Why the European Parliament Elections Matter

Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini gives a speech in Avellino, Italy. Paolo Manzo/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Populist parties are looking to make big gains in European Parliament elections. That could disrupt EU policy on issues from trade to migration.

May 17, 2019

Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini gives a speech in Avellino, Italy. Paolo Manzo/NurPhoto via Getty Images
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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

In European Union elections this month, EU citizens will decide the makeup of the bloc’s parliament for the next five years. Populist, far-right, and nontraditional parties are on track to make major gains, which could complicate EU politics.

What does the European Parliament do?

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One of the EU’s seven major institutions, the parliament is the bloc’s only directly elected body. Its 751 seats are divided between EU countries based on population. Germany has the most seats, with 96.

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Unlike most legislatures, the European Parliament doesn’t actually initiate legislation. That’s the job of the European Commission, the EU’s executive body and its most powerful institution. Still, the parliament must approve all laws, including the bloc’s budget and most trade deals.

The parliament also plays a central role in choosing the European Commission. It must approve its president and membership, meaning that the biggest parties in the parliament help set the direction of EU policymaking.

Powers and composition of EU parliament

Who are the major contenders in the 2019 election?

Since the last elections in 2014, the biggest bloc in parliament has been the European People’s Party (EPP), a group of center-right parties drawn from all over the EU. That made the EPP’s Jean-Claude Juncker the Commission’s president. Since no party had a majority, Juncker has governed in a coalition with several other centrist and center-left groups.

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This year, the center-right EPP and the center-left Socialists are likely to remain the largest two forces in parliament. However, they are expected to lose ground, and it is unclear if they will be willing or able to recreate their current coalition.

On the rise are a group of loosely affiliated populist parties, which could win more than a third of the vote. Largest among these is a new alliance led by Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini that includes the far-right French party led by Marine Le Pen and Germany’s anti-immigration Alternative for Germany. Salvini has also courted Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose ruling Fidesz party was recently ejected by the EPP.

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Meanwhile, the United Kingdom was supposed to be long gone from the EU by this election. But the Brexit delay means it must send a parliamentary delegation, which is likely to be dominated by Nigel Farage’s anti-EU Brexit Party.

What’s at stake?

The EU’s $150 billion annual budget and its vast array of laws and regulations directly affect the daily lives of the bloc’s more than five hundred million citizens. The European Parliament has a hand in everything from EU business and trade rules to agricultural and infrastructure spending to migration policy.

The populists have complained the loudest about immigration. Since 2015, the EU has struggled to respond to a wave of migration from Africa and the Middle East, and polling shows this is still a topline issue for voters even as migration numbers have subsided. Under pressure from Salvini and others, the EU has already started to toughen its migration policies, but the populist parties want more.

The next EU government will face other thorny issues. Trade negotiations with the United States have faltered under President Donald J. Trump. China’s Belt and Road Initiative is dividing EU members. Debates over austerity and economic reform are far from resolved. And the EU’s united front on Russia sanctions is in doubt.

And even though the upstart parties aren’t likely to win enough parliamentary seats to govern, they could make life difficult for the next coalition.

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