Sunday, June 16, 2024

Polls open in 20 EU countries as voting for the European Parliament enters its final day

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Since the last EU election in 2019, populist or far-right parties now lead governments in three nations — Hungary, Slovakia and Italy — and are part of the ruling coalition in others, including Sweden, Finland and, soon, the Netherlands. Polls give the populists an advantage in France, Belgium, Austria and Italy.

The elections come at a testing time for voter confidence in a bloc of some 450 million people. Over the last five years, the EU has been shaken by the coronavirus pandemic, an economic slump and an energy crisis fueled by the biggest land conflict in Europe since the Second World War.

The polls also mark the beginning of a period of uncertainty for the Europeans and their international partners. Beyond the wrangling to form political groups and establish alliances inside parliament, governments will compete to secure top EU jobs for their national officials.

Chief among them is the presidency of the powerful executive branch, the European Commission, which proposes laws and watches to ensure they are respected. The commission also controls the EU’s purse strings, manages trade and is Europe’s competition watchdog.

Other plum posts are those of European Council president, who chairs summits of presidents and prime ministers, and EU foreign policy chief, the bloc’s top diplomat.

EU lawmakers have a say on legislation ranging from financial rules to climate or agriculture policy. They also approve the EU budget, which apart from funding the bloc’s political priorities bankrolls things like infrastructure projects, farm subsidies or aid delivered to Ukraine.

But despite their important role, political campaigning often focuses on issues of concern in individual countries rather than on broader European interests. Voters routinely use their ballots to protest the policies of their national governments.

Surveys suggest that mainstream and pro-European parties will retain their majority in parliament, but that the hard right, including parties led by politicians like Wilders or France’s Marine Le Pen, will eat into their share of seats.

The biggest political group – the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) – has already edged away from the middle ground, campaigning on traditional far-right issues like more security, tougher migration laws, and a focus on business over social welfare concerns.

Much may depend on whether the Brothers of Italy — the governing party of populist far-right Prime Minister Georgia Meloni, which has neo-fascist roots — stays in the more hard-line European Conservatives and Reformists, or becomes part of a new hard right group that could be created in the wake of the elections. Meloni also has the further option to work with the EPP.

The second-biggest group — the center-left Socialists and Democrats — and the Greens refuse to align themselves with the ECR. A more dire scenario for pro-European parties would be if the ECR joins forces with Le Pen’s Identity and Democracy to consolidate hard-right influence.

Questions remain over what group Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s staunchly nationalist and anti-migrant Fidesz party might join. It was previously part of the EPP but was forced out in 2021 due to conflicts over its interests and values.

The EPP has campaigned for Ursula von der Leyen to be granted a second term as commission president but nothing guarantees that she will be returned even if they win. National leaders will decide who is nominated, even though the parliament must approve any nominee.

Lorne Cook, The Associated Press

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