20th Sep 2019

EU faces moment of truth at midnight on Sunday

  • Exit results will be unveiled in the European Parliament on Sunday night (Photo: European Parliament)

Voters in the world's second biggest democratic election, in Europe, will know shortly before midnight on Sunday (26 May) to what extent a foretold far-right surge has come to be.

The results of four days of voting by up to 430 million people in 28 countries will be revealed at 11.15PM in the plenary chamber of the European Parliament (EP) in Brussels.

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  • The winning parties will share out the EU's top jobs at a summit on 28 May (Photo: European Parliament)

The rolling EU election, which starts in the Netherlands and the UK on Thursday morning and ends at 11PM in Italy on Sunday, is second only in scale to India's, which covers 900 million people and which, by coincidence, is also taking place this week.

The moment of truth is to come after Europeans gasped in disbelief when Britain voted to leave the EU in a referendum in 2016.

They gasped again later the same year when Americans put the nationalist and populist Donald Trump in the White House.

And they will be holding their breath to see if nationalists and populists can storm to new heights in Brussels, as predicted by pollsters in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Poland, and further afield.

The EU political blocs' top candidates to take over the next presidency of the European Commission, the most powerful job in Brussels, will react to the results live at events in the European capital as they come out.

The winning bloc, in a parliament dominated by the centre-right and centre-left for the past 40 years, is meant to put its man or woman in the EU's most prestigious post.

But political horse-trading, including on other EU top jobs, such as the EP presidency, the EU Council presidency, the EU foreign relations chief, and 26 other EU commissioners will also play a part in the appointments, with EU leaders to hold a summit two days later, on 28 May, to start talks on the complex deals.

EP discussions on the formation of political groups out of the 751 new MEPs and to appoint influential committee chairs will start in parallel ahead of the renewed EU assembly's first meeting on 2 July.

If far-right and eurosceptic parties, led by charismatic populists such as Britain's Nigel Farage, Italy's Matteo Salvini, France's Marine Le Pen, Hungary's Viktor Orban, or Poland's Jaroslaw Kaczynski do as well as predicted they could make their presence felt by trying to obstruct the EU appointments process.

They could wield power in EP votes on divisive topics in future, such as migration, fiscal discipline, the EU budget, and free trade.

They could also harm EU values on democracy, rule of law, and human rights by using Brussels as a podium to bash Muslim or LGBTI minorities or to appease Russian aggression in eastern Europe.

Will centre hold?

But they might well fail to form a united front due to infighting and corruption scandals, as in previous legislatures.

Or they might be tempted to shift their politics closer to the centre in order to wield more power in concert with mainstream groups.

The polls also indicate that pro-EU centrist parties, including liberals and greens, will remain the biggest overall in Europe.

The Brexit mess that is to see the UK take part in the election, before leaving anyway by November, has turned off voters on EU-exit scenarios in Denmark and elsewhere.

Centrist or left-wing parties are also doing well in Ireland, Portugal, and Spain, bucking the wider right-wing shift.

The EP vote will take Europe's political temperature in a hothouse media environment.

The last election, in 2014, took place in an age of innocence compared to more recent times, in which Russian anti-EU propaganda, far-right disinformation campaigns, as well as hackers, bots, and social media trolls compete with normal journalism on European voters' screens.

The anti-EU campaigns use wild fakes and graphic sexual and violent imagery designed to provoke disgust.

Falling turnout, which hit its lowest level in 40 years in the last EP vote, favours radical candidates whose supporters tend to be more highly-motivated

But stronger interest in some member states this time around could also help the political centre, with up to 53 percent of voters in Poland (compared to 24 percent in 2014), for instance, preparing to get off the couch and go to polling booths.

Old faces, new problems

Some in the outgoing EU generation, such as commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and German chancellor Angela Merkel, plan to fade from politics in Europe's next chapter.

But others from the current crop, such as Danish EU commissioner Margrethe Vestager, Dutch EU commissioner Frans Timmermans, German MEP Manfred Weber, and Belgian MEP Guy Verhoftsdat are running in the race for fresh EU posts.

Others again, such as French president Emmanuel Macron, Polish EU Council president Donald Tusk, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, and Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez are likely to continue to play big roles in European affairs, but on the domestic front.

It is hard to say what they will have to deal with in new twists and turns in EU history in the years to come.

Conflict in Libya and escalation in Syria and South Sudan threaten to push more migrants to EU borders if left unchecked.

A US war with Iran could wreak even more havoc.

Brexit might still not happen if pro-remain parties in the UK force through a second referendum.

US president Donald Trump seems set to frustrate EU efforts to promote free trade and to fight climate change.

And Russian president Vladimir Putin seems set to keep attacking Nato and EU interests in eastern Europe and the Western Balkans.

Trump might not win re-election in 2020, but Putin is there to stay indefinitely.

And other problems, such as EU disputes on abuse of rule of law in Hungary, Poland, and Romania or abuse of EU fiscal discipline in France and Italy show no signs of dying down.

The commission has parked potentially divisive probes into corruption by ruling parties in Hungary and the Czech Republic and into a potentially illegal bank rescue in Italy until after the EP vote in order not to rock the boat.

But the next five years of EU politics is set to be livelier than ever, no matter who emerges on top at 11.15PM on Sunday night.

Happy young Finns don't vote in EU elections

In Finland, only 10 percent of 18-24-year-olds voted at the previous EU elections in 2014. General satisfaction with the status quo of the EU membership could explain why youngsters do not feel like they need to vote.

Key details on how Europeans will vote

It's one of the biggest democratic exercises in the world with over 400 million eligible voters. National rules apply, and national parties run, but the stakes are at European level.


Voter turnout will decide Europe's fate

European voter turnout is in deep crisis. Since the early 2000s, the share of voters in national elections has fallen to 66 percent on average, which means that the birthplace of democracy now ranks below average globally.

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