Europe Faces a Continentwide Vote With National Implications

9 MINS READMay 9, 2019 | 10:00 GMT
Members of Germany's ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Christian Social Union (CSU), including new CDU leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (C), launch the allied conservative parties' campaign for the European elections in an event in Muenster on April 27, 2019.

Members of Germany's ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Christian Social Union (CSU), including new CDU leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (C), launch the allied conservative parties' campaign for the European elections in an event in Muenster on April 27, 2019. European parliamentary elections could determine the fates of a number of national governments on the Continent.

  • May 23-26 elections for the European Parliament will help determine the European Union's future policy direction and appointments to key institutions like the European Commission.
  • In countries like Italy and Germany, the elections will test the popularity and stability of awkward government alliances, potentially resulting in renewed political uncertainty. 
  • The elections will also have political repercussions in countries from Belgium to Romania, as they will coincide with national, regional and municipal elections, as well as referendums. 

Europeans will go to the ballot box later this month for a Continental vote that will also have big effects at home. Between May 23 and May 26, all members of the European Union will hold polls to elect lawmakers for the European Parliament. And while the elections will nominally focus on Continental issues, the votes will also have far-reaching domestic political repercussions. In some cases, they could seal the fate of fragile political coalitions. In others, they will coincide with regional and municipal elections, along with referendums. Whatever the case, the elections will alter the political landscape in some of the bloc's movers and shakers.

The Big Picture

In its 2019 Second-Quarter Forecast, Straftor noted that pro-EU parties would likely retain control of the European Parliament in May's elections, even as Euroskeptic movements send more legislators to the Continental legislature. At the same time, the May 23-26 elections will also offer voters a chance to express their opinion on their national governments, meaning the polls will have domestic repercussions that could lead to policy changes in some of the bloc's most prominent countries.

Shattering Fragile Alliances

The European Parliament elections will test the popularity of Italy's governing parties, the populist Five Star Movement and the right-wing League, a year after general elections in March 2018. Critics have said the government's policies, which include higher public spending and lower taxes, will worsen Italy's deficit without generating enough economic growth for the country to reduce its massive debt. But if these parties turn in a strong performance on May 26, they could decide to stay the course.

The parties' alliance has been uneasy from the start, with the two often struggling to draft coherent positions on policy. The May 26 elections are already triggering new battles within the government, as both are seeking to differentiate themselves from the other in the eyes of voters. Opinion polls suggest the League will gain more than 30 percent of the vote — around 10 points more than the Five Star Movement — and almost twice as much as what the League scored in last year's Italian election. A good showing for the League will likely lead to debate within the party over whether to abandon the government and trigger an early general election in the hopes of emerging with a majority government. Italy is unlikely to hold a general election during the summer, but a waxing League and a waning Five Star Movement could foment instability in an already shaky alliance. This, in turn, could rattle nerves in financial markets and raise new questions about the direction of Rome's fiscal policy.

European Parliament Polling: Italy

In Germany, meanwhile, the European elections will measure the current fortunes of the governing coalition's members. Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is expected to win the vote, but a worse-than-expected performance could convince her to exit the political scene before her planned departure in 2021. In the meantime, another poor electoral showing by the CDU's junior coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), could strengthen factions within the SPD that want the center-leftists to leave government and spend some time in opposition so that they can rejuvenate themselves and improve their popularity. If that happens, the largest economy in Europe would be left with a minority government that would struggle to get things done, raising the prospects of an early general election. The last general election resulted in a fragmented parliament and long coalition talks, as well as a strong showing by the Euroskeptic right. A new election would probably lead to a similar outcome.

Fragmenting Parliaments

May 26 will be an especially busy day of voting in Spain because, in addition to the election for the European Parliament, the country will also hold elections in 12 of its 17 autonomous regions and municipal elections in large cities like Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia. Spain just held a general election on April 28, which resulted in a fragmented parliament, but the parties will hold off on forming a new government until after May 26, as political leaders do not wish to make any agreements at a time when they are also campaigning on the European, regional and municipal levels. King Felipe VI will hold meetings with the main political leaders in late May or early June; a vote in Parliament to appoint a government will follow soon thereafter.

May 26 will also be a super Sunday in Belgium, where the country will hold federal, regional and municipal elections in addition to the European vote. The federal elections are likely to produce another divided parliament, with around a dozen political parties expected to enter the lower chamber of the federal parliament. The lack of consensus is likely to pave the way for many more months of negotiations to appoint a government — something that has become a bit of a Belgian tradition. (Between 2010 and 2011, the country spent 589 days without an elected government, which was a world record at the time for a democracy.)

Belgium's lack of consensus is likely to pave the way for months of negotiations to appoint a government — something that has become a bit of a national tradition.

Unsurprisingly — given the country's laborious efforts to form coalitions — Belgium's electorate is highly polarized, with parties on the far right and left of the spectrum likely to score well. In Dutch-speaking Flanders, the far-right Vlaams Belang party is currently polling at around 10 percent (almost twice the 5.8 percent it received in the last federal election in 2014). In Francophone Wallonia, meanwhile, the far-left Workers' Party of Belgium has 14 percent, support almost three times higher than its 2014 result.

In the past, Belgian institutions have proved remarkably resilient to political instability and caretaker governments. Nevertheless, renewed political gridlock could occur at a time when Belgium and its EU partners must deal with the impact of low economic growth and potential disruptions stemming from Brexit that could prove particularly acute in Belgium, which has close trade ties with the United Kingdom.

A Chaotic Brexit

Though it might prefer not to, the United Kingdom will be participating in the European parliamentary elections — barring the unlikely event that the House of Commons miraculously approves a Brexit agreement by May 22 (a situation that the government itself has ruled out). Opinion polls suggest that the Brexit Party, which is demanding a hard exit from the European Union, could win the election with around a third of the votes, followed by the center-left Labour Party, which defends a softer form of Brexit (including the country's continued membership in the bloc's customs union). Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservative Party, meanwhile, is currently polling a humiliating third.

European Parliament Polling: United Kingdom

Should the results confirm these predictions, the implications would be profound. Success for the Brexit Party would send the message that a significant proportion of the British electorate wants a hard exit from the European Union. This would exacerbate the crisis within the ruling Tories — surveys suggest that a significant number of Brexit Party voters are former Conservative voters — and strengthen its pro-Brexit hawks.

In such a scenario, calls for May's resignation would grow even louder. Ironically, however, a weak performance by the Conservatives in the European elections could discourage the party from seeking an early general election, since it would probably lose a significant number of seats in the Commons as well. Accordingly, the party could try to oust May and appoint a new leader while also trying to avoid a general election. Opinion polls suggest that May could be replaced with a party hard-liner, which would increase the chances of a hard Brexit.

A Romanian Referendum

In Romania, the European elections are playing out against the backdrop of political turbulence that has featured a war of words pitting the president against the prime minister and her Cabinet and of large anti-government demonstrations in Bucharest and elsewhere. Conservative President Klaus Iohannis, who is backed by the center-right National Liberal Party, has poor relations with the Romanian government led by Prime Minister Viorica Dancila's center-left Social Democratic Party (PSD). In recent months, Romania's opposition and the European Union each has criticized what they describe as a weakening of the fight against corruption in the country, accusing the PSD of exerting too much political influence over the judiciary.

European Parliament Polling: Romania

In late March, Iohannis announced that the country would hold a referendum on May 26 to overturn the government's recent amnesty for corruption offenses and to prohibit the government from using emergency ordinances on issues such as the organization of the judiciary. In calling the referendum for the same day as the EU election, Iohannis is hoping that the vote will reach the 30 percent turnout rate necessary to validate the result. Ultimately, the referendum itself will not be binding, but the government will face pressure to alter course if a large number of Romanians vote against its policies and the PSD performs poorly in the EU elections. What's more, the May 26 referendum will also provide a preview of presidential elections likely to occur in November, when Iohannis will seek a second term.

A Referendum on Popularity

In France, the elections will be a neck-and-neck competition between President Emmanuel Macron's centrist En Marche party and the far-right National Rally. In recent months, Macron has sought to regain the political initiative by announcing tax cuts and spending hikes, but it remains unclear whether this will convince voters to support his party. A weak performance could compromise Macron's future plans for reform, which include a controversial pensions reform and an overhaul of the public sector to increase its efficiency.

European Parliament Polling: France

Finally, the European Parliament elections will offer a preview of the general election in Poland, which will take place around October. Poland's governing party, the nationalist and Euroskeptic Law and Justice (PiS), remains popular, but some prominent opposition parties have decided to join forces to contest the European election. If PiS fails to meet expectations in the European vote, it would create an incentive for the anti-government parties to maintain their alliance and collaborate in the upcoming general election. The October vote, in the end, will be crucial to Poland's future given that another victory by PiS would consolidate the country's nationalist turn and prolong Warsaw's relatively cold relations with Brussels.

At a time when political risk is on the rise in Europe and fragmentation is increasing in its electoral landscape, the European parliamentary vote will add yet another source of uncertainty across the Continent. As a result, a vote that should primarily be about the future of the region will in many places serve to deepen domestic divides even further.

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