Elections in Europe have become complex affairs, combining issues that are important for the national arena but have serious consequences for European Union (EU) decisions and vice versa: decisions at the European level shape national debates and politics. Political observers and debates now cross national borders and Europeans have become much more aware of the political dynamics in their partner states. This holds true for European Parliament elections scheduled for May 2019. They are seen as an important barometer of the political weather in some of the member states, especially France and Italy, but also of the extent to which there is an unstoppable wave of anti-EU sentiment that will crash on to the European Parliament and forever change the course of European integration. However, as we will see below, while these are important elections, they may not have the immediate dramatic results that many have predicted, especially with respect to foreign policy and EU-Russia relations.
The European Parliament elections will be observed closely for a number of reasons. First, important positions in EU institutions will need to be filled and at least one of these, the presidency of the European Commission, will be greatly influenced by the election results. Second, the elections will be the latest major test to assess the strength of far-right populist parties, not so much at the EU level where they may form, at best, the third largest parliamentary group, but in some member states such as Italy, Germany, France, Spain and Poland. Third, and related to the previous point about the performance of far-right parties, a significant presence among populist and nationalist parties in the EP could mean changes to some basic EU policies, especially with respect to economic policy, but also foreign policy. This might not be the direct result of decisions made by the EP, but because the electoral results might embolden some governments, such as the Italian leadership, to exert pressure within the Council, (which is the EU’s main decision-making body and represents the member states) to change course on issues such as the Brexit negotiations, Libya and relations with Russia.
Foreign policy is not generally a central issue in the European Parliament elections, as the institution’s role is largely marginal, due to the relative lack of related foreign policy processes at the EU level. But Russia has been part of the discussion in this year’s election for at least two reasons. First, the issue of Russian sanctions may not have received a great deal of attention recently at the European level but it remains an issue for some member states. Some of the populist parties, such as Lega in Italy, have campaigned for years for the lifting of sanctions and presumably would use the limited resources they have in the EP to alter foreign policy by pushing for their removal.
A second reason for a focus on Russia is much more nebulous and a reflection of the growing politicisation of the European Parliament. This is related to the broader perception that the rise of right-wing populist parties has also been fuelled by foreign government interference. The narrative that has been formed is that liberal democracies in Europe have been undermined, not by some internal flaw, but by foreign influences that have sought to weaken democracy and sink the project of European integration by exploiting the economic crisis and instability along the EU’s borders. Whether or not the attempt to influence national and EU electoral politics is real is not as important as the perception that there is an attempt to undermine the EU from the outside. Rightly or wrongly, Russia has been implicated, not the least because some of the populist parties in countries such as France and Italy have made no secret of their close relations with the Russian government.
Despite all the anticipation that the elections will lead to major shifts in EU policy, there is good reason to believe that not much will change, including with respect to foreign policy and EU-Russia relations. The major electoral breakthrough of anti-EU parties may not materialise, and the vast majority of seats will go to pro-EU parties. Recent polls have indicated that populist parties from continental Europe seem to be maxing out at about 20% of the vote. While this may represent a breakthrough in some of the member states, it also indicates that there is not much more room for these parties to grow in this electoral cycle. There are signs that the momentum that seemed unstoppable a few months ago has reached a plateau. The recent scandal leading to the resignation of the Austrian Vice-Chancellor from the Freedom Party, Heinz-Christian Strache, suggests that populist parties are much better at tapping into dissatisfaction and frustrations with existing institutions than they are at governing or playing the political game.
More importantly, EU policy is slow to change; more so in the current context. The EU political agenda is likely to be dominated over the next six months by the political wrangling over appointing a new governor of the European Central Bank, a new Commission President, a new Council President and a new High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. When member states are not engaged in these negotiations, they are likely to still be consumed by the Brexit process and its aftermath after 31 October. Some of the member states, such as Austria and possibly Italy, will be so consumed by their own domestic electoral contests over the next few months that they will neither have the time nor the political capital to work to bring about major changes at the EU level.
Finally, the experiences with Russian sanctions and Brexit negotiations suggest that the EU can be resilient, compact and steadfast despite internal tensions. The presence of populist anti-EU parties in the governments of Austria, Italy and some of the Visegrád countries has not brought about any major change to some of the foundations of EU economic and foreign policy. This is due not just to the preferences of major EU powers, which have dominated EU decisions. It reflects, as the Brexit process is revealing, that the EU is a complex structure in which member states still feel compelled to promote their national interests. Elections may change the complexion of the European Parliament but not the interests of member states.