European Elections: Navigating the Union and Underlying its Upcoming Challenges

The next European Parliament elections are scheduled from June 6 to June 9, 2024. These elections will be particularly significant as they are the first to occur in the European Union since the United Kingdom’s departure from the Union on January 1, 2021. The previous EU parliamentary elections were held in 2019, prior to Brexit.

The EU is known for its complex governance structure and various institutions that shape its policies and laws. As the upcoming elections draw near, we aim to create a comprehensive guide to navigating the EU.

The nature of the European Union

The European Union exhibits a unique duality in its public personality, balancing its role as a cohesive single entity atop the “pyramid of norms” with the autonomy of its 27 member states. Similar to the federal government in the United States, the EU possesses supreme legal authority over matters delineated in its treaties, making its regulations and directives binding across all member states. However, member states retain significant independence and sovereignty, sometimes choosing how or even whether to implement certain EU laws.

This structure reflects an equilibrium between unity and diversity within the Union, where common European standards coexist with national priorities, occasionally resulting in friction between centralized EU governance and local sovereignty. This allows us to categorize the European member states:

  • Pro-EU integrationists, who typically advocate for more integration within the European Union and are supportive of EU policies: Germany, France, Belgium Luxembourg, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Sweden, Finland, Ireland, Austria, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Cyprus.
  • Conditional supporters, who generally support the EU but may have reservations about some aspects of integration or specific policies: Netherlands, Denmark, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, Romania.
  • Eurosceptics, who have significant political movements or public sentiments that are critical of the EU, its policies, or further integration: Poland, Hungary, Greece.

This classification is somewhat caricatural, but it gives a good idea of the different feelings about the EU within itself.

The European Union’s institutions

The EU is divided into numerous key institutions, which do not always comply with the traditional division of power between an executive, a legislative, and a judicial branch.

  • The European Council steers the EU’s overarching political direction without legislative powers, addressing complex or sensitive issues. It consists of the heads of state or government of the member states, along with its President and the President of the European Commission. The Council’s President is elected by its members for a renewable 2.5-year term.
  • The Council of the EU (or “Council of Ministers”) represents the member states. Its role is pivotal in coordinating policies, negotiating, and adopting EU laws in collaboration with the European Parliament. It is composed of member state ministers who handle relevant portfolios, rotating its presidency every six months among the member states.
  • The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ensures uniform application of EU law across member states, resolving disputes and providing preliminary rulings. It comprises the European Court of Justice and the General Court, with Judges and Advocates-General appointed for renewable six-year terms by member states.
  • The European Central Bank (ECB) manages the euro and the EU’s monetary policy to ensure price stability and supervises banks in the Eurozone. Although it operates independently, its Executive Board, including the President and other key members, is appointed by the European Council following consultations with the European Parliament and the Eurogroup.
  • Finally, the European Commission is a key institution in the EU. It plays a crucial role by proposing legislation, enforcing EU laws, managing the Union’s budget, and representing the EU on the international stage. It uniquely initiates EU legislation, ensuring uniformity and compliance among member states, and manages financial allocations that support regional and economic development across Europe. It is composed of President elected by the European Parliament, and of 27 European Commissioners, each proposed by one member state and elected by the Parliament. Each Commissioner handles specific policy areas.

Several other organizations on the European continent, while often associated with the EU, operate independently or are unrelated to the Union. Such is the case for the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and the Council of Europe. The ECHR, which ensures compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights, is part of the Council of Europe, an organization founded in 1949 to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law across Europe. The Council of Europe encompasses a broader membership than the EU and operates separately.

The European Parliament elections

The European Parliament is the directly elected legislative body of the EU, representing its citizens. It shares the power to legislate with the Council of the EU, approving or rejecting legislation, the EU budget, and overseeing other EU institutions, including the approval of the European Commission.

However, unlike many national legislatures, the European Parliament does not possess the power of legislative initiative; it cannot propose new legislation independently but can request the European Commission to do so. Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are elected every five years through proportional representation, with each member state allocated seats approximately proportional to its population.

In European Parliament elections, national parties typically align themselves with broader European political parties that aggregate various national entities around shared ideologies and objectives. These European parties are akin to coalitions in traditional national elections, bringing together like-minded parties across national boundaries. For example, a conservative party from Spain may join the European People’s Party (EPP), aligning with other conservative parties from across the continent.

These aggregated parties then form political groups within the European Parliament:

  • On the left, the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) represents the far-left faction, including socialist and communists parties.
  • Moving slightly to the right, the Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA) focus on environmental and regionalist policies.
  • The Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) is a center-left group advocating for social democracy.
  • Renew Europe (RE) comprises liberal and centrist parties, promoting pro-European integration and market-friendly policies.
  • The actual largest group, European People’s Party (EPP), is center-right, emphasizing Christian democratic and conservative values.
  • European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) is more right-wing, with a focus on Euro-skeptic and reformist policies.
  • The Identity and Democracy (ID) group includes far-right parties that are often critical of the EU, advocating for stronger national sovereignty and stricter immigration controls.
  • Non-Inscrits (NI) do not belong to any recognized political group within the European Parliament. This is an official status used within the parliament. Some parties choose to be NI because their political beliefs do not align sufficiently with any of the established groups.
  • Additionally, there are Unaffiliated members, who refer to parties that do not have formal affiliations with any of the major European political parties. The difference with NI members is thin, but exists.

Below this article, you can find graphics representing the most recent electoral polls for each country in the EU, classified by their affiliation to the aforementioned groups. Note that occasionnally, national coalitions running for the European elections are composed of parties with with different European affiliations, complicating further the seat estimation. We regrouped these parties under the “Various affiliations” group. To represent the national political trend of each member state, we used the current group affiliations of national parties, but note that those may change after the elections, due to the new balance of power and current political dynamics. Here is however a projection of what the European Parliament might look like after the 2024 elections:

The overall number of seats each country has in the European Parliament is determined by the principle of degressive proportionality, which is decided at the EU level. This principle ensures that more populous countries have more representatives than less populous ones. However, each member state can choose its own electoral system for the European Parliament elections, meaning that the election rules are different from one state to another. As a result, seat distribution varies from country to country, adding inherent complexity to any predictions about the final allocation.

Key issues of the 2024 European elections

The 2024 EU elections are drawing near under the shadow of the revelation last March of a possible Russian influence network within the European Parliament. This network, unveiled by Czech intelligence, allegedly involves payments to MEPs for propagating pro-Russian views, specifically targeting the European Parliament’s far-right members. This targeting of ideologically-aligned parties, predominantly eurosceptics, appears to be part of a strategic effort by Moscow not only to sway political opinion and policy within the European Union but also to disrupt overall European unity.

This scandal not only echoes previous corruption incidents like Qatargate, where allegations were made that Qatar and other countries paid bribes to European Parliament officials in exchange for political influence, but also raises urgent concerns about foreign interference in the forthcoming elections. The scandal has prompted the European Parliament to consider urgent reforms to its ethical rules to safeguard against such manipulation.

More specifically, the French far-right party Rassemblement National (RN) has been accused of cultivating ties to Russia. The Washington Post alleged that the party led by Marine Le Pen uses language and strategies that closely mirror Kremlin directives, raising significant concerns about the extent of Russian influence on RN’s policies, especially concerning Ukraine. In the past, the RN has already come under scrutiny due to the financing of its 2014 presidential electoral campaign with a substantial loan from a Russian bank.

Electoral integrity and public trust can also be challenge by technological advances. The EU’s spokesperson for foreign affairs has already highlighted the elections as a prime target for misinformation campaigns, aiming to destabilize Europe by focusing attacks at the member state level, tailored to local contexts and cultures. This concern is underscored by instances such as the usage of deepfake technology in Slovakia’s 2023 legislative elections and during the 2024 legislative elections in India, where AI was employed to create linguistically and culturally specific avatars for politicians. Additionally, the European far-right’s tactical embrace of platforms like TikTok has transformed the political landscape, especially among younger voters. This shift is amplified by AI’s capability to generate convincing social bots (i.e., robots that interact on social media), create huge amounts of content, and fake sympathizers, diminishing the ability to discern genuine discourse from manipulation. The results are already visible: the German party AfD, which profusely uses AI on its TikTok account, scored its biggest electoral gains among the youth in the regional elections in Bavaria and Hesse.

The EU has responded with legislative measures such as the Digital Services Act and the AI Act, mandating platform accountability and transparency for AI-generated content. However, these regulations face the test of their effectiveness as they are yet to be fully applied in the electoral context, marking a critical juncture for the EU in maintaining democratic trust in its elections amidst burgeoning digital challenges.

The 2024 European elections also face a democratic challenge, as voter turnout varies greatly between member states. In fact, the EU has been consistently criticized as undemocratic by its detractors, an impression that may be shared by some Europeans due to the complexity of the Union’s system, a certain confusion of powers within its institutions, and a sense of powerlessness, as only MEPs are directly elected by the citizens. One can only ask if the recent increase in votes for far-right parties, which are usually very critical of the Union, is a cause or a symptom of Europeans’ discontent with the Union.

Despite the European Parliament lacking the power to initiate legislation, its influence is substantial, particularly in budgetary matters. This becomes critically important as Europe continues to financially support Ukraine as part of its economic and strategic response to Russia’s actions in Donbas. The Parliament’s ability to approve or reject the EU budget will play a pivotal role in determining the financial resources available for defense, energy security, and economic resilience against external pressures. Additionally, the elections will serve as a referendum on the EU’s current strategies towards Russia, influencing future policy directions and the EU’s stance in international affairs.

As such, the outcome of these elections will not only shape legislative priorities, but define the EU’s capacity to respond to geopolitical challenges.

Electoral polls in the European member states

Overall view of the electoral polls in the Union for the parliamentary 2024 elections. Below are the polls country by country.

 

GRAPHICS DATA SOURCE: Euractiv.

SPECIAL THANKS TO: Wilder Davenport, Konstantinos K.

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