The E.U. Is Voting. It’s Never Mattered More.


It’s tempting to dismiss the European Parliament elections as the most important elections that don’t actually matter.

Hundreds of millions of voters across 27 nations will turn out this weekend to cast their ballots, but the European Parliament is the least powerful of the European Union institutions. It is often derided as a talking shop. Its 720 members have limited powers, and, while a few are ascendant stars, a few are retired politicians, or even criminals.

But, the European Union has never been more important in delivering tangible benefits to its citizens, or to the world in being a force for stability and prosperity, since its inception as an economic alliance nearly seven decades ago. The Parliament that emerges from these elections, weak though it may be, will serve as a brake or accelerator for the crucial policies that will help shape Europe’s immediate future.

In the five years since the last election, the bloc jointly bought Covid-19 vaccines and started a massive economic stimulus program to recover from the pandemic. It sanctioned Russia and paid to arm and reconstruct Ukraine. It ditched Russian energy imports and negotiated new sources of natural gas. It overhauled its migration system. It adopted ambitious climate policies.

But in that time, the E.U. has also been criticized for failing to heed demands for more accountability and transparency, and for pushing policies that favor urban elites over farmers and rural voters. The loss of sovereignty to an obscure center of power in Brussels, manned by technocrats, doesn’t sit well with many Europeans either.

Incensed by Covid-era policies, and the arrival of more migrants, and desperate to regain a sense of control and identity, many voters are expected to swing way to the right. The two further right parties running in these elections are poised to make significant gains.

That shift is also charged by some of the same culture-war issues pertaining to gender politics, especially in Eastern Europe, as in the United States and other parts of the developed world.

Against this backdrop, Europe’s election will produce a new compromise with political extremes. It looks likely that centrist parties will have to work with the far right to get anything done.

If the the projections are right, then the Parliament may well have a harder time performing even the limited functions it does have — approving E.U. legislation, the bloc’s budget, and E.U. top leadership positions. Smaller, more disruptive actors will become more powerful. And the far right is itself splintering, leading to further instability in the European political process.

“Normally, these elections would be of a second or third order of importance,” said Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at the Eurasia Group consultancy. “But the vote matters because of the context.”

The European Union grows through crisis. At the heart of this unique experiment at super-national governance lies the idea that the countries of Europe can achieve more together than each on its own.

Still, the way the bloc works rests on an inherent tension between the joint E.U. institutions mostly based in Brussels, primarily its executive arm, the European Commission, and the national governments in each of the 27 member states.

The commission fancies itself the guardian of a vision for a federal Europe, herding its members toward “an ever closer union,” per its founding document. The national governments oscillate between empowering and funding the commission, and seeking to control it, blame it for failures and grab the credit for successes.

This weekend’s elections will send a strong signal to European leaders of which side of the scale citizens want to place their finger. Each consolidation of power by Brussels has tended to be followed by some popular pushback, making Europe’s integration a process of two steps forward, one step back.

The pandemic was a case in point. After a brutal first wave that left Europeans without sufficient access to vaccines, the E.U. organized the purchase of billions of vaccine doses and Europeans quickly emerged from punishing lockdowns.

In many ways the response was considered a success. But it also engendered a deep distrust of Brussels in the pockets of voters, especially on the right, who are wary of government overreach, and may also be vaccine skeptics.

The vaccine procurement contracts remain secret, and there’s a pervasive sense that the E.U. ordered too many doses and wasted taxpayers’ money. (The New York Times is suing the commission in a Freedom of Information case before the European Court over documents pertaining to these contracts.)

As a profound economic crisis battered countries and unleashed dizzying inflation rates in the wake of the pandemic, the E.U. convinced its members to borrow money together to finance a vast stimulus plan. This Rubicon of sorts — borrowing together — broke new ground, and arguably prevented the collapse of the E.U. into a deeper and longer recession.

But it was also unpopular among the bloc’s richest nations that are the underwriters of such debt, and net contributors to the bloc’s spending. That, too, has incensed right-wing voters in countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, who feel that the E.U. takes too much from them and gives too little back.

The next test was Ukraine. When Russia launched a full-scale invasion, the E.U. sanctioned Russia in lock step with the United States and other allies. It severed ties with much of the Russian economy, ultimately forsaking it as an energy source — and in the process forgoing cheap access to electricity.

Today, though the United States remains Ukraine’s indispensable backer, the E.U. is sending billions of euros to Kyiv for arms and reconstruction and has offered it a future within its ranks as a full E.U. member down the line.

For voters who felt that supporting Ukraine has come at too high a price, and others who are pro-Russia, the war has become another driver of far-right appeal.

Following such crises, national governments usually seek to wrestle back some of the authority they had ceded to the E.U. to avoid calamity. That backlash is being reinforced by the nationalist, nativist parties that resent the loss of sovereignty to Brussels.

“The problem is that all the major areas where the E.U. needs to address problems for its citizens now — competitiveness, migration, security — these are issues at the limit of the E.U.’s competence,” said Mr. Rahman.

“These are areas that define state power, and it’s very hard to get countries to again cede sovereignty and build a collective and coherent European response.”

The E.U.’s political mainstream — the European Commission included — has tried to get out ahead of that trend by, for instance, tempering green policies to satisfy farmers who staged sometimes violent protests across Europe this year.

But the E.U. continues to push for greater coordination where it sees a new crisis looming — joint defense — an area it’s not very good at.

Another thing the E.U. isn’t great at is foreign policy, but, ready or not, these elections will influence whether the bloc can find its voice in an intensely fragmented global order.

A Trump presidency could erode American investment in NATO, push for faster peace in Ukraine on Russia’s terms, and swing the United States more aggressively behind Israel.

The E.U. would struggle to maintain a hard line against Russia if the U.S. cuts its support for Ukraine. Its promotion of international rules would also find challenges elsewhere, including in the Middle East where it is a secondary actor.

More broadly, with a stronger far right in the European Parliament, Trump-aligned leaders like Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, would move front and center.

With nationalist parties in coalition governments in seven of its 27 members, the E.U. could end up edging closer to a Trump-led United States. Its own aspirations for unity to make European power felt in the world would be tested.

“I think we should be prepared to respond to drastic changes coming from the U.S., but we may not be able to, largely because member states are not ready for it,” said Shahin Vallée, a senior fellow at the German Council of Foreign Relations.

“My base line scenario is that, if Trump is elected, European leaders will individually rush to the White House to do precisely what they did last time around: beg Trump for favors.”

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