Voting to elect a new European Parliament got under way on Thursday as Britain and the Netherlands head to the polls.
More than 400 million Europeans in 28 member states including Brexiting Britain will be asked to cast a vote for a renewed five-year term of the EU’s only directly elected body.
The composition of the 751-member parliament will have wide-ranging implications for the EU and its member states. The European Parliament will be responsible for choosing the next president of the European Commission, and will influence the EU’s legislative agenda. While it can’t initiate legislation, which is the purview of the European Commission, it can adopt and amend it.
The European Parliament also decides on the annual budget of the EU, alongside the Council of the EU, and oversees the work of EU institutions.
The vote in Britain and the Netherlands will be followed by Ireland on May 24. Latvia, Malta and Slovakia vote on May 25, while the Czech Republic will have two days to go to ballots on May 24 and 25.
The remaining countries will vote on Sunday, May 26, with unofficial results for all countries expected late on Sunday evening.
Normally considered “second class” elections by voters, with turnout steadily decreasing since they were first held in 1979, this year’s polls have generated a level of drama and debate normally reserved for the national stage.
The elections take place against the backdrop of rising far-right nationalism across Europe, as well as increasingly authoritarian and illiberal tendencies in some Eastern European countries.
Poland has been at loggerheads with the EU over concerns for respect of the rule of law, and protests have been ongoing in the Czech Republic over similar concerns in recent weeks.
In Italy, interior minister and co-deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini has emerged as the figurehead of European far-right populism and has enlisted nearly a dozen, mostly small parties from across Europe, to be part of a new group in the European Parliament after the elections, which will include Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement Nationale (National Rally). It is likely to find allies in Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party and Hungary’s Fidesz, which is part of the largest group in the European Parliament, the right-leaning European People’s Party (EPP).
In France, President Emmanuel Macron’s bid to stop populists and reform the EU will see his party, En Marche, go head to head with Le Pen, with both parties polling at around 20 percent.
Since the last election in 2014, the European Union has seen a refugee crisis, the Brexit vote and terrorist attacks on its soil. Populist parties on both the left and the right have made strides at the national level, and they are projected to win just over one third of seats in the new parliament.
Nationalist and far-right parties are forecasted to make the most gains, unsettling the traditional dominance of the centre-right and centre-left blocs, the EPP and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D). Both groups are projected to lose seats and the new parliament will look a lot more fragmented as a result, making it more difficult to form majorities.
Meanwhile, studies have shown that overall support for membership of the EU among the public remains high – partly due to the Brexit debacle – while Europeans simultaneously believe that the EU might collapse within the next ten to twenty years.
Between Nexit and Brexit
In the Netherlands, the election has two main contenders: Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s liberal People’s Party from Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and the upstart, far-right Forum for Democracy (FvD).
Led by 36-year-old Thierry Baudet, the FvD party surprised observers when it came first in provincial elections earlier this year and is now projected to gain as many seats as the ruling party – five under the European Parliament’s system of proportional representation.
With the Trump-inspired slogan “Dutch first”, the party talks about protecting “European Christian civilisation” from a supposed decline brought about by migration as well as women being encouraged to pursue careers instead of having children. While most far-right populist leaders have recalibrated their message from leaving the EU to changing it from within, Baudet wants his country to leave the bloc – or Nexit.
Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, Nigel Farage’s new Brexit party appears set to bring home the largest share of the vote, polling at more than 30 percent. Labour lagged more than ten points behind in recent opinion polls, while the Conservative party led by the beleagured prime minister, Theresa May, polled at around 10 percent.
The vote is seen by many in the UK as a proxy for a referendum on Brexit. However, Dr Simon Usherwood, deputy director of the academic think-tank UK in a Changing Europe and a politics reader at the University of Surrey, points out that, in practice, the elections won’t have a direct impact on the Brexit process.
“MEPs don’t have a role in renegotiating the agreement between the UK and the EU,” Usherwood told Al Jazeera. “Even though people will be voting that way, that is still very much something that will have to be decided in Westminster rather than in Strasbourg.”
Any effect on May’s Conservative party, Usherwood argues, has already happened.
“Already we know that the party is about to choose a new leader, and that it will almost certainly be someone who is more receptive to the possibility of leaving without a deal,” Usherwood said. “The Labour party will use the results to say that the Tories are finished and we need a general election. But that’s something they have been saying for a long time already.”