Friday, June 21, 2024

Key issues hanging over the EU elections

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With the European Union’s 370 million voters being called on to decide their next European Parliament in June 6-9 elections, here are the key issues at stake:

Far-right result

Opinion polls predict a far-right surge.

That should benefit the two main extreme-right groupings in the parliament: the European Conservatives and Reformists, which counts Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy in its ranks; and the Identity and Democracy grouping, which kicked out Germany’s scandal-ridden AfD but remains home to the National Rally of France’s Marine Le Pen.

An unknown going into the elections: Where will the currently unaffiliated Fidesz — the nationalist ruling party of Hungary, which maintains warm ties with the Kremlin — end up?

Together, far-right forces could theoretically outnumber the parliament’s top group, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) of EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen. But they remain divided on several issues, including over whether or not to support Ukraine in its fight against Russia.

Top jobs carve-up

After the elections, the political balance of power will help determine who gets the top jobs running the EU’s main institutions, most notably the European Commission and the European Council.

The leaders of the 27 member countries will tackle that tricky carve-up at a June 27-28 summit.

Von der Leyen is seeking a new five-year term as boss of the commission, and is considered the front-runner.

But she will need not only the leaders’ backing but also endorsement from the incoming parliament, which is potentially complicated by her overtures to Meloni, which have already angered left-wing allies.

One name circulating as a possible alternative is Mario Draghi, Meloni’s technocrat predecessor as premier and a respected former chief of the European Central Bank.

Green deal

The EU has already made progress toward its ambitions of a carbon-neutral future by legislating a phase-out of combustion-powered cars, banning imports from deforested areas and introducing a carbon border tax.

But further initiatives are facing headwinds, from burdened households, irate farmers and leaders calling for a “pause”.

Von der Leyen’s EPP is siding with far-right parties to promise an easing-up on green measures in order to help European industry and competitiveness.

In a sign that the environment is sliding down EU voters’ list of priorities, the Greens grouping in the parliament could lose around 40 percent of its seats, polls suggest.

Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine focused EU attention on the need to bolster the bloc’s defence industry, but it is struggling to find the money.

Brussels is proposing a 1.5-billion-euro ($1.6 billion) strategy to get the defence sector working better, but it still needs to be negotiated.

If it cannot be funded through joint borrowing, as was done for post-Covid recovery funding, the issue will be batted around the new parliament as it discusses the EU’s long-term budget.

EU lawmakers could also potentially weigh in on Ukraine’s prospects of one day joining the bloc, which is chiefly a decision for leaders but also requires parliament’s green light.

National competitions

Even though the elections are for EU lawmakers, voters cast ballots for national parties that vie to sit in the legislature, whose official seat is in Strasbourg, the French city on the border with Germany.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist Renaissance party is forecast to be trounced by the extreme-right National Rally of Marine Le Pen.

That would deal an embarrassing blow to Macron, who has strived to be the voice of strategic thinking for the European Union.

In Germany, where political energy is spent keeping a government coalition of Greens, liberals and socialists together, the far-right AfD party — erstwhile allies of Le Pen’s — is on track to win around 15 percent of the vote, according to opinion polls. That would place it behind the conservative CDU-CSU alliance.

In Poland, the pro-EU government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk that took power late last year is conducting a campaign in the face of anger from the country’s farmers, which is being encouraged by the opposition PiS party.

And in Slovakia, the vote will test support for the Russia-friendly government of Robert Fico, who survived an assassination attempt less than a month ago.

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