EPC: The 2024 European elections: Potential outcome and consequences

by | May 9, 2024

(May 3, 2024 – EPC)

Speakers:

  • Daniela Schwarzer, Executive Board Member, Bertelsmann Stiftung; Member of the EPC Strategic Council
  • Fabian Zuleeg, Chief Executive & Chief Economist, European Policy Centre
  • Janis Emmanouilidis, Deputy Chief Executive & Director of Studies, European Policy Centre

Moderator:

  • Jacki Davis, Senior Adviser, European Policy Centre

Jacki Davis opened the panel stating that many call the 2024 European elections (EE2024) the most consequential in a long time. She then warned us quoting French President Emmanuel Macron: “Europe is mortal, it can die (…) and this depends only on our choices.”

Daniela Schwarzer reminded us of the current geopolitical threats such as Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the perspective of the US elections and the rise of China. Forecasts have already shown a rise in the number of far-right parliamentarians. According to Schwarzer, member states and voters have to take responsibility for the EE2024. Fabian Zuleeg wanted to outline the context of the so-called global election year with a special importance on the US elections. He mentioned the overall instability in the world, and the big fear that the outcome of the EE2024 might further cement that.

Janis Emmanouilidis found it obvious that the outcome will have a high significance as it can have an effect on the priorities of the next Commission among others. What is happening on the national levels plays into the hands of populists, so the national effects are to worry about. Emmanuel Macron also directed himself towards the French people to emphasize how much these elections matter. However, there seems to be no big excitement on national levels. The lead candidates’ Maastricht debate in April was not watched by millions either. According to Emmanouilidis, European issues are not as discussed as they should be.

Schwarzer recalled that fighting climate change was not only a shared campaign five years ago, but it also actually mobilized young voters. Nowadays, the whole narrative has to be built in a difficult geopolitical situation. In Germany, the Greens and Volt campaign with climate issues, while social democrats campaign with peace, namely why supporting Ukraine will bring it. However, security issues still seem to be the uniting theme.

Emmanouilidis highlighted that in member states geographically close to Ukraine, security is the main issue. While geography obviously matters, security is overall high on the agenda not only because of Ukraine, but also because of the US elections, or more precisely the fear of Donald Trump returning. During the Maastricht debate, the green issue was also high on the agenda. Nonetheless, the main issue is that national parties argue that they will defend their own country’s interest the best which shows that it is not the common good that matters, but the best represented interest.

Zuleeg wondered why security is not even higher on the agenda. He concluded that it is due to the fact that this is still not considered as “our war” since it is happening somewhere else, and people are not affected. Politicians are not really having debates on the possible trade-offs, because they cannot sell that to citizens, it is obviously going to be unpopular. Unfortunately, this attitude can further reinforce national taboos. Zuleeg stated that the turnout will be at best a fickle indicator, it will not really tell much about the system, because in some countries most people might not even vote being fed up with politics.

Emmanouilidis agreed with Zuleeg’s analysis. According to him, politicians should be honest with their voters, but if they are, it could paint them in a bad light. That is why they usually choose not to, because they do not dare to, but this is a wrong approach. Avoiding a discussion about the difficult things is not the right thing to do and it will eventually backfire. We need honest debates, where politicians can say what needs to be done.

Schwarzer underlined that in the context of war, the cost of non-action is a central issue. According to her, the question of enlargement is not discussed enough even though it has a lot to do with the future of the EU. Talking about concrete issues is an easier way, especially since politics are crisis-driven and responsive. She emphasized that we have a treasure, the EU, we should never forget that. She also said that demographics of the elections are changing, for example 4,7% voters in Germany are first time voters. Parties should take it seriously, because these people could just as easily cast a protest vote.

Davis mentioned that 71% of citizens say that their country benefits from the EU. Schwarzer noted that the higher rates about the benefits have definitely something to do with the Brexit. The positive vision is extremely important, in opposition to authoritarian states, to show why democracies are the better model. Concrete deliverables are also important, because citizens should know what to expect from the EU. In socio-economic issues, some people already feel threatened, so the EU has to highlight what it has delivered, how it contributed to handling the Covid crisis for example. The achievements have to be emphasized more.

According to Zuleeg, the Covid issue is an interesting example from a political perspective. The politicians who were honest were the most popular and trusted, and this is exactly what leaders should do now as well. Delivering messages about the severity of the situation could really contribute to the credibility of politicians.

Emmanouilidis explained that there is an appreciation, that Europe matters, and people have high expectations of the EU. They hope that the organisation will do more, but there is also a disillusionment, and a discrepancy between what member states are ready to work on, and the level of expectations. The turnout does matter, because the higher it is, the less likely is that anti-EU forces will do better. Emmanouilidis mentioned the fear for the future of democracy, and that is why he expects the silent majority to stand up.

David stated that the achievements were huge in this mandate, and she wondered why the EPP and Macron are trying to capitalize it. She asked the Speakers if we should expect a more fragmented Parliament. Schwarzer underlined the high risk of that, and the importance of how the right will be composed in the Parliament. One thing is for sure, that the recomposition will bring the weakening of the centre. But will the right be able to take strong positions together? The big divisive issue is Ukraine and Russia, and according to Schwarzer, the future financial framework of the EU will be a just as divisive.

Davis wanted to know the Speakers’ stance on the EPP’s potential response to the rising far-right, since it could mean a right majority. Zuleeg expressed that the far-right has never really been about working in the Parliament, but about using it. Their rise visibly increases the fraction between pro-EU centre groups. But where does the EPP position itself? Will it work with the ECR? The range of potential issues only gets bigger. And there is a risk of more fragmentation with the legislative machinery not working as well as in the past.

Emmanouilidis is sure that the extreme right will do well in the elections, because “they have the wind in their sales” on the national level which will be reflected on the EU level. He expects Renew and the Greens to be the losers of the EE2024, and the mainstream majority to become smaller. The EPP will play a key role, how it will deal with ECR, which can have a negative effect on the traditional coalition. According to Emmanouilidis, what European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said during the Maastricht debate about working with ECR, that it depends on the composition of the Parliament and who will be in which groups, is very dangerous. But there is a chance that she will not get a majority again which could potentially end in huge political chaos. Her support in EPP is not strong, they just prefer her. Either way, that vote will only happen in September, after the summer break.

Schwarzer insisted that the campaign and the results matter from the perspective of the enlargement too. We could have more proactive governments as well as a quick enlargement without reforms. Viktor Orbán is very vocal on that issue, and the more governments change their position, the easier it will be for countries like Hungary. Schwarzer wishes that the EU would have done more with the results of the Conference on the Future of Europe, had more follow-ups. She thinks that we should take the results seriously, and the eventual reform of democracy should include even more participatory elements.

Zuleeg thinks that big legislative agendas are going to be extremely difficult to make, but there are tools that could be used. In decision-making, even though there are different options on the table, the real willingness to engage in debates is missing. Everyone is preoccupied with what they would have to give up to get a consensus. Making big promises is easy, but it is going to be difficult to fulfil them. Viktor Orbán and leaders like him are going to argue that there is an alternative, they will say it is not “anti-EU”, it is just a “different EU”, and if people listen to them, what we will end up with is the inability to make any decisions.

Emmanouilidis warned us that there is a danger of fundamental principles being undermined. Some in the Council think that the next Parliament might be weaker, which will play into their hands. What is ahead of us might be much more difficult than what we have to face now. He said that at the end of the day, one person has the actual chance to be the next Commission President. Even if the strongest of the Maastricht debate was the Greens candidate, it was “an Ursula von der Leyen show”. Emmanouilidis expects a rollback in the green issues, since it is not priority number one. Zuleeg noted that the danger is not an explicit rollback, but how ambitious we will be about the future, and how we will implement things. If member states are not keen on implementing, it could weaken the green agenda.

Schwarzer signalled that people are working on a strategic agenda. The main priorities are security and economic security. The EU has become more alert and able to protect its own principles. It needs a competitive economic model which provides security and autonomy. There is also the question of European defence industry, where there was no major progress so far. Zuleeg underlined that competitiveness and energy process are among the priorities too. Politicians pretty much agree on the challenges, but the question is what they actually propose to do about them, and of course, who is going to pay for it.

Emmanouilidis also remarked the lack of progress on defence. There is a “long Christmas list”, but the level of ambition is questionable. Member states are still not ready to surrender their sovereignty, so it would be more about cooperation. The issue is that politicians think on the national level, and the logic of member states is not aligned with each other.

Getting to the end of the panel, Davis asked what the Speakers would say to persuade young people, if they were politicians. Zuleeg replied that we are really close to the elections, so we cannot do this in the last four weeks. But his key message would be that we live in an extremely challenging period where the main issues like security and climate change cannot be solved on the national level. We need to work together on the EU level.

Emmanouilidis thinks the train with brutal honesty “has long left the station”, nonetheless, he believes that politicians should talk honestly. Schwarzer wanted to end the panel with a little optimism, reminding us that eight countries absolutely want to join the EU, and if we use the potential and grow in size, we can grow in force too. So, there is something to tell people, we do have potential, we just need to put all energy into it.


Link to the event with a video recording:
https://www.epc.eu/en/events/The-2024-European-elections~59f358

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