It has taken 40 years since the first “direct elections” in 1979 but the European Parliament is finally receiving the attention it has always claimed it deserves. This weekend’s elections will be something of a novelty in that arguably they will be the first to be held where “Europe” is the centre of debate.
Clearly in the UK this can largely be down to the ongoing saga of Brexit. If the current government had had its way, the UK would not even be taking part in this plebiscite since it was supposed to have left by the end of March. Since the worst laid plans of the government did not result in this conclusion, the UK finds itself surprisingly, and in many quarters reluctantly, campaigning to be part of a legislature which it could in theory leave by the end of October, the latest deadline for departure – until a new deadline is granted.
The British news story, of course, is the extraordinary emergence of the new Nigel Farage vehicle (one hesitates to call it a party as it is registered as a company), which is currently polling in the mid to late 30s, well ahead of the Lib Dems and further back in the rear view mirror, the Labour Party and Conservative Party.
The UK has fought the EP elections in a version of proportional representation (the now infamous d’Hondt system) since 1999, which means in broad terms the share of seats the Brexit Party receives will largely reflect the share of its vote. This is not a complete novelty as Mr Farage’s UKIP won more seats than any other UK party in the last EP elections in 2014.
The question “everyone” is asking is: how disruptive will the Brexit Party be in the European Parliament? If the UK still ends up leaving by the 31 October deadline there is, of course, not a great deal of disruption that even Mr Farage can engineer, especially given the lengthy summer hiatus. But we can look forward to a flow of characteristically provocative speeches in plenary (Mr Farage chooses not to spend his time in committee work) with carefully prepared pieces to camera designed to populate his YouTube channel.
The broader, and from an EU27 perspective, more disquieting, question is: how well will the populist “anti-EU” parties in the rest of the EU perform and what ideological agenda(s) do they have in mind?
Mainstream parties and their leadership have serious grounds to be concerned, although, again, a significant number of populist MEPs is not something new in the European Parliament. Depending on your definition, the 2014 elections returned somewhere between a quarter and a third of members that were pretty unambiguously “anti-European”.
They failed to capitalise on this electoral success in the outgoing legislature through a combination of the mainstream party groupings forging alliances to keep the “populists” out of positions of authority (such as key committee chairmanships) and the populist MEPs proving themselves incapable of creating solid cross-country alliances to secure such positions.
This is likely to change in the new Parliament. The two main groupings, the centre-right European People’s Party and the centre-left Socialist and Democrat group, will both lose seats (again) but this time together will fail to command a majority of the total parliamentary membership. The populists, for their part, show all the signs of learning the lessons of their earlier fragmentation and will show more cohesion and discipline as a serious counterweight to the traditional mainstream groupings.
The first manifestation of that will be seen in the parliamentary vote (or votes) on the next President of the European Commission. The so-called “Spitzenkandidaten” process where political groups choose a lead candidate to front the campaigns and debate on the hustings, is widely seen as a failure. It will nonetheless result in the emergence of a “winner”, but one whose win has to be endorsed by the European Parliament in an absolute majority vote. The populists will no doubt use this opportunity as a way to flex their new political muscle even if they are outvoted by the mainstream groups. And in any event it will be seen as a test run for how these anti-EU forces will behave in the next Parliament.
The political debates about the future direction of the EU will certainly be lively and give the European Parliament a visibility that it has long craved. It now finds itself, finally, if not the, at least a, centre of attention. It will be much more difficult to ignore it in the future.
Paul Adamson is the Editor of E!Sharp and a Visiting Professor at the Policy Institute, King's College London.