Elections for the European Parliament are generally a secondary issue in most EU states. However, the emergence of nationalist parties across the Continent and their desire to join forces to reverse the process of European integration seems likely to turn European Parliament elections in 2014 into one of the most important political events in Europe of the year.
What is a Geopolitical Diary? George Friedman explains.
On Wednesday, the leader of French euroskeptic party National Front, Marine Le Pen, met with officials from Austrian anti-immigration Freedom Party and announced that several nationalist parties in Europe might campaign together for the upcoming European Parliament elections in May. In 2010, the two parties founded the European Alliance for Freedom, an association of nationalist parties that includes Belgium's Vlaams Belang, the Sweden Democrats and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands. Though the European Parliament has officially recognized the pan-European political party since 2011, its members have rarely campaigned together.
While the European Parliament is the only international organization with members elected directly by the general population, Europeans tend to be uninterested in the contest. Turnout at these elections is generally low (in 2009, only four in 10 Europeans voted) and opinion polls indicate that people often do not understand the role of the institution. Electoral campaigns for the European Parliament are often focused on domestic issues, and candidates generally do not have Europe-wide agendas. However, European Parliament elections have become more significant in recent years as the institution has gained power.
The European Parliament was born in the early 1950s as a consultative assembly of lawmakers drawn from the national parliaments of member states of the European Coal and Steel Community, the first supranational agreement in Europe. In 1979, its members were directly elected by the general population for the first time in an attempt to provide European institutions with greater democratic accountability and to create a Continental sense of belonging for voters across Europe.
In 2009, the European Parliament was given enhanced powers in nearly all areas of EU policy, including oversight of the EU budget and the ability to appoint the president of the EU Commission. Since then, the European Parliament has operated as a legislative chamber with similar powers to the European Council, which represents the national governments of EU members. This means that most EU policies currently need the Parliament's approval to be implemented.
Consequently, a sizable bloc of nationalist parties in the European Parliament could substantially hinder or even freeze EU policy-making. Europe's lingering economic crisis has opened the door for such parties to become more popular, and these generally reject key aspects of EU integration such as the free movement of people within the bloc and the use of a common currency. They believe that the European Union has seriously undermined the sovereignty of member states and that the integration process should be undone.
For these parties, however, having similar agendas will not automatically lead to a working coalition. In other words, while nationalist parties may hate the European Union, they also may not like one other. For example, the U.K. Independence Party has distanced itself from similar parties elsewhere in Europe, most notably France's National Front. At the same time, nationalist parties that are trying to be perceived as acceptable alternatives to establishment parties will likely reject alliances with parties that have been linked to acts of violence, such as Greece's Golden Dawn and Hungary's Jobbik.
There is also a mathematical problem: Seats in the European Parliament are allocated according to each country's population. A coalition of nationalist parties in densely populated countries such as France and the Netherlands could gain a significant number of seats in the European Parliament. However, the European Alliance for Freedom would likely need more members to have real weight. In Germany and Spain, the first and fifth most-populous EU members, respectively, nationalist parties are weak.
As a result, the United Kingdom and Italy — the third and fourth most-populous EU states — are the wild cards of the 2014 elections. The U.K. Independence Party rejects EU integration, but it has cold relations with the European Alliance for Freedom. In Italy, the Five Star Movement criticizes local elites but has toned down its anti-euro rhetoric.
In the past, the difficulties of maintaining party discipline and disagreement on a common agenda have undermined nationalist alliances in the European Parliament. In 2014, two aspects will change. First, these parties are likely to achieve unprecedented electoral success, at least in some countries. Second, they will be part of a particularly powerful parliament. EU members sought to strengthen the European Parliament to win the hearts and the minds of voters, but the economic crisis could empower parties that reject the very foundations of the European project. If these parties manage to overcome their differences and agree on a common agenda, they will have a strong chance of challenging the rule of traditional pro-European elites and blocking further EU integration.