A "new era" coming for the European Parliament according to populists

EUPopulistsUntieParis - For months, far right leaders across the European Union have been breathlessly talking about the 'new era' that will come with European Parliament elections this week.

They may be right.

Analysts and pollsters predict a major surge for the right-wing, anti-immigrant parties across the 28-member bloc. In fact, anti-EU parties are projected to become the second-largest bloc in the parliament, projected to win up to 35 percent of seats – a gain of as much as 14 percent over 2014's elections, according to a poll for the Berlin-based European Council of Foreign Relations.

If that happens, it means that the next European Parliament will be almost split between the far right, and the left bloc, projected to garner 34 percent, and the center-right with 32 percent. And while populists won't likely win a majority of the body's 751 seats, they will probably win enough to cause gridlock, say analysts.

"They won't be able to take control," said Adriano Bosoni, an analyst with Stratfor based in Barcelona. "But it will be a much more fragmented parliament. And while they won't necessarily be more influential directly, they will likely force the center-right more to the right."

The European Council of Foreign Relations said it expects the far right's gains to translate into a bloc advocating for "a return to a 'Europe of the nations,'" one against free trade, immigration and "supportive of Moscow’s arguments about the need to flout international law in the Russian national interest in Ukraine," it wrote.

"And, in the longer term, their ability to paralyze decision-making at the center of the EU would defuse pro-Europeans’ argument that the (EU) is imperfect but capable of reform. At this point, the EU would be living on borrowed time," the study added.

Analysts say that part of the reason for the likely stronger showing this time around is that voters act differently in European Parliament elections than in national elections.

"Voters are more likely to indulge themselves in the non-traditional candidates," said Ben Tonra, a politics professor at University College Dublin. "They are more likely to make choices they might not have otherwise made in national elections – that tends to benefit the (far left and the far right)."

The far-right exists in most European nations in opposition, their support has been rising over the years and they have garnered between 10-20 percent of the vote in most countries
with the strongest support in Austria – 26 percent in the last election.

"(The EU election) mirrors the development taking place on the national level," said Bosoni. "In most states, the traditional mainstream parties are losing ground to the right and the left. That's because of a decline of trust in the mainstream parties.

At the same, voter apathy in the EU helps the far right, say analysts. Turnout has been steadily dropping over since 1979 when the EU elections were first held – from 61.8 percent to 42.6 in the last election in 2014.

In the Bastille neighborhood of Paris Saturday, members of Macron's upstart La République En Marche party – running for the first time in the EU elections – were out passing out flyers, talking to voters as they shopped in the busy district. They were begging voters to vote.

"We don't care if they vote for us," one campaign worker admitted. "It's just important they show up because when they don't, it's the far right that wins."

Analysts say many voters this election are motivated by fear of the far right. Voters bear that out.

"I’m worried about the European elections because I think they’ll just give more power to the nationalists," said Antonio di Renzo, 51, a civil servant in Rome. "There have been some mistakes (in the development of the EU) but I think it’s the only way forward…"

Meanwhile, on Sunday, thousands took part in pro-Europe rallies across Germany.

Still, for all the optimism by far-right leaders, the parties are facing some serious issues.

Austria has one of the most firmly established on the continent but over the weekend, Vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party stepped down after a video surfaced showing appearing to show him offering government contracts in exchange for campaign support to a woman pretending to be the relative of a Russian oligarch.

No one is quite certain how that will affect the elections, analysts said.

Another question is unity.

In spite of efforts by Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, head of the country's far-right League party, to drum up support for a united far-right movement, “Toward a Europe of Common Sense,” differences between the far-right parties across Europe are stark and tensions linger – especially over Russia.

Le Pen, Salvini and others are very pro-Russia and have called for closer ties with the country, a stance that puts off Eastern European members such as Poland's Law and Justice party. Other issues include friction over which countries will take migrants.

On Saturday, Salvini again hosted nearly a dozen far right leaders from across Europe, including France's Marine Le Pen and the Netherland's Geert Wilders, and tried to paper over those differences.

"This is a historic moment,” said Le Pen, said at a rally in Milan. “Five years ago, we were isolated. Today, with our allies, we will finally be in a position to change Europe."

Another open question is what the far-right bloc will do with its increased power. Most believe it will be less than they say they will.

"Once you have to start making decisions, it's harder than being in the opposition," Bosoni said.

Regardless, analysts say this year is almost certain to see a blanket rejection of the European political status quo. Most believe that will benefit the far-right but Tonra says not to count out the far left or the Greens either.

"There’s a revolution happening," said Federica Romano, 31, a hairdresser in Rome and a League voter. "I think we will start to see the changes we need after the election. That’s when we will be the strong voice."

Photo: May 18, 2019 - Milan, Italy - Leaders of populists parties in the European Union during a rally in Piazza d'Uomo in Milan, Italy. From left to right: Geert Wilders (Dutch Party for Freedom in the Netherlands), Matteo Salvini (The League in Italy), Jorg Meuthen (behind, Alternative for Germany in Germany) and Marie Le Pen (National Rally in France).
Credit: Courtesy of Marie Le Pen's official Twitter page. (05/18/19)

Story/photo publish date: 05/21/19

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.
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