After Trump and Brexit, the EU Parliament vote could further a populist wave
Elections in European Union nations that affect more than 500 million people in 28 countries are taking place this week amid growing support for nationalist, eurosceptic political parties could that disrupt the EU's broadly centrist policies on immigration, trade, social justice, climate change and other salient issues.
Here's what you need to know, and why it matters:
Between May 23 and May 26, European voters will elect 751 lawmakers to represent them in the ninth sitting of the European Parliament. The elections take place every five years. The number of MEPs (Member of the European Parliament) each country elects is based on population size. Germany elects the most (96); Cyprus, Luxembourg and Malta elect the fewest (6 each). The United Kingdom and the Netherlands vote on May 23; the Czech Republic and Ireland on the 24th; and Latvia, Malta and Slovakia on the 25th. The remaining EU countries vote on the 26th, when some national exit polls and provisional results come out. The full results should be known by Monday.
This is the world's second largest democratic vote, after India's general election.
What does the Parliament do?
Unlike in national Parliaments, MEPs, who split their time between the European Parliament's locations in Brussels and Strasbourg, don't actually initiate any legislation. They scrutinize – approving or rejecting – laws that originate in the EU Commission, the bloc's executive branch. The European Parliament also establishes and oversees budgets and provides oversight for a variety of other EU institutions. Another departure from most national lawmaking bodies: The European Parliament isn't organized along specific political party lines, but by political affiliations (liberals, greens, left-wing, right-wing, etc.). The largest grouping is the European People's Party, which currently has 217 parliamentary seats and is composed of center-right politicians from 80 different political parties across the EU. If an MEP doesn't belong to any of the available political affiliations he or she is known as a "Non-Attached Member" – an independent.
OK, so why is this important?
Since its inception in 1952 the European Parliament has been dominated by pro-EU MEPs. That makes sense, considering the chamber explicitly exists to serve the interests of EU nationals. However, strange as it may seem, since the last vote in 2014, politically affiliated groups whose main raison d'etre is to radically reform or subvert the EU in ways that run contrary to its main purpose – to "enhance economic, social and territorial cohesion and solidarity among EU countries," among other things – have been gaining ground. In fact, the European Council on Foreign Relations, a public policy think tank, has forecasted that anti-EU, anti-immigration, nationalist parties could take more than one-third of the seats in the election.
The vote will be the "next big move" or test for populism after Britain's vote to the leave the EU, also known as Brexit, and President Donald Trump's election in 2016, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon told USA TODAY in an interview late last year. In the interview, Bannon described populism, a movement he has helped publicize, as an ongoing global political insurrection that represents a clash between the legitimate demands and grievances of working-class citizens versus a corrupt, out-of-touch, cosmopolitan, liberal elite.
Not everyone agrees with that characterization.
In "Populism: A Very Short Introduction," the political scientists Cas Mudde and
Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser write that "by itself populism can offer neither complex nor comprehensive answers to the political questions that modern societies generate." They describe it as a "thin-centered" or "host" ideology politically left or right.
Supporters of the EU worry that if populist parties do well in the vote they could work to undermine the bloc's legislative priorities from economic policy to workers' rights.
"Patriotism and Europe are not at odds with each other, nationalism is attempting to destroy Europe, and we have to fight it," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said while campaigning over the weekend and urging voters to reject eurosceptic groups.
Where does Brexit fit in with all this?
Well, really it shouldn't.
When Britain narrowly voted to leave the EU in 2016 it was supposed to mean an end to participating in EU parliamentary elections. However, because Prime Minister Theresa May has not been able to get her EU withdrawal agreement approved by Britain's national Parliament – amid the deadlock, the EU has given her an October 31 deadline to do so – the country now finds itself in the curious position of taking part in a democratic exercise that it probably won't receive any benefit from. Meanwhile, Nigel Farage, a Trump ally who has been one of the loudest pro-Brexit voices, started a new party – the Brexit Party – to take part in the vote and "send a clear message" to the British government from those who back Brexit. Polls show that it could perform better than any of Britain's mainstream groups, including May's ruling Conservatives.
May is under intense pressure to resign over her handling of Brexit.
Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent, England, said that the elections will almost certainly see a strong result for Farage and the Brexit Party, thereby underlining the continuing challenge from populism and also "heightening the prospect of May being replaced by a 'hard Brexiteer' who, most likely, will seek to leave the EU without a formal withdrawal agreement."
A "no deal" Brexit, according to analysts and political scientists, could lead to chaos at ports, grounded flights, traffic jams and food shortages. Buckingham Palace has repurposed a Cold War-era emergency escape plan for Queen Elizabeth II in the event this default EU-divorce position causes social unrest or other disturbances.
But it hasn't been all gravy, or milkshakes, for Farage this week.
He was doused with a milkshake Monday when out campaigning in Newcastle, England, by a man who said he was protesting Farage's "bile and racism." Still, Farage is not the first right-wing British politician to fall victim to a milkshake attack. Tommy Robinson, an anti-immigrant populist activist who is also running in this week's EU parliamentary elections, was pelted by milkshakes twice in two days earlier this month.
"Brexit was voted for, promised to be delivered and then betrayed by (Britain's) Parliament," Farage told USA TODAY. "I could not stand aside and allow this to happen without fighting back. The political class are stunned by our success."
'Bewildering, dire, disastrous': Queen has a Brexit escape plan. How bad will it be?
What role does Trump have?
While the U.S. president of course has no formal role in any of this, his influence is looming large. Trump has repeatedly accused the EU of "taking advantage" of the U.S. on trade and he has threatened to impose billions in tariffs on EU-made goods such as cars, wine and aircraft parts. That tactic has not been lost on some EU political campaigns. In Germany, where less than 10% of the population has "confidence" in Trump, according to the Pew Research Center, the center-left Social Democratic Party used a campaign poster with a large unflattering image of Trump shrugging with a question mark over his face. It is accompanied by the slogan: "Europe is the answer." Another, in Strasbourg, showed Trump's face overlaid with a star-shaped yellow and blue EU flag. The implications appeared clear: Reject Trump, a populist who recently heaped praise on EU member Hungary's far-right nationalist leader Viktor Orban during his visit to the White House; instead, embrace the EU and Europe.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: After Trump and Brexit, the EU Parliament vote could further a populist wave