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The next European Parliament election will take place from May 23-26, 2019 where citizens from all EU member states will vote in what has been described a critical election in terms of the impact on the future composition of the Parliament as well as the future direction of the European Union. In a Europe that will continue to be preoccupied with itself as new political arrangements emerge, how are issues of importance to the Gulf region likely to feature on the post-election EU agenda and how can the GCC states maintain relations with the many different factions likely to emerge within the new Parliament? The prospects for this critical election and its implications for Europe’s relations with the Gulf region are examined in this timely publication by Bussola researchers Christian Koch and Nadine Aly.
Every five years, members of the European Parliament (EP) are directly elected to represent more than 500 million constituents from their respective countries. The EP is the only directly elected institution at the European Union (EU) level. The next European Parliament election will take place from May 23-26, 2019 where citizens from all EU member states will vote in what has been termed a critical election in terms of the impact on the future composition of the Parliament as well as the future direction of the European Union. Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has referred to 2019 as “Europe’s Coming Year of Reckoning” also given the impact of the UK’s exit from the EU.1
The European Parliament election is significant because the outcome will have an impact on European priorities over the coming years. On the one hand, the election and the distribution of votes among the different political groupings will have an influence on the selection of the next European Commission President, the President of the European Council, the Head of the European Central Bank, and the High Representative for External Affairs. The European Council, which nominates the candidates, will look to the election as an indicator in terms of the choice of potential candidates for the top European positions. On the other hand, the outcome will directly impact the agenda priorities for the EU as a whole. With larger parties expected to lose votes and populist parties on both the right and the left as well as new political coalitions expected to make gains, the new parliament is likely to be marked by increased confrontations, more ad hoc coalitions and, possibly, less efficiency. If right-wing populist parties are able to put individual differences aside and join together in a broader coalition, decision-making could be pushed more to the inter-governmental level thus lessening the influence of Brussels. However, liberal and green coalition movements could prove to be a counterweight and reinvigorate some of the waning support for European democracy.
What this means for the Arab Gulf region is two-fold. First, Europe will continue to be preoccupied with itself as the election results get sorted and new political arrangements emerge. Issues of importance to the Gulf will not be on the top of the agenda meaning that where the GCC states seek European support or assistance on particular issues, they may have to take steps forward on their own initiative. Second, the GCC states need to keep their relations open to many different factions within the new Parliament as decisions on any issue will be determined by the formation of ad hoc coalitions that could also change from one subject area to the next. The next European Parliament will be more complex than the last and, as such, closely monitoring the results and immediately building connections to the key forces that emerge will be critical to ensure that the EP stays in line with core GCC interests.
Voting will take place according to the following schedule2 across the 28 member states:
Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are elected based on the national electoral systems of their individual countries but are also required to uphold specific common provisions established by EU law, such as proportional representation.3 A general rule allows voters to choose between political parties or individual candidates, or sometimes both. As shown in Graph 14, there are different methods of voting in each EU country. In some member states, voters can only vote for a list of candidates and they cannot change the order in which the candidates are listed. This method of voting is marked as “closed list” in dark grey in the graph.
Another method of voting is “preferential voting” marked in orange. This method allows voters to express their preference for one or more candidates on the list.5 Instead of a list system, Ireland uses a mixture of a single transferable vote (STV) and multiple constituencies system. Under the STV system, the voter has one vote but can rank the candidates in order of their first, second, third, etc. preference. In the meantime, the electoral systems in Belgium, Ireland, Italy, and Poland have divided their territories into multiple constituencies, as opposed to the rest of the member states where the entire territory forms a single electoral constituency.
Since 1979, two parties, the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), have been numerically strong enough to achieve a majority in the European Parliament. This two-party majority has, as a result, organised the joint election of its president and the distribution of other posts within the European Parliament.6 This majority has also been a reference point for the distribution of major responsibilities within other European Union institutions, such as the European Council, the European Commission, the High Representative, and others.
But while the centre-right and the centre-left have so far called most of the shots, waning support for mainstream political parties throughout Europe, the rise of populist parties, especially those on the right wing with an anti-migration perspective, and emerging new political players, such as French President Emmanuel Macron’s ‘La Republique En Marche', together may bring the era of big party dominance in the European Parliament to an end after the May election.
The European Parliament plays a key role in how public money is spent and how the EU’s single market is regulated. Its increasingly central role in overall European policy-making stands in contrast to the importance that is extended to it in European debates especially at the national level. Focused on the European Parliament’s legitimacy and democratic nature, some argue that the EP makes the decisions on almost all issues related to EU citizens, while others claim that the main power remains in the hands of the EU Council, and thus with the heads of states and governments of member states. In addition, national governments continue to give priority to their main national election and have tended to nominate lesser known candidates for the European Parliament election. As a result, the EP election is considered a second-order election and the low voter turnout in this election over the decades is a direct reflection of such mixed feelings.
At the same time, the role of the European Parliament has been significantly strengthened by the 2014 Lisbon Treaty. Co-decision, the principle of parity between the directly-elected Europe- an Parliament representing the citizens of the Union and the Council representing the govern- ments of the member states, became the general rule for adopting legislation at the EU level. The share of EU legislation adopted with the European Parliament’s full participation has now reached almost 50 per cent.7
Party composition in the current European Parliament
The European People’s Party (EPP), established in 1976, is the EU’s centre-right party and its largest and most influential political family. The EPP currently includes 80 parties and partners from 42 countries. The current President of the European Commission, the European Council, the European Parliament, 9 EU and 3 non-EU heads of state and government, as well as 14 European Commissioners are members of the EPP. For over 10 years, Antonio López-Istúriz White from Spain has served as the EPP’s Secretary General, and Joseph Daul from France is currently the EPP President. They currently hold 219 seats.
The Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) is the political group in the European Parliament of the Party of European Socialists (PES). The S&D was founded as a Socialist Group on June 29, 1953, which makes it the second oldest political group in the EP after ALDE. It is currently also the second largest group in the EP. Udo Bullmann of Germany was elected on March 20, 2018 as president of the S&D group. They currently hold 189 seats.
The European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) is a Eurosceptic and anti-federalist political group. The ECR was founded around the Movement for European Reform after the 2009 European elections at the request of former British Conservative Party leader David Cameron. The ECR currently has 73 MEPs, making it the third largest group in the EU Parliament.
The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group is the liberal-centrist political group of the European Parliament. It is made up of MEPs from two European political parties, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party (formerly the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party) and the European Democratic Party, which collectively form the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. ALDE is the oldest group tracing its establishment back to September 1952 and currently holds 68 seats.
The Greens/European Free Alliance (G/EFA), normally referred to as the Greens, consists of green and left-wing nationalist political parties. The Greens group comprises three distinct European political parties, namely the larger European Green Party (EGP), the European Free Alliance (EFA) and the smaller European Pirate Party. It currently holds 52 seats.
The Confederal Group of the European United Left and the Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) comprises political parties of socialist and communist orientation and, therefore, represents the left-wing political group in the EP. The merger of the two forces as a result of the enlargement of the European Union occurred on January 6, 1995. They currently hold 51 seats.
Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) is a populist Eurosceptic political group and mostly a continuation of the Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD) group that existed during the 7th European Parliament. This group is opposed to European integration. Twenty-four out of its current 43 MEPs are from the United Kingdom, representing the UK Independence Party (UKIP). They are expected to dissolve following the possible exit of the UK from the EU and the subsequent loss of British MEPs.
Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) is composed of right-wing and far-right parties from across Europe. Launched on June 15, 2015, it is the smallest in the EP with 35 members. The largest party of the group by number of MEPs is Marine Le-Pen’s French National Rally representing almost half of ENF's MEPs with 17 out of 35.
Finally, there are non-affiliated members of parliament and independents that belong to no specific group. Their total numbers currently come to 21 seats.
In 2014, a new model was introduced in the European Parliament called The Spitzenkandidat (German for "Lead Candidate"). This process was born out of the claims to the EU’s undemocratic nature and is the method of linking European Parliament election by having each major political group in Parliament nominate a candidate for Commission Presidency prior to the Parliamentary election. The Spitzenkandidat of the largest party would then have a mandate to assume the Commission Presidency. However, the European Council has already rejected the idea of an automatic endorsement and thus the determination of what posts will be filled by who remains largely open. Taken together, there are more variables at play in this upcoming election than in the elections of the past. Key recent developments on the European landscape could, therefore, play an important role in terms of how the distribution of votes takes place.
The 2019 European Parliamentary election comes at a particularly critical time for the EU and Europe as a whole compared to the last election in 2014. In the wake of the refugee crisis of 2015 and 2016, populist parties with right-wing tendencies have gained electoral appeal with one direct result being the rise of greater skepticism towards the European project. Other aspects including the uncertainty surrounding the likely exit of Great Britain from the EU, scheduled now for March 29, 2019 as well as the emergence of new forces on the election scene including the possible shift from party politics to movement politics. The structural transformation of party politics at the European level is thus also coming to Brussels and the European Parliament election. These developments will have an impact on the likely outcome of the election and thus need to be kept in mind as one contemplates potential consequences. Each of these variables also plays a pivotal role in terms of EU’s relations with other countries.
Rise of Populist Movement and Right-Wing Governments: Populist, anti-EU, and anti-immigrant parties are on the rise in Europe; a fact that is reflected in the elections on a national level.8 In Austria, the right-wing Freedom Party won 27 per cent of the votes in their 2017 elections. Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice party won 39 per cent of the national vote in the 2015 parliamentary elections. In Hungary, the right-wing Fidesz party, running on a joint list with the KDNP, a Christian Democratic party, has won the last two parliamentary elections.9 Another far-right, anti-immigration group Jobbik won 20 per cent of the vote in the 2014 parliamentary elections, making it Hungary’s third largest political party.10 France’s National Rally (previously La Front Nationale) is a nationalist party that uses populist rhetoric to promote its anti-immigration and anti-EU positions, led by Marine Le Pen. While defeated in the last election by Emmanuel Macron, the party has come closer than ever to gaining power after more than 40 years of existence.
The following compilation of diagrams depicts the right-wing parties (in orange) in 20 European countries.11It is important to note that the right-wing parties in many EU countries range across a wide policy spectrum, from populist and nationalist to far-right neo-fascist groups.
The direction within Europe towards more populist and, at times, right-wing governments poses a number of questions for the upcoming EU election. Based on latest available poll data, there is the possibility that the rise in nationalist or populist extremes could result in a majority win for such parties as a result of the May election. What is unclear is to what degree such a result would impact the decision-making process, whether right-wing groups and movements would find it possible to organise under one central platform thereby increasing their influence and what this would mean for smaller groups in the European Parliament who could themselves gain more seats, increasing their relevance while, at the same time, finding themselves increasingly marginalised.
What is clear is that polls that identify the main issues concerning European citizens are increasingly used to target and influence campaigns across the political spectrum. Among the most pressing issues are countering terrorism, border security, immigration, and democracy as seen in the following poll data.
One result of such prioritisation of issues is that leaders of right-wing groups, such as Hungary’s Orban or France’s Le Pen, have used the recent refugee crises as political tools to reinforce their inflammatory anti-migrant and, indirectly, their anti-EU rhetoric by insisting that these refugees are a security risk and are involved in terrorist attacks, despite there being no concrete evidence to back such claims.12
Moreover, key leaders of the populist parties have made it clear that they intend to focus on the European Parliament election in order to maintain their momentum and increase their strength. The leader of the Italian League party Matteo Salvini has stated that: “The European elections next year will be a referendum between the Europe of the elites, of banks, of finance, of immigration and precarious work; and the Europe of people and labour”while Hungarian Prime Minister Orban highlighted the importance of the election by saying that key EU decisions should wait until after the election results are in: “If we are unable to reach a satisfactory result in negotiations . . . on the issues of migration and the budget, then let us wait for the European people to express their will in the 2019 elections to the European Parliament. Then what must be, shall be.”
The bottom line is that the future of the EU as a moderate centrist organisation may be under threat if Euro-skeptic, anti-migrant forces are elected to the European Parliament. The implications of these parties gaining in the EP election would not only depend on the number of seats they manage to gain, but also how successful they would be in forming a coalition. The likelihood of a major shift in EU politics would appear unlikely at this stage, as the majority of these right-wing parties are either already part of a coalition, such as Victor Orban’s controversial membership in the EPP,13 or are divided into smaller groups like Marine Le-Pen’s the National Rally, or are forming new movements such as the Yellow Jackets. Yet, the possibility of a more momentous shift should not be completely discounted.
Emergence of New Parties: According to a Eurobarometer Survey14 conducted between 2013 and 2018, more than 70 new political parties and alliances have emerged in EU member states. It is important to note that some of these parties have successfully campaigned by protesting against the status quo political establishment. The following survey outlines what Europeans think about the emergence of these new parties and movements, and it seems that most Europeans have a positive perception of them.
Seventy per cent of EU citizens surveyed agreed that just being against something does not improve anything, as opposed to 21 per cent disagreeing. Half of the respondents (50 per cent) do not agree that these parties and/or movements are a threat to democracy, but a little over a third of respondents (38 per cent) think they would be. While 53 per cent of citizens agree with the poll that new parties and movements could find new solutions better than the existing political establishment, 56 per cent believe that they can bring about real change.
A prominent example of an emerging new party is the Citizens’ Initiative Rally (CIR) formed by the Yellow Jackets in France to put up candidates for the upcoming election.15 While the overall implications remain unclear, it can be expected that both Macron’s party En Marche and Le-Pen’s the National Rally will lose some voters who will now shift to the CIR. As just one example, the emergence of such new parties is seen as a relatively positive development given the impact on the democratic nature of the European system. Combined with the rise of some green parties, for example in Germany where the Green Party now polls around 20 per cent of the national vote, smaller movements could emerge as a counterweight to some of the right-wing populist tendencies. At the same time, their overall impact could be less significant on the direction of EU politics as they are too small in size to directly challenge the traditional party system.
BREXIT: The potential departure of the UK from the EU means that there will be fewer MEPs elected to the European Parliament. In the upcoming 2019 election, there will be 705 Members of European Parliament (MEPs) as opposed to the current 751 MEPs due to the departure of the 73 British members and given the new distribution of seats.
This election will address a demographic change in the EU so that the member states with weaker representation are allocated proportional seats. It was decided in the European Parliament16 on June 13, 2018, and the European Council17 on June 28, 2018 that a redistribution of the 73 British seats would be assigned to 14 states: France and Spain are to receive an additional five seats each (+5), Italy and the Netherlands three seats each (+3), Ireland two seats (+2), and Austria, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Poland Romania, Slovakia and Sweden one additional seat each (+1). That amounts to an additional 27 seats in total which is aimed to better fulfil the principle of "degressive proportionality."18
The size of the Parliament is not the only change that is introduced in the next mandate. In the summer of 2018, the MEPs backed a modernised EU electoral law, which seeks to strengthen EU citizens' participation in the May 2019 election. This new electoral law introduces a mandatory threshold for constituencies with more than 35 seats. It also intends to implement penalties to prevent double voting, among other provisions.19
The possible departure of the British will mainly affect three of the present political groups: The S&D group which will lose 20 MEPs from the Labour Party who sit among its ranks, the ECR which will no longer include the 19 MPs from the Conservative Party, and finally the EFDD which will lose 19 MPs from UKIP (the UK Independence Party). The Greens will also lose 6 MEPs. The departure of the British will automatically lead to an initial political reshuffle.
One big caveat remains the actual timetable surrounding the exit of the UK from the EU. At this stage, it is unlikely that a vote to exit the EU could be postponed until after May 2019 as this would mean that the UK will have to go through its own election campaign and vote for the EU parliament.20 It is also a possibility that the EU is considering having "permanent contingency" measures for UK citizens in the EU and European citizens living in the UK to ensure that their rights in the Withdrawal Agreement are preserved in case of a no-deal.21 If the UK does indeed elect MEPs, then the composition of the EU parliament will remain at 751, and the redistribution of seats will not take place until after the UK has exited. In this case, the actual outcome of the election could remain somewhat in limbo until there is greater clarity to the actual timetable of UK withdrawal.
As a result of these developments, there is bound to be a significant shift in terms of the future composition of the European Parliament. As already stated, the period when the two main groups of the EPP and the S&D were able to form the majority between themselves will come to an end following the upcoming election. The S&D group, which currently holds 187 seats, is expected to suffer a major loss including the potential loss of the British contingent of 20 seats from the Labour Party. In addition, the parties represented in the S&D have almost all experienced setbacks in the most recent national elections including in Sweden, Latvia, and Luxembourg. As a result, a loss of confidence in the social democratic camp is also likely to be reflected in the European Parliament election. Within the EPP, the main political group in the European Parliament with 219 MEPs, the losses are not expected to be as high, but it could still drop below the 200 mark. The party only governs in seven countries (Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Croatia, Ireland, and Hungary). In addition, the main parties that make up the EPP are also declining elsewhere, starting with the CDU/CSU in Germany. The CDU/CSU form the biggest contingent within the EPP, with 34 MEPs, and it chairs the group. As a result, the numerical strength of the EPP might be reduced by around 40 seats and be limited to around 180.22
The most recent forecasts suggest, according to a Politico interactive poll,23 178 seats for the EPP and 134 for the S&D, and these two main parties with 312 seats will no longer hold the absolute majority of 353 seats in the European Parliament.
The loss of the majority coalition is said to be a reason why some EPP members have voiced their intention to open the party up to some of the right-wing movements. This includes, for example, the Polish PiS although the hostility between members of the PiS and the Polish PO (Platforma Obywatelska), who are already members of the EPP, makes that alliance unlikely. It is speculated that is the reason the EPP has kept the Hungarian Civic Union (FIDESZ) within its fold despite its glaring differences with EPP’s political and social platform.
Outside of the mainstream parties and the expected rise of right-wing parties, a key variable will be the Greens and the Liberals. The Greens are expected to witness a slight increase in their results due to their recent success in elections on a local level in Belgium, the German federal regions of Bavaria and Hessen, and in legislative elections in Luxembourg. The Greens currently hold 52 seats. Yet, recent polls also suggest that the Greens may lose seats given that six of their current seats are held by British MEPs. It is also a possibility that the Greens will form a coalition with the Liberals who themselves will only be losing one seat following Brexit. This would mean that they could become the third largest group in the EU Parliament following the upcoming election, which could possibly counter the influence of the ECR as they will fall below the 50-seat threshold after Brexit.
On the liberal side, Emmanuel Macron’s strategy remains a mystery and a scenario in which he comes out victorious in the election contains the possibility of being a game-changer. He is a prominent supporter of the EU and openly campaigns for Europe with the result that Eurosceptics such as Viktor Orban and Matteo Salvini have designated him as “enemy number one.” A closer coordination between Macron’s movement and the ALDE coalition in the current European Parliament could propel the liberal camp to some solid gains. In any case, overall, it could very well be that the future of the EU depends on the new parties and movements that are pro-EU forming coalitions to counteract the growing possibility of Eurosceptics joining existing coalitions for the next election.
While certain factors can already be highlighted and their potential consequences examined, there are other variables that are still largely unknown but which could have a decisive impact on how the European Parliament election turns out. One key variable is EU voter turnout which historically has been low. Another variable is the fact that several EU member states will also be holding national elections prior or in conjunction with the EP election.
EU Voter Participation: Despite record support for the EU, there is a decline in the election turnouts, with only half of Europe’s adult population interested in the election, according to the new Eurobarometer survey.24 From March 2017 to April 2018, support for EU membership has increased from 57 per cent to 60 per cent, whereas a negative view of EU membership has decreased from 14 per cent to 12 per cent. However, voter participation has remained at an all-time low. This trend is on par with surveys conducted prior to the 2014 European Parliament election; it was found that voter turnout dropped, for the seventh time in a row, to less than 43 per cent25; with only 13 per cent voter turnout in Slovakia.26
The steady rate of decline in voter turnout has multiple reasons. They range from lack of interest in politics and a growing distrust in the election process leading to an overall polarisation of party politics. Declining voter turnout is found throughout Europe including the Netherlands (37 per cent in 2014) and France (42 per cent), as two of the founding states of the European Union, as well as in Portugal (33 per cent), and Spain (43 per cent).
FOCUS ON ABSTENTION
Respondents of voting age were asked about their personal voting behaviour. Results must be read with caution as an over-declaration effect may apply.
Would it be at local or regional, national or European level, 26% of respondents declare they vote “most of the time” and 9% from time to time. Whereas 50% declare they systematically vote, 6% rarely or 5% never do. It is interesting to note that 2% vote only in certain elections.
On the European level, voter sentiment is largely channeled according to more domestic issues and, as such, the European election tends to be seen as holding less value and importance. The electorate votes according to the national political situation without much consideration for the impact of their vote at the European level. This in turn has raised questions about whether one’s vote at the European Parliament level should be seen as a “useful vote.” The result is one that was witnessed in France in 2014 where the biggest delegation (24 MEPs) from the country elected to the parliament was from the Front National.27 In addition, national parties tend to campaign without reference to the party they are affiliated with in the European parliament leading to a poor understanding about the legislative topics being discussed in the EU arena. The EU Parliament has also not been successful in promoting itself as a representative of EU citizens.
Another prominent argument for the consistent decline in turnout is that the voters simply feel that they are not being rewarded for their votes, i.e., voters do not see a benefit in voting. This is a likely scenario as the key perception is still that the real decision-making power in Brussels lies with the European Council and not with the Parliament. Peter Grand and Guido Tiemann argue that citizens do not feel adequately represented by political parties in the European Parliament election due to the realisation that some political parties tend to misrepresent their constituencies due to political polarisation.28 This leads to a misrepresentation of national politics at an EU level because those who do vote tend to be on one extreme or the other (right-wing or left-wing) and this essentially disregards a significant portion of the population who have not voted.
In response, the European Parliament has embarked on a large-scale attempt to boost voter turnout, investing in a massive social media campaign to appeal to young voters and introducing the Spitzenkandidat scenario in order to restore some faith in the democratic aspect of the EP. Whether this will be successful in mobilising the constituency remains unclear. More likely, some significant variances in voter turnout will be seen in the individual EU member states.
Upcoming elections: It is important to note that a number of European countries – Finland, Estonia, Belgium, and Denmark – will be holding their national elections before May 2019, and it remains to be seen whether the results of these elections will be reflected at a European level or not.29
Out of the four upcoming national elections, Belgium and Luxembourg have mandatory voting, so a high voter turnout is usually associated with these countries. If the current political atmosphere in these countries were to be taken as an example of the direction in which the EU election will go, then Belgium and Finland have recently seen a slight rise in their national right-wing parties. This trend is on par with the rise of Euroscepticism in France, Hungary, Italy, and Poland. This, however, does not have to translate into greater influence at the European Parliament level. This can be seen in the case of Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) which has 7 MEPs in the current parliament but those members are actually represented in three different groups. The compromise between the right-wing parties and traditional parties and within right-wing parties themselves is highly complicated and one has yet to see if these domestic trends are in fact replicated at the EU level.
The May 2019 European Parliamentary election will have a decisive impact on the future direction of the European Union. The expected gains by populists, nationalists, and Eurosceptics will not just continue a trend and result in further gains down the line by these groups at the national level, it will also add to the polarising climate already witnessed in much of European politics. The key here will lie in whether these groups are able to join together on a common platform after the election. Italy’s Eurosceptic populist government (5SM) has already pledged to work with Hungary’s Victor Orban on changing EU rules regarding migration, immigration and asylum seeking. Much will depend on more centrist conservative forces and their willingness to possibly support certainly legislative proposals put forward by the right-wing groups given that those conservative centrists might see the need to support the current momentum towards more populist positions.
The other possible scenario is one of no solid majority rule, with many different parties playing their part, resulting in an ad-hoc coalition building effort on individual issues. In addition to the weakening of the main parties and a rise in right-wing parties, there could also be a strengthening of liberal and green parties if they themselves can agree on a more common platform. All of this could add to a more lively debate and create additional room for consensus building among parties holding very different views. This could go two ways. On the positive side, it could lead to more creative proposals and new coalitions. On the negative side, it could result in further polarisation, less efficiency at the policy-making level, and, ultimately, a shift of decision-making back to the Council as it gets frustrated by parliamentary infighting. If that happens, the project of EU integration could face further challenges.
Overall, and given the interactions between national political systems and the policy apparatus in Brussels, the election is bound to impact both EU and EU member states’ decision-making and political discourse. It is in this context that the European Parliament election is also a contest about the future of European decision-making.
On the surface, the implications of the EU election for the GCC states should be limited given that the election campaign does not contest issues related to the Middle East policies of the European Union. Yet, there are two levels on which the European Parliament election does hold relevance for the GCC states. The first has to do with the representation of GCC interests in Brussels, while the second pertains to how issues of concern for the GCC states will be handled in a future, possibly more divided, European Parliament.
In order to promote GCC interests at the EU level, multi-level constituencies must be created and maintained that in a way reflect the complexity of the EU decision-making process. This complexity is likely to increase further as a result of the May 2019 European Parliament election. The best way for the GCC states to ensure that their perspectives can be integrated into a future EP calendar is therefore to proceed on three levels: (i) maintain their ties to the EPP parliamentary groups as still the likely largest in the upcoming parliament; (ii) closely watch developments with regard to right-wing groups to see where more direct contact might be needed as these groups formulate their legislative agenda; and (iii) establish communication with the liberal and green oriented camps as they could emerge as a more decisive force in the next parliamentary session. The important guiding element must be to have some form of relation with whatever party might hold the key to any pending issue and to use those relations to create greater consensus across party lines. A key moment will be immediately after the election when new members begin to take up their seats and when parliamentary committees are formed.
The rise of right-wing parties, Eurosceptics and consequently likely increased fragmentation within the European Parliament, could, in the meantime, have two-fold consequences. On the one hand, there is the social aspect of inflammatory anti-immigration and anti-Muslim rhetoric that could lead to continued tensions and impact the overall relationship. Efforts like those of the UAE to create greater levels of tolerance between both social groups and religious communities at the Middle East and European level may find more resistance and therefore lead to a greater complicated environment.
Aside from the social level, the GCC countries’ economic and regional security stabilisation efforts could be undermined, with a European Union that is more divided than ever and less able to put forward decisive positions on critical issues. While there is already concern about the overall effectiveness of EU foreign policy, the additional polarisation that would come out of the European Parliament election could push decision-making more to the national rather than the supra-national level. As a result, the GCC states should keep a dual approach when it comes to Europe with initiatives and prerogatives being pursued at both the Brussels-based as well as the EU member states’ level. Given that support for certain policies can be created in Brussels as well as Paris, Rome, Warsaw or Berlin, it is important to maintain constructive ties at all levels.
All of this underlines the fact that the European Parliament election is indeed important and, therefore, its results should be closely monitored and analysed.
1 Fischer, Joschka, “Europe’s Coming Year of Reckoning,” Project Syndicate, October 30 2018. https://www.project- syndicate.org/commentary/2019-eu-parliament-elections-by-joschka-fischer-2018-10?barrier=accesspaylog.
2 Source: EPRS | European Parliamentary Research Service: At A Glance infographic 2019 European elections: National rulesThe European Parliament is the only parliamentary institution of the European Union that is directly elected by EU citizens, aged 18 or older, with the exception of Austria and Malta where the legal age to vote is 16. In total, slightly more than 400 million EU citizens will be eligible to vote in the election. Voting is mandatory in only five of the 28 member states: Belgium, Bulgaria, Luxembourg, Cyprus, and Greece. The legal obligation to vote applies to both nationals and registered non-national EU citizens in these five countries.
3 EU Council Decision of 25 June and 23 September 2002. https://eurlex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=CONSLEG:2002D0772:20020923:EN:PDF
4 Source: EPRS | European Parliamentary Research Service: At A Glance infographic 2019 European elections: National rules.
5 Depending on the degree of freedom voters enjoy when casting their preferential vote, one can distinguish between semi-open lists, where voters can change the position of one or all candidates on a single chosen list, and open lists, where voters can vote for candidates from different lists. Source: EPRS | European Parliamentary Research Service: At A Glance infographic 2019 European elections: National rules.
6 Diagram from https://www.thenefederalist.eu/projection-for-2019-european-elections-projection.
7 Nicolai von Ondarza and Felix Schenuit, “Reforming the European Parliament: Brexit Creates Opportunity for More than Just Seat Redistribution – But Plans are Modest (for Now),” German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Page 1.
8 Henley, Jon, “How populism emerged as an electoral force in Europe,” The Guardian, 20 November 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2018/nov/20/how-populism-emerged-as-electoral-force-in-europe.
9 Lyman, Rick, “Elections in Hungary Tighten Prime Minister’s Hold on Power” The New York Times, October 13 2014. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/14/world/europe/viktor-orban-hungary-elections.html
10 Karasz, Palko, “Viktor Orban Wins a Second Term in Hungary,” The New York Times, April 7 2014. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/08/world/europe/viktor-orban-wins-a-second-term-in-hungary.html
11 “How Far Is Europe Swinging to the Right?” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/05/22/ world/europe/europe-right-wing-austria-hungary.html
12 “Has the Refugee Crisis Increased the Likelihood of Terrorist Attacks?” Debating Europe, May 9 2018. https://www.debatingeurope.eu/2018/05/09/refugee-crisis-increased-likelihood-terrorist-attacks/#.XEnjDC2ZNN0.
13 Wolkenstein, Fabio, “Why did the EPP vote against Orban?” LSE Blog. http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2018/09/18/ why-did-the-epp-vote-against-orban/.
14 “Democracy on the Move European Elections – One Year To Go,” Eurobarometer Survey 89.2 of the European Parliament, May 2018. http://www.europarl.europa.eu/pdf/eurobarometre/2018/oneyearbefore2019/eb89_one_year_before_2019_ eurobarometer_en_opt.pdf.
15 Anderson, Emma, “Yellow Jackets Protesters Announce Candidates for European Election,” Politico, January 23 2019. https://www.politico.eu/article/ingrid-levavasseur-france-yellow-jackets-protesters-announce-candidates-for-european-election/
18 “European Elections 2019: What will the new Parliament’s composition be?” November 5 2018. https://www.robert-schuman.eu/en/european-issues/0491-european-elections-2019-what-will-the-new-parliament-s- composition-be
19 Balkoura, Ifigenia, “European Elections 2019: An Overview,” The Parliament Magazine, 14 August 2018. https://www.theparliamentmagazine.eu/articles/eu-election-2019/european-elections-2019-overview.
20 Rankin, Jennifer, “Can the UK get an Extension on Brexit?” The Guardian, 4 December 2018. https://www.theguardian. com/politics/2018/dec/04/can-the-uk-get-an-extensiotn-on-brexit.
21 De La Baume, Maïa, “UK must hold EU elections if Brexit is delayed, says senior MEP,” Politico, 22 January 2019. https://www.politico.eu/article/danuta-hubner-uk-eu-elections-if-brexit-delayed/.
22 Joannin, Pascale, “European Elections 2019: What Will the New Parliament’s Composition be?” Robert Schuman Foundation, 5 November 2018 https://www.robert-schuman.eu/en/european-issues/0491-european-elections-2019- what-will-the-new-parliament-s-composition-be
23 European Elections 2019 – Poll of Polls https://www.politico.eu/interactive/european-elections-2019-poll-of-polls/.
24 Public Opinion survey finds record support for EU, despite Brexit backdrop, 23 May 2018. http://www.europarl.europa.eu /news/en/press-room/20180522IPR04027/public-opinion-survey-finds-record-support-for-eu-despite-brexit-backdrop.
25 Results of the 2014 European Elections, European Parliament. http://www.europarl.europa.eu/elections2014-results /en/turnout.html.
26 Goldirova, Renata, “Slovakia’s EP election Turnout Set for All-Time Low of 13%,” EU Observer, 25 May 2014. https:// euobserver.com/eu-elections/124278.
27 Joannin, Pascale, “European Elections 2019: What Will the New Parliament’s Composition be?” Robert Schuman Foundation, 5 November 2018. https://www.robert-schuman.eu/en/european-issues/0491-european-elections-2019- what-will-the-new-parliament-s- composition-be
28 Grand, Peter and Tiemann, Guido, “Low turnout in European Parliament elections is driven by the perception that the process is not rewarding enough for voters.” LSE Blog. http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2012/08/09/turnout-european- parliament/#Author.
29 Balkoura, Ifigenia, “European Elections 2019: An Overview,” The Parliament Magazine, 14 August 2018 https://www.theparliamentmagazine.eu/articles/eu-election-2019/european-elections-2019-overview.
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