche Bank Research, explains what they are about and what to look out for.
Mr Körner, how are the European elections conducted and what will people actually be voting for in May?
Körner: European elections are held every five years, and this year the ballot boxes will be open from May 23-26. The Netherlands will set the ball rolling, Ireland and the Czech Republic will follow and then all the other EU states will round off the elections.
Votes are cast for national parties who in turn send their delegates to the next European Parliament. Most national parties in the European Parliament are members of an EU political group or a parliamentary grouping. At present, the European Parliament is made up of 751 deputies from 28 member states. Following the expected withdrawal of the UK from the EU this number is due to fall to 705.
Following the elections there are important decisions to be made: the election of the President of the Parliament and together with the European Council the election of the next President of the Commission and the nomination of the new European Commission. The Parliament will play a key role in the EU’s law-making processes during the new parliamentary term, ranging from future agreements with the UK to approving the next EU budget.
Why are the European elections so important and what exactly is at stake?
Körner: A great deal. The elections are taking place at a time when the European heads of government are increasingly divided on how to tackle the urgent challenges of immigration, taxation and global competition.
Several EU heads of state and government in the European Council are now hurtling on a collision course with the EU over the principles of the rule of law and common fiscal rules. The UK's planned withdrawal from the EU is of course a major loss, especially with regard to Europe’s importance and influence in a world that is increasingly constrained by the tensions between the US and China.
But given these issues isn’t the level of public interest low?
Körner: Yes. In the perception of many voters the European elections are frequently regarded as far less important than national elections. Voter turnout in most EU countries is correspondingly low; when last measured the EU average was just 40 percent. In Germany turnout was higher, but still less than 50 percent.
This despite the fact that in numerous legislatory decisions the European Parliament plays a key role – one that has even expanded recently. EU citizens are affected by these decisions in many areas of their lives. One good reason to make use of your right to vote and catch up on your voting alternatives.
Many commentators expect a strong showing by populist parties. What are the potential consequences, for our national economies as well?
Körner: Our forecasts are based on national surveys and suggest that anti-European and Eurosceptic parties could claim more than a quarter of all seats in the next parliament. The informal “Grand Coalition” between the European People's Party (EVP) and the Social Democrats (S&D) will most likely lose its traditional majority. Pro-European groups in the political centre ground would therefore have to cooperate more closely across the parliamentary groupings and increase their coordination.
Another split in the Parliament would further dilute the European Union's decision-making capability – and at the very time when global economic, technological and geopolitical challenges are calling for greater unity and solidarity between EU members.
If the EU and its institutions fell short of giving the right answers, this could severely tarnish its reputation among EU citizens and on the international stage. This could also generate additional momentum for anti-European movements and parties. Disunity within the Council and Parliament would provide them with a golden opportunity to discredit the EU as dysfunctional and illegitimate.
What happens if the UK is still a member of the EU when the elections are held?
Körner: Then the Britons will have to take part in the European election. This was confirmed by the European Council on March 21 at an eight-hour-long meeting. Understandably there is little enthusiasm in the UK for holding European elections shortly before the planned withdrawal from the EU. But on the EU side, too, the main focus is on the political risks.
UK participation would have far-reaching consequences for the composition of the next European Parliament and could overlap with major decisions such as the election of the next President of the Commission and the approval of the next EU budget. For this eventuality the Commission has, according to press reports, therefore already called on the UK to exercise a “constructive abstention” when the upcoming key EU decisions are taken.
How significant are the elections for the next President of the Commission and his or her Commission?
Körner: They are highly significant. The Parliament has the right to approve or reject the European Council’s candidate for the President of the Commission by a majority vote. Also, at the last election the Parliament and the Council agreed to consider only “Spitzenkandidaten” from the Parliament for the position. At present, however, it looks as if neither the lead candidate of the European People's Party, Germany's Manfred Weber, nor his main challenger, the Dutchman Frans Timmermans from the European Social Democrats, will find it easy to gain a majority in the next Parliament.
Given the expected fragmentation of the house, the support of several parliamentary groupings would be required. Moreover, the heads of government in the Council are not bound by the top candidates process and it is even opposed by some groupings in the Parliament itself. In addition, a joint candidate first has to be found in the Council itself. The nomination of the next President of the Commission when the elections for the Parliament are over could therefore turn out to be a protracted and difficult process. This would be anything but good for the standing of the EU.