Tuesday

27th Feb 2024

Brussels Dispatches: Why Brussels matters

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Editor's note: After reading this first edition of the newsletter Brussels Dispatches, we decided to reach out to Wilf King and Pierre Minoves, respectively working for the European Parliament and Commission, who together started it. Their motivation, as Wilf wrote, "was born out of numerous conversations with friends and family. When explaining my job or the city in which I work, I often get asked questions such as 'What do you actually do though?' or 'Does any of this actually impact me?'".

The duo provides an accessible, personable, high-level overview of why the upcoming EP elections matter and what's at stake for people who might not know why it matters. We thought it important to share this point of view as well. Below you'll find the first dispatch, with more following weekly. If you want to receive them straight in your inbox, subscribe to Wilf and Pierre's Substack here.

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Often grey and cold, with an EU quarter full of suited, balding, middle-aged bureaucrats, some of the stereotypes about Brussels are indisputable. Yes, there are indeed hundreds of technical working groups, joint committee procedures and advisory boards. Yes, it is true that things can take an extremely long time to get done. And yes, it is also true that the frites and Belgian beer are delicious. Despite the bad rap that Brussels frequently receives, it is also a vibrant international capital that hosts some of the most important global policymaking institutions (and one of the great football teams: Royale Union Saint-Gilloise).

As someone currently working in the Brussels bubble, I can say from experience that it is very difficult to get people interested in the majority of what happens here. And when people do discuss the EU, it is very often to criticise its ineffectiveness (or to reiterate 'euromyths' such as Boris Johnson's bendy bananas). Nonetheless, every five years, EU-wide elections are held and this helps to put the work done in Brussels back in the spotlight, even momentarily.

This year, however, there is added scrutiny due to the international context. In decades to come, historians may look back on 2024 as a pivotal year for our world. With over four billion people voting in elections globally, change is coming. The challenge for the EU and its member states is how it reacts and manages this changing global environment. Many readers will be familiar with the perils of the US elections and what a Trump victory may mean for the 'rules-based international order', but rather less will be familiar with what the European elections in 2024 may spell for this continent.

So what are these EU elections and what might they mean for me?

Since 1979, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are directly elected by European voters. Each Member State returns a set number of MEPs; from six in Malta to ninety-six in Germany. These elections have historically suffered from low levels of turnout, fuelled by voters' lack of interest in the EU or the sense that their vote won't make any difference. Yet the make-up of the European Parliament will be a factor in determining how the next half decade will look both within the EU and on the world stage.

(Photo: Statista 2024)

From 6-9 June, EU citizens will have the right to directly elect 720 MEPs. These MEPs then form political groups — there are seven of these in the current Parliament which you can see below. Surprisingly for European politics, it is quite easy to read: the far left are on the far left, the far right on the far right.

(Photo: Europe Elects 2023)

For the last 45 years, the Parliament has been run by the centre-left Socialists & Democrats (S&D) (think Francois Hollande, Olaf Scholz, Pedro Sanchez) and the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) (Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy, Silvio Berlusconi), with the help of centrist liberals (Renew Europe) (Mark Rutte, Emmanuel Macron) in more recent times. This 'centre-ground' has always been able to command a convincing majority and push through legislation, oftentimes with some support from the Greens.

The elections in June this year, although unlikely on current polling (see below), could spell an end to that. Current projections would see the two far-right political groups (the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR) and the Identity & Democracy Group (ID)) take just under a quarter of the seats between them, with most of these coming at the expense of the parties from the centre and the left. A surge in the far-right contingent in the Parliament, aided by the popularity of politicians like Marine Le Pen and Giorgia Meloni and parties such as the Alternative für Deutschland (AFD) in Germany, would drag European politics hard towards the right.

(Photo: Europe Elects 2023)

In the follow-up to this article, I will look at what this means in specific policy areas but I want my underlying message to be quite simple. EU policymaking may feel distant but these European elections are the citizen's chance to influence the overall direction of the EU

Elect climate change sceptics and watch the EU fall behind on its emissions targets. Elect anti-abortionists and watch women's rights be stripped away. Elect anti-immigration nationalists and be prepared for more stories of men, women and children dying in the Mediterranean Sea

With the European People's Party flirting with parts of the ECR and actively sabotaging climate legislation, it is important to know who and what you are voting for when you step into the ballot box in June.

If ever there was a first time for people to get out and vote in European elections, now is the time. Apathy and inaction are no longer good enough.

With the EU facing two wars in its regional neighbourhood, a stagnant economy and a demographic cliff-edge, the outlook would seem rather bleak. Yet this is not the time to retreat into ourselves or to lose hope. The EU must continue to work towards a more equal, more peaceful and more inclusive world, one that is not dominated by strongmen such as Trump, Putin and Xi Jinping.

That's why I urge everyone to ensure that they are registered, that they vote themselves and that they encourage everyone around them to vote.

To get Brussels Dispatches delivered straight to yourself (or to friends or family who might be interested but don't know where to start), subscribe to their newsletter here.

Author bio

Pierre Minoves is a Policy Officer in the European Commission's Freeze and Seize Task Force. Wilf King is a Policy Advisor for Barry Andrews, an Irish Member of the European Parliament.

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