One could say the campaigns in the European Parliament elections, which are taking place this week on 23 – 26 May, have been one of the most European so far, based on the amount of attention that has been given in media, both national and European.
A video by the European Parliament to promote the elections even went viral. Moreover, the Spitzenkandidaten (Lead candidates) experiment of 2014 is repeated this year, with increased debates and coverage, as well as an overload of social media activity and special hashtags being used.
There are also dominant European wide themes like migration and the environment. However, far from having a European public sphere where matters are discussed, the main topics discussed are predominantly national. Even when European topics are being discussed, this is done in a national arena together with many domestic issues.
In the end, it’s often more about the standings of the individual political parties and/or candidates, and how they are perceived from a national lens, rather than their exact positions and arguments in a European context.
Take for instance Romania, in which the election will be more of a referendum on the current government, led by the Social Democrat PSD, which has hindered efforts to tackle corruption, and has been at odds with President Iohannis, who decided to organise a referendum on justice to coincide with the European elections. Guess which of the two will make people vote more?
Likewise, in Bulgaria, the main theme of the election have been corruption scandals, particularly the so-called “apartment scandal”, which has put Prime Minister’s centre-right GERB party on the defence, to the benefit of the Socialists.
Moreover, both Spain and Finland just had their national elections in the previous month, overshadowing the EP elections as their political scenes are more focused now on the government formation process – in turn hindered by the EP elections. Making things more complicated for Spain: local elections and regional elections also take place on the same day.
Likewise, In the case of Belgium, the EP elections coincide with both federal elections and regional elections, leaving little doubt that the EP elections are, perhaps except for the Brussels bubble, under snowed.
Then there is Malta. While it had one of the highest (non-compulsory!) turnout rates (75%) in 2014’s EP elections, the current election campaign has been more of a standoff between standing Prime Minister Muscat from the Labour party versus Adrian Delia’s Nationalist party. A major topic they discussed in a debate turned out to be a tunnel infrastructure project. So far for the European dimension.
While both French President Macron on the one hand, and Italian deputy Prime Minister Salvini on the other hand will play crucial roles in the new European groups that will be formed after the EP elections, what’s more at stake are their respective political experiments that have upended the former mainstream parties in different ways in both France and Italy.
For Denmark, that will elect a new national Parliament next month, the EP elections are more off a rehearsal, after attempts failed to hold these elections together. While national elections are a couple of more months away, the EP elections in Greece will be regarded as a referendum on Alexis Tsipras and his SYRIZA dominated government.
In the case of Lithuania, that will (as in 2014) elect the successor to President Dalia Grybauskaitė in the second round of the Presidential elections at the same time, it’s questionable whether the voter will have much attention for the European Parliament to where they will send just a handful of MEPs.
Then there is the Netherlands. This year’s provincial elections in March saw the relatively new Forum for Democracy (FvD) not only dethrone Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV) as the new far-right party in town, but also beat Mark Rutte’s liberal party (VVD). The elections are now even turning into a battle royal between him and FvD leader Thierry Baudet, which he has challenged for a final 1 on 1 debate before the elections.
Then there is Poland. While its turnout of 24% is heavily expected to be beaten by far, it’s not necessarily because of European themes. No, the elections are considered as a serious test for the current government dominated by the right-wing populist Law and Justice (PiS) party.
Angered by PiS’s attacks on the country’s rule of law and democracy, the opposition, from the left to the right, has decided to form a united front in the European Coalition (KE), with the one and only aim to outperform PiS’s electoral result, which it hopes to repeat in national elections planned for October.
Moreover, Austria is focused on a video scandal, which showed (the now resigned) Vice-Chancellor and party leader of the far-right FPÖ discuss favourable public contracts to a woman he thought was a niece of a Russian oligarch.
And don’t get started on either Slovakia or the Czech Republic, that had turnout rates of 13% and 18% respectively in 2014 for the EP elections.
The UK stands out for now being forced to participate in the EP elections after Theresa May’s government failed to get the exit deal approved, the topic that, ironically, dominates its future relation with the EU. Arguably, the country has been in ‘‘European’’ election mode since 2017 when the withdrawal process from the EU was triggered.
The issue prompted Nigel Farage to create his Brexit Party that rose to pole position in the polls with circa 30% of the vote, whereas the LibDems have campaigned to remain in the EU on the slogan “Bollocks to Brexit”, which has propelled them almost beyond Labour.
However, apart from the notorious case of the UK and the topic of Brexit, that has also encroached on some other countries’ debates, and despite that there is a good chance that the historically low turnouts of 2009 and 2014 might be improved somewhat, the fact remains that national factors matter. It’s the national politics stupid!
By Robert Steenland & Pablo Ribera Payá
Robert Steenland works as an evaluation and research consultant in EU policies, as well as an analyst in EU politics. He holds a double degree master in European Governance.