European parliament elections: The Brexit effect

Frexit (France leaving the EU), Italexit (Italy walking out the door), Nexit (the Netherlands following suit) and so on?

Fast-forward almost three years and here we are, on the eve of the European parliamentary elections – and although Eurosceptic parties are expected to make a strong showing at the polls, there’s not a peep amongst them (UK parties remaining the exception) about leaving the EU.

Why have European voters gone off the idea?

In part, this is down to a growing awareness that the world out there is downright unpredictable: with President Trump in the White House; Russian President Putin at large around the European corner; looming trade wars; the environment in a mess; and the threat of mass migration to this continent from poorer parts of the globe.

The conclusion amongst many in Europe is that it’s safer to stick together. According to opinion polls, the EU is now more popular than it has been since the early 1980s.

But there’s another big reason that leaving is no longer so appealing: Brexit.

Europeans have been shocked, and quite frankly put off, by the social divisions driven through British society by the 2016 referendum, and by the destructive political tangle in what is traditionally revered across the continent as “the mother of parliaments”.

Alice Weidel, one of the leaders of Germany’s Eurosceptic AfD party, said recently that she regretted her group’s flirtation with “Dexit” (an EU exit for Deutschland, the German word for Germany). Her feeling was that it lost them potential voters.

So, ahead of this week’s election for the European Parliament, Europe’s right-wing nationalists – including Marine Le Pen of France, Italy’s firebrand deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, and the AfD – have been calling to “change the EU from the inside” rather than walk away from it altogether.

After the vote, they hope to become the third largest faction in the European Parliament. And they have the EU establishment rattled.

EU Economics Commissioner Pierre Moscovici describes these elections as the “most delicate and most dangerous ever”. He told me the nationalist Eurosceptics threatened to “destroy the EU as we know it”.

Marine Le Pen wouldn’t disagree.

After she and her European colleagues had finished with the EU, she told me, she was sure that those who had voted Leave in the UK would want to join their new “European Union of independent nations”.

But opinion polls, plus relations between all these nationalist groups (some are warm towards Moscow, others hostile; some want a distribution system for migrants arriving in Europe, others hate the idea) suggests Mrs Le Pen and her colleagues may find it difficult to get enough votes to transform the EU as they wish, never mind being able to work together effectively enough in European Parliament.

Rather than the screaming headline “surge of the far right” to define these elections, I’d opt for: “Hunger for change”.

Change is something you hear voters calling for across the EU right now: change in the way national governments are run; change in the way the EU works.

But not everyone is looking to the nationalist right for answers.

The far left, the populist left (like Spain’s Podemos), single issue parties and environmental groups also expect a boost. The Greens dream of becoming kingmakers in the new European Parliament too.

It’s very likely that we’ll see a similar trend to one we’ve witnessed in general election after general election across the EU: a slap in the face for traditional political parties that have governed Europe since the end of World War Two.

The EU’s Big Two – the governments of France and Germany – are jumpy.

Haemorrhaging votes in Brussels will further weaken Chancellor Merkel and President Macron at home. Both leaders have kept an extremely low profile during the European election campaign.

This when – you’ll remember – Emmanuel Macron presented himself as Mr Europe in his push to become French president. Rather crushingly for him, the polls in France have his centrist alliance neck-and-neck with Marine Le Pen.

Overall though, pro-EU groups will likely dominate the new European Parliament.

The traditional centre-left (social democrat) and centre-right (Christian-democrat/conservative) factions may be in danger of losing their overall majority for the first time, but they’ll still probably emerge as the two biggest groups.

Yet this threatens to be a very splintered parliament.

Finding consensus to make or change laws will be a challenge when the popular shout for change is at its loudest.

Still, let’s not forget, while the European Parliament plays an important role, the real power to reform the European Union, or change it from within, lies not with MEPs but with national leaders: the prime ministers and presidents of the EU’s 28 (27) member states.

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