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Pro-EU parties should ‘Europeanise’ election campaigns to combat far-right, analysts say

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Pro-European Union parties are ceding political space to the Eurosceptic far-right in their election campaigns by failing to showcase the bloc’s positive impact on citizens’ lives, analysts said at an event on Wednesday (5 June).

In a panel hosted by the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) in Brussels, experts repeatedly highlighted the almost complete absence of references to the EU in mainstream political parties’ campaigns, with little to no mention of their transnational party affiliations or EU-level activities.

Far-right parties, by contrast, were reported to be far more likely to emphasise the elections’ transnational character as well as the critical importance of EU policies on European citizens – and to do it in a profoundly negative light.

“Europeanisation [of campaigns] is a necessary and good thing,” said Philipp Schulmeister, the director of campaigns at the European Parliament.

“This is a discussion that needs to be had. So long as we [pro-EU groups] are worried about this discussion, the ones who are driving in the direction of sovereignty, identity, [and] re-nationalisation will win the debate because there is no debate.”

Ilke Toygür, director at the Global Policy Centre at IE University and the co-editor of a recent report on member states’ views on the EU elections, urged mainstream parties to do more to combat the far-right’s frequent attacks on the EU’s flagship Green Deal.

This can be done by emphasising global warming’s disastrous impact on ordinary citizens, she said, citing as an example the 40 degrees Celsius felt in southern Spain in spring this year.

“It is […] the disadvantaged economic groups feeling [this] even more,” she said.

“The more mainstream parties change the thinking and campaign on the daily life repercussions of issue spaces that we care about… the better the space will become,” Toygür added.

For the 2021-2027 period, the EU budget will contribute €392 billion in investments to member states’ economies via cohesion funds diverted to the worse-off regions across the 27-country bloc.

Toygür, however, warned there is often a vast discrepancy between the issues discussed by the Parliament’s mainstream parties and the concerns of ordinary citizens.

“The most important issues [for citizens] are related to cost of living crisis, poverty and social exclusion,” she said. “But when you come to Brussels… the conversation goes very much around Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the great power rivalry between the United States and China, economic security, [and] competitiveness.”

“You go to an ordinary citizen [in] Spain and you talk about great power rivalry and how the European Union should ‘game up’: this is a non-issue,” Toygür argued – saying other issues such the cost of food staples should be much more prominent in political debates.

She also suggested that one consequence of mainstream parties’ failure to properly “Europeanise” their campaigns is that many citizens are frequently unaware of the power their chosen parties can wield at the EU level.

In particular, she noted that Spaniards are largely oblivious to the fact that the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is currently the largest party in the second-largest group in the European Parliament, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D).

“I really wonder… how many Spanish citizens would know [this],” she said.

“Even leading the group, even playing this leadership role, [PSOE] doesn’t necessarily connect its national political party to the party group, but rather campaigns on individuals, like important figures from the party, and builds up the campaigns on these individuals on national issues.”

Conversely, in the Czech Republic, the Eurosceptic Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) party is the sole political faction that repeatedly highlights its links to other European parties, said Héctor Sánchez Margalef, a researcher at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB).

The SPD, whose two MEPs sit in the far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) group in the European Parliament, proudly promotes its ties to Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini, and Geert Wilders on its billboards, Margalef noted.

“It is true that the mainstream parties have given up highlighting the transnational dimension [of the election],” he said.

According to Euractiv’s latest projections, the far-right ID and the hard-right European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) groups are expected to make major gains at the elections, with ID’s number of seats set to rise from 59 to 69 and ECR’s from 68 to 79.

The biggest losers, by contrast, are projected to be the Greens/EFA group and the liberal Renew group. Renew is in danger of relinquishing its status as the Parliament’s third biggest group to ECR.

[Edited by Anna Brunetti/Alice Taylor]

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