Brussels Braces For Populist Wave
On the 24th of May, Irish voters will once again head to the polling stations for the Local and European elections. The number of MEP’s Ireland will send to the European Parliament has increased from 11 to 13 after the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. The EU is now facing many challenges and commentators are calling these elections the most critical in the history of the European Parliament. Brexit, the migration crisis and a wave of populist, Eurosceptic sentiment around Europe are just a few of the issues which are currently posing a threat to the very existence of the union itself.
Traditionally, Irish voters have viewed the European elections with apathy. Turnout has been declining steadily in the last three elections from 59% in 2004 to just 52% in 2014. Many voters have used these elections as protest votes against parties in power which has resulted in some unexpected results and unlikely candidates finding themselves representing Ireland in Strasbourg, where Parliament sits. The most recent election in 2014 saw Fine Gael win 4 seats, Sinn Féin with 3, Fianna Fáil won just 1 while 3 independents were chosen to represent Ireland.
The MEP’s elected to the parliament do not only represent their domestic political parties but are also affiliated with European wide political parties. Fine Gael was a founding member of the European People’s Party (EPP). The Christian Democratic party has held the most seats in Strasbourg since 1999 and has been a major force in the expansion of Europe in recent years. As the largest party in the parliament, many of the EU’s top officials represent the EPP such as European Commission president Jean-Claude Junker. Fianna Fáil is affiliated with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe group (ALDE), while Sinn Féin candidates align themselves with the left-wing, Eurosceptic party European United Left (GUE/NGL).
Brexit has had a huge impact on the upcoming elections both for Ireland and Europe as a whole. Should the UK leave the EU on the 29th of March, 27 of the 73 seats in the parliament held by UK MEP’s will be redistributed to other EU countries including 2 seats to Ireland. The elimination of UK MEP’s will also see a number of high-profile Eurosceptic UK MEP’s leave Strasbourg including the leader of the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) Nigel Farage. In total 35 of the 73 MEP from the UK represent the Eurosceptic parties of EFDD and also European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR)
The UK exit from the EU will not result in a more pro-EU parliament, however. The rise of far-right and populist candidates throughout Europe will mean a big shift in power in the EU towards these populist political forces. Polling data throughout Europe collected by election analysts Europe Elects has led to projections as to what the new European parliament could look like after the elections. The traditional centrist parties of Europe are expected to make heavy losses with the EPP projected to lose 44 seats to just 177. This, however, is still expected to be the most popular party. The centre-left Socialists and Democrats for Europe (S&D) of which the Labour party are affiliated with are expected to lose the most seats of 62, down to 129 in total. This drop reflects the struggle of traditional centre-left parties throughout Europe.
While traditional parties are expecting big losses, the projected winners in the upcoming elections are far-right movements which are running on an explicitly anti-migration platform. The nationalist far-right party Europe of Nations and Freedom group (ENF) is expected to double its representation the European parliament. The party is made up of some Europe’s most prominent extremist movements which have seen political success like Italy’s Northern League, Netherlands’ Party for Freedom and France’s Rassemblement National formerly known as the National Front. The power gained by these right-wing groups will undoubtedly shift European Union policy towards a more conservative and anti-immigration stance.
While many people feel disengaged from events in Brussels and Strasbourg, the upcoming elections are very important in deciding the future direction of the European project. Many feel Europe is at a crossroads. We may see a future of division in Europe and the unravelling of one of the worlds most successful political and economic unions or we may see a stronger more progressive Europe which can stand strong against a dramatically shifting global landscape.
The European elections here in Ireland will be more than just a means for the major parties to set out their stall and promote their agenda ahead of the general election expected in 2020. The three constituencies of Dublin, South and Midlands/North-west will be closely contested and very competitive. After the surge in voter registrations among young people before the referendum on the 8th amendment these European elections will see a large number of eligible voters who have not participated in European Parliamentary elections before but could play a crucial role in electing MEP’s and deciding the future of Europe for decades to come.
By Conor Paterson – Politics Writer